Transferring from the Private to Social Sector

Q. I’m a proven executive with over 20 years of successful for-profit experience. My experience also includes consistent board service for socially minded organizations in which I believe in. I am committed to making a change to a full-time role in a service organization. What are my chances, and what tips for success can you provide?

A. Making a career change from a successful, senior executive role in the private sector to the social sector is not as straightforward as one might expect or hope. Social sector boards are not operating under the misconception that having a successful business management and leadership career alone makes for a great candidate to lead a nonprofit. Like any search for leadership succession, a unique fit is required that includes many facets, not least of which is culture and mission.

The lack of resources issue can be huge; many people successful in organizations are shell shocked when they realize how little they have to draw upon in the social sector. Even foundations keep a close eye on operating/administrative expenses, although most external people think they have limitless resources. People will say they have worked in resource constrained environments, but they don’t understand how that translates in the social sector.


There are several specific, nonprofit leadership and management skill sets necessary in mission-based organizations that are distinctive from those in the private sector. These include domain and technical knowledge in the organization’s area of practice (e.g. global or public health, education reform). Visibility, contacts and network that can be leveraged in the organization’s operating domain are highly valued as well.
I consulted Mike Humphries, President of Waldron, a Career Partners International Firm and multinational provider of executive search services to the social sector. He pointed out, “One of the greatest challenges is adjusting to a different style of leadership.”
Based upon a 2013 study conducted by Waldron in collaboration with the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, 81 percent of social sector CEO’s surveyed share some concern about private sector executives’ lack of familiarity with social sector culture; over 80 percent share a concern about non-participative management styles. The shift from a typically command and control structure to influencer is very difficult and often impossible for private industry executives to navigate. Some of the “soft skill” descriptors important to master include: collaborator, partner and relationship builder. Frequently, organizations that would have been competitors in the private sector, will need to be collaborators in a social sector context.
Motivating and inspiring all stakeholders to put their resources behind the mission willingly is essential. Strong, fundamental leadership skills transcend sectors, but the style definitely needs to be adapted. Accountability and holding people accountable for their product and performance are often among the most difficult skills to transfer effectively.
Humphries noted that his search colleagues believe, ”Many of the sound leadership and management practices leading to success in the industry can also be successfully applied to social sector roles. Fiscal management excellence, sound financial and asset stewardship, creative marketing, board interface skills, even good “sales” management and selling skills are transferable. There is often a strong element of fundraising and donor development necessary that has no precedent in the private sector.”
To make this kind of transition, it helps to have a consistent thread of community service and philanthropic board service. This helps not only with understanding the leadership, cultural and operating landscape, but also in showing the underlying commitment to mission-based work. This work can also showcase your fundraising experience. Taking a leadership role in a major campaign is even better; this shows initiative and the ability to make big asks of new donors. It helps to have depth in the domain on which the mission is focused. Relationships and contacts help, and stellar executive brand and notable success and reputation are critical. Someone will need to explain why they chose a non-traditional candidate.
Reporting to a volunteer board is not to be underestimated. There are innumerable pitfalls that await – lack of engagement, too much engagement, rotating chairs, rotating membership, constant need to recruit and on-board and consistent and never ending communication.

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