The nonprofit inferiority complex

Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano, new UC President

Is it just me, or have you also noticed that a lot of nonprofits suffer from inferiority complexes?

I’ve been trying to get a full-on marketing manager job in the nonprofit sector for a while now. I have way more than the required years of experience and plenty of leadership and project management skills under my belt along with tons of concrete evidence (with numbers!) of the differences I’ve made on my resume. I only receive glowing performance reviews and have received regular (tiny) merit raises in organizations where merit raises are unheard of. But every time I interview for a manager job at other nonprofits, I’m beaten by the same candidate: Someone from the for-profit corporate world with no nonprofit experience.

I used to think that my experience in the nonprofit sector was a plus for me when I searched for jobs at other nonprofits. After all, the more relevant experience is, the better, right? And there are several characteristics unique to the nonprofit sector that I have seen folks from corporate backgrounds really struggle with (Making the most out of a minimal budget, for example, or how one must be especially in tune with the public, politics and interpersonal relations. Being aggressive and insensitive will get you nowhere in nonprofit land). But after several job interviews at several NPOs, I came to realize that my nonprofit background is actually a detriment.

In one case, I was internally headhunted by a different department at my organization, but they would only offer me a $55k salary–a mere 5% more than what I was making at the time, which they were well aware of. They also blatantly told me that there was no room for growth in their department (i.e., don’t expect a raise anytime soon) and refused to negotiate, so I declined the offer. They were shocked that I turned them down. They ended up hiring someone from an advertising agency for the position who they paid to relocate across the country, and you can bet your balls that they did not offer that candidate a measly $55k. They were clearly thinking that I’d have low nonprofit expectations and that I’d be an easy and cheap catch. And that I was not worth the money due to my background.

Another time I interviewed at a different nonprofit, and the whole thing went pretty well; It was really a perfect fit in terms of salary and skills. I then heard nothing from the organization for several weeks. In the meanwhile, with some Google-Fu I found they had hired someone else for the position with a corporate background and half the experience I had. Half. Of course, I don’t know this person and maybe they are the next Steve Jobs or something, but I tend to think that’s not the case. That particular nonprofit loved to throw business jargon around (We love KPIs!) and described themselves as having a “startup environment.” (Can longstanding foundations have a “startup” environment?) The fact that they interviewed me at all was a testament to how good a fit it was, despite my nonprofit background.

This morning, I was reading an article in the LA Times about the recent hiring of Janet Napolitano as the new President of the University of California system. I live in SoCal, so this kind of news is big to me. There’s some controversy over her lack of experience in education, but what most interested me was one of the comments left by a reader on the article:

distressededucator at 9:48 AM September 23, 2013

As a member of the Cal State Univ. faculty who has been working in higher education for over a quarter of a century, I can tell you that the notion that open searches to hire campus executives scares away the top qualified candidates is just self-serving nonsense.[…]

The fact that Napolitano has no experience in higher education doesn’t necessarily mean anything these days and would not be considered a disqualification by university overlords. I’ve lost count of the number of MBAs with no classroom or university administration experience being appointed president of one college or university or another. This is all part of the pernicious assumption that business experience trumps all and that institutions of higher learning are “businesses” rather than non-profit public trusts.

So I guess i’m not alone in this! Although I don’t fully agree with distressededucator–Napolitano did serve in the public sector, at least. But I empathize with his last two lines…and, actually, that trend is a big reason why I decided to apply for business school in the first place. And I don’t believe that it’s 100% wrong to hire MBAs for these types of positions (although someone with an MBA *and* nonprofit experience would be nice, no?). Nonprofits can learn a lot from the corporate world…and the corporate world can learn a lot from nonprofits. Right now it’s just a one-way street, when it really shouldn’t be. But, today, I really believe that you just can’t expect to obtain a meaningful leadership position in the nonprofit sector with a purely nonprofit background. You need that MBA or that corporate experience to bring “clout” to your resume (regardless of whether that clout is real or not). And even though I’m fully committed to nonprofit work, I can easily see obtaining my MBA and having to do corporate work first, then going back to nonprofit at a higher level. Because, really, there’s no ladder to climb in nonprofit land. You can climb it to a point, maybe up to middle management, but anything beyond that goes to corporate folks with MBAs.


4 thoughts on “The nonprofit inferiority complex

    • Yes, definitely. When I send my resume out for job interviews, I *rarely* get responses from for-profit companies. And the very few times I’ve interviewed with them, they are visibly relieved when I use the word “customer” or “client” because they just assume that I don’t know what a customer is.

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