Several months ago, I landed, blinking and a bit tentative, back in the for-profit world after more than 12 years of marketing two of Sarasota's larger not-for-profit cultural organizations. When you live, breathe, eat and sleep non-profit for all those years you can't help feeling disoriented when you cross over to the for-profit world.
Many business people do the opposite. They often say they've reached a mid-point in their careers where they want to give back to the community and to measure their rewards as much in psychic satisfaction as in dollars. But they, too, often feel some disorientation at the change, wondering if they can bridge the cultural divide. Are non-profit employees from Venus and for-profit ones from Mars?
My immediate observations:
I'll miss that sense of common mission that drives everything non-profiters do, the feeling that we're saving the world, or a child, or a turtle, or even an entire art form. People in non-profit organizations hug a lot, and their workplaces tend to be noisier. "It's almost like joining a club," one colleague told me in surprise after crossing over from a nearly two-decade career at one of the region's biggest manufacturers.
Hand in hand go the passion, the lengthy philosophical discussions, and-I may as well say it-the infighting. A chronic tug-of-war exists, in the arts groups between the business and creative staff, in the social services between the bean-counters and the caregivers, in the environmental organizations, between the science guys and administration. Whatever the mission, there's always an abundance of big ideas and never, ever enough money. It becomes territorial, acrimonious ("My program is more worthy of funding that yours") and counter-productive. That's one thing I can happily say goodbye to.
Non-profits attract emotional people, both at the staff, board and volunteer levels, and that is good and bad. A charismatic leader who can rally you around a cause can sometimes be the same person who throws basic business principles to the wind when he or she wants to push a pet project through. A leader like that can exhaust the organization's financial and, and as importantly, its human resources. Staff members get caught in a flurry of cross-directions. ("I get orders from so many people I get whiplash," one person told me.) Or board members can use the threat of withholding their monetary pledges to get their way. "Why do so many board members check their common sense at the door when they enter the boardroom?" one non-profit executive director asked me in exasperation. I've seen such overzealous boards undo a few local organizations.
"We're afraid to make the hard decisions," a friend who spent 20 years in the for-profit world before crossing over six years ago told me. "In the for-profit world, if you're not pulling your weight you're out of there. It's more of a family atmosphere here. Sometimes we're afraid to dump dead weight, perhaps because the employee is too beloved by volunteers or donors, perhaps because we don't want to appear ruthless."
Odd ducks seem to gravitate toward non-profits, and I mean that affectionately. Organizations attract retirees with the most arcane areas of expertise, especially in affluent, well-educated Sarasota. They also attract people who were very, very important back home and know exactly how things should be run here. (I call them didders, as in, "We did it this way in Toledo.") They attract both people questing for knowledge, and know-it-alls. ("Go backstage and tell him to play louder," a dozen angry patrons confronted me at intermission at a Van Wezel Isaac Stern concert many years ago. Me tell Isaac Stern to play louder? I don't think so.) Still, they are always passionate, often fascinating and frequently generous. I will miss the odd ducks, even when I wanted to duck when I saw them coming.
Christie Lewis, program director of the Nonprofit Resource Center in Sarasota, went into the non-profit sector right after graduate school because "I knew it would give me grassroots experience in myriad areas of business. I was afraid that, in the for-profit sector, I'd be pigeonholed in one area." Lewis said her original intention was to go for-profit after a few years, but "the longer I stay involved in this community, the more wonderful people I meet, the more passionate I become. This is home for me now."
I know exactly what she means. Whether you want it to or not, a non-profit seeps inside you until you can't really let it go. That's why I'm looking forward to covering the business of non-profits-which in this area is very big business indeed-in this column. As for odd ducks? I plan to become one. I've already signed up to volunteer at my former place of employ. See you at the spring plant fair.