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October 16, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

What Leadership Lessons Can We Learn from Non-Profits?

October 16, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

What Leadership Lessons Can We Learn from Non-Profits?


By Sarah Nicastro, Editor, Future of Field Service

I have spoken to a lot of experts over the past few years about change management, digital transformation, and important leadership qualities when it comes to team building and innovation in service. I recently saw an interesting article in my inbox about lessons that leaders can take from the non-profit sector and reached out to author Dr. Te Wu to learn more.

Te is an associate professor at Montclair State University and the CEO and CPO of PMO Advisory, a project management training and consulting firm. A few years ago, he did some research on business execution capabilities, and noticed that certain non-profit organizations were outperforming other non-profits and most other for-profit businesses when it came to executing projects.

Why? According to Te, those high-performing non-profits combined business acumen with a strong vision and understanding of their mission. I asked him to explain some of those findings, and what lessons other types of organizations can take from that data.

What are some of the key differences you have observed between for-profit organizations and these high-performing non-profits when it comes to project management and leadership?

Well, first, non-profits have a bit of self-selection bias when it comes to mission. Non-profits in general pay less than for-profit organizations, so people are there either for the more relaxed atmosphere or they believe in the mission and are willing to make a percentage sacrifice in their possible income. Second, non-profit missions and vision are fairly easy to communicate. Even people who do not work there will know what the mission is, just by the name of the organization.

For-profit organizations have more complicated missions or may have less exciting missions. My first job out of college was at Nabisco. I love snacks, but they are not as exciting as saving lives. At the end of the day, a for-profit mission is either making money or something that is not that exciting. I think for-profits are always going to suffer from that, but you can still put together a high-performance and empowered team. That does require having them head in the same direction. It is worthwhile to get as excited as possible about that mission.

What are some lessons companies can take from how non-profits approach team building and project management?

Non-profits have a more consensus driven culture and are more participatory. Even if they are very hierarchical, they at least attempt to look like they are listening to people. The benefit of that is in having the ability to listen to employees early on. You get to know the problems and conflicts, and the different perspectives. You spend more time upfront, but you can get buy-in from the team or at least get them to understand why you made a decision that may be contrary to their recommendations.

For-profits tend to race against time and have stricter constraints around the schedule or budget. Because of that, they don't have a tendency to listen to anybody else as they execute. You find out about problems and conflicts as you go along. The team shows up to work, but they may not be as excited. That can make things take longer. These conflicts show up later and can be like death by a thousand cuts. People are not as excited, it takes longer, and you probably don't get the project done as well as a well-run non-profit. 

The biggest mistake people make is to equate initial speed with quality of execution. For most projects, you are probably better off getting those feelings and disagreements out early on.

As you mentioned, non-profits tend to have more energy around their vision because they are often focused on very positive missions. How can you translate some of that energy into a for-profit business where the mission may not be as superficially compelling?

There are plenty of things you can do. Speaking from personal experience, I usually have a bunch of team leads that work with me on a project. I try to understand why they are on my team. What excites them? Different people have different reasons to be on projects. Some are looking to learn new skills. Others may look at this as a checkmark on a resume. Other people may just like working on projects.

I try to understand what makes them tick. Then I try to make sure that I shape how I work with them and how decisions are made to help meet some of their goals. We have open conversations about expectations of performance, and what you are looking for.

I remind people that it is okay to disagree with each other and have conflict. If you don't have conflict, then either the project is too simple and you are going into overkill, or the team members are not paying attention. Conflicts can bring out the best in the team. What you don’t want is to have conflicts spiral out of control. 

It is difficult to replicate the energy you find at a non-profit. My first major experience at a non-profit was almost magical. I could see people huddled together working late at night, still going through design elements, and trying to solve problems. I have never seen that level of enthusiasm at a for-profit, but you can still build very good teams and successful projects. On a scale of one to ten, a good non-profit can get all the way to a ten; a for-profit can still build a good team and get to an eight on that scale of execution.