Career changes: When CEOs go from making money to raising it

Dave McGinn

Peter Robinson is learning to deal with a new bottom line. As the chief executive officer of Mountain Equipment Co-op, he found success relatively easy to measure. But since leaving the company almost two years ago to become CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, he’s encountered a whole new set of challenges, since progress can’t be measured by profits.

“This has been the steepest [learning] curve of any of the transitions I’ve had to make,” he says. “This is not like making widgets. It’s much more complex.”

Business leaders and those from the corporate world are often drawn to work in the not-for-profit sector, with many charities and non-governmental organizations looking for people with a proven ability to run an organization effectively. But, experts say, the transition is not always easy.

“You have to manage your expectations,” says Alan Kearns, founder of CareerJoy, a national career coaching company. There is the danger of thinking that working at a not-for-profit will be business as usual, with a pat on the back at the end of the day for being such a good person. Instead, there are the stark realities of fundraising, scrutinizing budgets, learning a different way to manage people and usually working with far fewer resources. “It has its own unique challenges, and you have to recognize that.”

Karen O’Connor, who runs a Toronto-based risk management company, has been learning to juggle the demands of both worlds since she became president of The Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation in 2005.

“The biggest thing is learning patience and perseverance and understanding that there are other organizations out there,” she says. “There’s always some alternative. It’s learning how to express the needs, whether it’s your company or your NGO, [to] try to explain to people why to invest in our foundation.”

That can be especially difficult for smaller NGOs such as the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation, a group dedicated to improving the life of the Sherpa people of Nepal.

The appeal of working for an NGO, however, is quite simple, Ms. O’Connor says. “It’s knowing that there’s a need out there and knowing that I’ve got the skill set to facilitate what needs to be done,” she says. “Giving back is absolutely imperative, as far as I’m concerned.”

While there are certainly differences between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, the essentials of running an organization in each are the same, says Glenn Rowe, the director of the executive MBA program at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

“The only difference between a for-profit and a non-profit is one pays taxes and the other one doesn’t,” he says. “The principles that cause a for-profit to operate well are the principles that cause a non-profit to operate well.”

Often, however, those who have run a company and moved to the non-profit sector find they must adopt a new approach to managing people. There can be no ruling from on high in a not-for-profit.

Stéphane Vaillancourt, a former vice-president at Bell Canada and now president and CEO of the YMCAs of Quebec has learned that outside the corporate world, “consultation is essential.”

“When you make decisions at the Y, the biggest difference is you absolutely need to get some buy-in from the organization. If you always work from a top-down approach it eventually catches up to you and you just do not have the support of the organization.”

Alison Gordon, one of the co-founders of Rethink Breast Cancer, says that coming to the not-for-profit sector from the business world can allow for a fresh take on running a charity.

“Coming into it a little bit blindly is what has really helped with our success. We didn’t think, ‘Oh, things have to be done this way,’” she says. “We came at it with a different approach.”

Still, however creative one may be, there is always the reality of having to work with far fewer resources than those usually found in for-profit companies.

“You’re really trying to run an organization that has to raise its money every year,” says Steven McNair, who retired from his job as an executive vice-president at CIBC in 2007 and is now president and CEO of The Arthritis Society.

Indeed, when Mr. Robinson was CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, the company had $240-million in annual revenues; the David Suzuki Foundation has a $7-million annual budget.

“You have to be able to expect that you’re not going to have all the resources you would need to achieve what you want,” Mr. Robinson says.

The satisfaction of working for a not-for-profit organization more than compensates for dealing with diminished resources, says Ellen Malcolmson, who was a senior vice-president of customer experience at Bell Canada before becoming president and CEO of the Canadian Diabetes Association last year. “In corporations, I think that it’s really so, so much emphasis, and rightly so, on the bottom line. And sometimes, over time, that can wear you down.”

While skills learned in the corporate world may help when it comes to running a non-profit, many who have made the transition say their experience with NGOs would have served them well when they helmed companies.

“If I knew then what I know now about shifting people’s behaviour and reaching consensus, influencing others to make uncomfortable decisions, I would have been the best business person in Canada,” Mr. Robinson says.