I am often asked whether for-profit executives can make good not-for-profit executives and my response is always the same: there are many for-profit managers who could thrive in the not-for-profit world but they must understand the differences in mission and the differences in the way corporations and not-for-profits function.
Not-for-profit organizations are like large families. While some within the family may have more authority, the family as a whole only functions well when all members are reasonably happy and feel respected and engaged. A child can ruin the peace in a family if it is miserable; an unhappy faction within a not-for-profit can cause no end of damage, as well.
Too many board members of arts organizations do not fully comprehend this phenomenon. They do not appreciate that those in power must use that power wisely and must work to build harmony among many disparate people with differing ambitions all of whom contribute something to the well being of the organization.
When someone in authority -- a board chair or an executive or artistic director for example -- uses power unwisely, the entire organization can come to a screeching halt.
We have seen too many examples of this behavior in recent years. We have witnessed numerous boards threaten to shut down orchestras if the musicians do not open up their contract and accept lower pay and fewer weeks of work. We have seen the Miami City Ballet upended by the demands of a few board members that the company's founder, Edward Villella, retire.
In each case the family is torn apart by the actions of a few. Corporate CEOs can often make dramatic decisions on their own; that is true because everyone within the corporate family is being paid, often very well, to obey top management. Not-for-profit organizations, however, depend on the goodwill of many people, who are either volunteers or relatively poorly paid. Huge changes in strategy must be made with substantial planning and forethought.
When not-for-profit leaders act like bullies, there is inevitably a long period of bad publicity, anger and resentment. When this anger becomes public, donors, volunteers and audience members start to look elsewhere. If you do not believe me, talk to the leadership of orchestras which have undergone substantial reductions in pay and work for their musicians and ask how happy the family is today.
While the family nature of not-for-profit organizations might seem like a liability, preventing rapid, decisive action, it is also a huge asset. During periods of achievement, family members bring friends and associates into the family, thereby providing new life and support for the organization. During times of challenge, engaged family members will rally around the organization and provide time and money and solace.
Those of us who love our work in the not-for-profit sector revel in the shared experiences with our family members.
But we also know we cannot act without keeping their feelings in mind.