Challenges in leading in the not for profit world

Posted by | March 1, 2017 | Career spotlight, Inspiration

Leading in the non profit world

Last week I was invited to an event titled “Challenges Leading in the Not for Profit World” hosted by McLaren Associates (a recruitment company, with a focus on the not for profit world) alongside Inspire Group.

The speaker at the event was Terry Shubkin the CEO (a.k.a Chief Excitement Officer) of Young Enterprise Trust, a not for profit helping young people discover their potential in business and in life. Since 2010, Terry has been at the helm of Young Enterprise and says her role is “the best job in the world”. Before this, Terry spent 18 years in the corporate IT world (where she described herself as an engineer meets salesperson).

She shared her stories of leading in the not for profit world, framed around the idea that:

“Our biggest strengths are our biggest weaknesses, and our biggest weaknesses, are our biggest strengths”.


What are the three things she sees as challenges for leaders in this sector?

Challenge #1: Money.

This wasn’t the typical not-for-profit moan about how money is tight. Terry’s focus instead was on how money, or the lack of it, changes the decisions leaders make, and also how people’s perceptions of leaders change.

In her first year at Young Enterprise Trust, Terry returned a surplus of $100,000. Unlike in the corporate world, this surplus created challenges. “I realised I could have done all these things with that money that we didn’t do because we didn’t forecast properly.” She also realised the bigger problem was the next year she got declined for grant applications because they looked “too rich”.

The other challenge she presented was whether money constrains a not-for-profit organisation to grow to the next level. In 2014, one of Terry’s trustees challenged her and said:

“Terry stop thinking small. If money was no object what would you do?”.

This question allowed her and her team to develop a “greedy wish-list” of projects that would meet their objectives and would change the way the organisation operated – it also serendipitously opened them up to a new government funding opportunity they could have otherwise missed out on.

She raised the challenge of how not-for-profit leaders have to have both heart, but also need the ability to make decisions based on commercial reality – like the need for redundancies when funding is lost  – and the changed perceptions people have of you as a leader due to making these hard skinned decisions 

Challenge #2: People.

One challenge, that Terry never dreamed would be an issue before entering the not-for-profit sector, was low staff attrition rates. A strength that is also a weakness.

On starting at Young Enterprise Trust, she found she had great staff, but many never wanted to leave. Unlike the corporate world, pay rates weren’t a driving factor. Staff stayed because they believed in the cause and wanted to be there. This presented a challenge as this culture meant there was no fresh blood and no new ideas.

In early 2014, Terry recognised that she had too much stability, and that was constraining her organisation from new ideas. She had an opportunity to bring in three new people into her organisation at the same time and proactively recruited agitators into her organisation’s culture –  externally passionate people with new ideas who weren’t scared to debate, provide “creative abrasion” (see this TED talk) and challenge the status quo.  

Challenge #3: A leaders use by date

Terry also openly discussed her own “use by date” and when might be the right time for her to leave.

“I want to get out when it’s right for the organisations and not when it’s right for me”.  

She was open about her possible departure, and has started sharing with her staff and trustees about her future exit. This thinking is changing the way she is making decisions for her organisation and is presenting opportunities.  

“When you love your baby you want to leave it in the best shape. When you suddenly think about your baby without you there, you make different decisions”.

It has made her focus on bringing in different faces to front the organisation, recruiting people who might be able to help take the organisation to the next level of innovation, and, is also enabling more open insightful conversation with staff about their own futures.

I really enjoyed hearing Terry’s perspective on her leadership style in the not-for-profit sector  – to plan big like money is no constraint, to make the hard-skinned decisions, to add new blood and ideas to your organisation, to seek agitators, and to know when your use by date is approaching. Whether you’re a leader, or future leader, I hope this give some food for thought for you too

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