Ready or not: not-for-profits in start-up land

Posted on 11 Oct 2023

By Adele Stowe-Lindner

Interview panel

When I sat recently on a panel established to appoint a new CEO to a national not-for-profit organisation, it quickly became clear that the interests and experiences of the candidates were not what they would have been 10 years ago.

The examples they gave of their experience in managing projects, budgets and staff seemed to have sprung from the culture of start-ups, not from the charities of old.

We asked the interviewees about this, and they made thoughtful observations. They noted that generational workforce change will necessarily challenge the status quo in many organisations, and that the values-led nature of not-for-profits (NFPs) means they readily attract Gen Z candidates.

The workforce generational balance may shift quickly.

ICDA general manager Adele Stowe-Lindner

A generation that is attracted to the culture of start-ups, the gig economy or entrepreneurship thinks in sprints rather than marathons, prefers short projects to long programs, and believes that anyone, no matter their place in a hierarchy, can manage a project.

Start-up culture offers many opportunities to long-established NFPs and charities. If we learnt to change swiftly during the pandemic, we can now learn to integrate that readiness to try and to fail into our everyday work habits.

The world is (always) changing quickly when it comes to technology and to funding patterns, including funders’ expectations of impact, evidence and collaboration.

NFP leaders who are ready to try what others insist has already been tried and failed will find new horizons open to them as organisations learn from the new work order.

Actively seeking income from sources other than grants and donors will separate the thriving NFPs from those that may not survive the next decade at all.

The boldness required to cut a well-funded program because it doesn’t have the impact that it should, would have been seen as madness five years ago, but now, increasingly, stakeholders will see it as a sign of confident and ethical leadership.

Exploring new territory is not without its risks. As more NFPs venture into start-up land, changing the way they work, it will be more important than ever for leaders to retain and advance the ethics and values that drew them to the sector in the first place.

More of Adele's leadership insights

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