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Substantive Expert

When Hiring Nonprofit Executives, We Only Get it Right 50% of the Time

Last week, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly published an article by David Suarez, PhD. titled, Street Credentials and Management Backgrounds:Careers of Nonprofit Executives in an Evolving Sector, in which Dr. Suarez identifies four types of nonprofit executives categorized based on management skills and nonprofit experience.

The nonprofit sector contains many executives who are oriented toward mission-driven nonprofit work, but only half have a management background.

Suarez finds that in nonprofit organizations, it is more common for executives to have nonprofit experience, while management experience remains relatively uncommon. After considering this finding and examining Suarez’s four types of nonprofit executives, one cannot help but wonder: are we hiring the right people? If we’re not hiring skilled managers and we’ve obtained a reputation of inefficiency, perhaps a solution lies simply in hiring more well-versed managers.

I’ll go over my take on Suarez’s four type of executives briefly below, but for much more information and to read about his other findings, check out the article.

The Nonprofit “Lifer” (high nonprofit, low management) – Suarez calls these folks stereotypical nonprofit leaders. They are drawn to a social problem(s), but are more interested in direct work with the organization’s clients than organizational management. With their mental divide between the nonprofit sector and other sectors, I’d guess these leaders might lean toward a more conservative view of sector evolution than the Substantive Expert.

The Substantive Expert (low nonprofit, low management)– These leaders are less concerned with their sector of employment, and are specialists in specific disciplinary areas. Despite having minimal management backgrounds, they usually have significant academic credentials. We see these kinds of executives frequently in museums and similar institutions. (As a surprising side, much of the art world was upset recently when MOCA appointed a Social Entrepreneur as Museum Director instead of a traditional Substantive Expert)

The Social Entrepreneur (high nonprofit, high management)– This person is not to be confused with the definition of the rare social entrepreneur made popular by Martin and Osberg. In fact, this type of executive is nearly as common in the nonprofit sector as the Nonprofit Lifer. These folks, however, have more of an interest in the organization’s plans for scale, replication, and sustainability than Nonprofit Lifers- according to Suarez. They are high on nonprofit experience, ascribe to a nonprofit ethic, and have management training.

The Professional Administrator (low nonprofit, high management) Like the Substantive Expert, the Professional Administrator is not married to the concept of working in a nonprofit environment. These folks have management experience, but do not have a particular draw toward the nonprofit sector over the for-profit sector– or are at least more flexible in their sector of employment than other types of executives.

I believe that we should continue to aim to hire Social Entrepreneurs. They are, after all, skilled managers with an orientation toward social missions. The problem, perhaps, may lie in how we are employing executives that fall in the other three categories. Though it may not make sense to deny Nonprofit Lifers the “hands-on” jobs that they desire, hiring managers should consider that sometimes the right kind of employee is more dependent on the position than on the candidate’s sector of preference.

For instance, we often hire Substantive Experts (low nonprofit, low management) to take on heavy nonprofit management jobs without question. Or we hire a right-brained drama-aficionado to manage the budget for a nonprofit theater without considering a more suitable candidate for this left-brained task. For some reason, we let the bond of a shared desire for social good fuzzy up our judgement.

After all, who wants to say ‘no’ to a job candidate who desires to make a difference? I don’t think we always have to. But I do think that if we want the sector to evolve, we must hire folks that can help our organizations grow.

Another possible solution for nonprofits? Invest in more professional development and create managerial opportunities for current employees so that even Nonprofit Lifers who are comfortable with the sector feel the need to push the boundaries of sector constraints and encourage organizational growth.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends Leave a comment