same same, but different

Twelve months ago I ranted about how private sector people often perceive those who’d spent time in the not for profit world, how things were often much the same in both theatres despite the efforts (on both sides) to differentiate.

In the year since then, I’ve navigated the waters of the private sector and reflected on what I miss the most – and least – about the not-for-profit world.

The IT support is still woeful: I am still looked after by a bunch of blokes (yes, they are all men, unlike in Red Cross) who bend over backwards every day to do what’s needed on a shoestring and without any obvious IT strategy. Tick.

I am still working for an organisation talking about a flash new e-recruitment process that still hasn’t arrived. Tick.

I still work in a small, committed team whose mutual support and comedy banter is a joy and inspiration most days. Tick.

I still do a week of duty officer (a little more frequently with a lot more to do out of hours). Tick.

I’m still known as Darth Doyle.

Performance management is different. Holding people to account is not only talked about here, it’s expected. In the past year I’ve handed down countless first warnings and a handful of final warnings, and I have fired a couple of people. You don’t perform, you’re out. We have no room for passengers. At Red Cross we huffed and puffed quietly about poor performers until they left: not hugely helpful to the rest of the team or to the quality of our services.

I travel much further to work, but at least when I get there I have my own office, my own quiet working space. No more open-plan working. So I don’t work from home as much – I don’t need to. I can be hugely productive in my work environment.

Finance management is not too different. I steward my labour budget with a rod of iron and question every request to put another shift on the road; but in my not for profit role we counted the pennies obsessively too.

The business intelligence is much, much worse. I managed a $7 million budget with almost no BI at Red Cross. Now I manage a significantly larger budget with absolutely nothing apart from what I can pull together myself with my less-than-adequate Excel skills. It never ceases to alarm me how little analysis support I have, and how much relies on my long-winded workings.

I sit back at the end of each day, week, month, like every General Manager, and look at the numbers. It’s winter, so patient activity is up. This means more work, closer logistics management, worse traffic, but more revenue too. If my P&L matches budget and my productivity levels look good, I stop fretting and look ahead to the next month.  Job done. It’s that simple.

At Red Cross, it was a little different. Of course we carefully counted the financial cost of putting a thousand volunteers in the field, delivering hundreds of meals across dozens of towns, managing dozens of evacuation centres in flood-affected regions, doing outreach to hundreds of households following a devastating bushfire. We had funders and philanthropic donors to satisfy. We had to prove that we were a trustworthy steward of scarce relief and recovery funds, to demonstrate that we could make those funds go far and touch as many people as possible.

But we didn’t sit back at the end of the day (or summer) satisfied that we did what we said we’d do and stayed within budget. We worried about the outcomes of our actions. And I mean worried.

We visited disaster-affected people in their homes, providing information and practical support. We provided a safe place to sleep for people who’d had to evacuate their home. We took thousands of calls from people trying to locate their loved ones after the bushfire raged through their neighbourhood. We kept detailed spreadsheets and produced reports to show how many of each action we did.

But we also asked: did that visit, place to stay, phone call actually help those people in a meaningful way? Could we measure in some specific way exactly how our assistance hastened their psychosocial recovery? How could we be sure we did no harm to anybody, ever? How would we be able to measure our contribution in terms of long-term outcomes, not short-term outputs? Because if we couldn’t, chances are the funding would dry up, the donors would walk away.

Looking at my current job through that lens, it would mean that not only would I be concerned that we had moved every patient on time with no overtime, but I’d have to do research on how the quality and timeliness of my patient transport materially affected their healthcare pathways and by how much it hastened their recovery.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Perhaps it’s as easy as saying that governments and large corporates outsource only simple tasks, but we all know that’s not true. Across the world every day people are cared for in hospitals, kept secure in prisons, fed in schools, trained at work, looked after in nursing homes, given home help and cooked meals, all by armies of workers employed not by the government or the company being paid, but by outsourcing companies like mine.

We are not required to measure and be paid according to the health outcome of the patient we care for, the rehabilitation prospects of the prisoner we secure, the adult fitness and health levels of the school-child we feed, the quantitatively improved career prospects of the worker we train, the quality of life of the elderly, vulnerable lady we look after every day.

We deliver good service, on time and on budget, we record the data, we send the bill, we deliver the budgeted amount of profit, we switch of our laptops off and go home, we do it all again tomorrow.

But everything we do will have had some impact on the lives of the people we have served.

And yet…. and yet. The private sector is still seen as more complex, more difficult, more challenging, the real world. The private sector is where the real workers are, the ones who know what they’re doing.

The not for profit world is perceived as softer and fluffier, populated by well-meaning, left-leaning, sandal-wearing social workers who are probably still being bankrolled by Mummy and Daddy. Those who can, do. Those who can’t will probably be able to get a job in a charity somewhere.

I look back at the strategic planners, the IT service delivery gurus, the change managers, the logistics people, the departmental heads I’ve worked with in the not for profit world. All of them could run rings around many of the people I’ve come across in the private sector, in terms of intellect, strategic approach, long-term focus, commitment, ethics and sheer hard work. But most of them will never be considered for a role in the private sector, because their skills are not believed to be transferable.

And you know, it’s probably true. Many of their skills won’t be transferable, because they would not be used or valued. Many of them would see their skills wither away in the private sector, with its often shortsighted focus on this month’s bottom line, this quarter’s results or the exec team’s end of year bonus.

So do I regret my move? Not at all. This is not a polemic against the private sector world, just another small attempt at levelling the playing field. Most working environments, most teams, most organisations have more in common than divides them.  They are all less unique than they believe they are. And that’s across the board.

Private sector workers coming into the not for profit space will have some valuable short-term tactical focus, pretty robust people management skills, a fair amount of less-thinking-more-doing attitude to contribute.

Not for profit workers taking on a private sector role may have the ability to look a little further out and a little further up, consider the unintended consequences a little more, understand reputational risk and how to avoid it a lot better. They’ll sure as hell know how to make a little go a long way and still look good.

Same same, but different.


Would you hire this not-for-profit worker?

People were incredibly supportive of me when I found my new job. I was inundated with calls and emails congratulating me and wishing me well. It was also interesting to see some reactions to the news that I was moving back into the private sector after more than ten years in the public and not-for-profit sectors. How did I swing that, they asked?

My humanitarian colleagues wondered how I would cope in the cold, hard private sector after years in the humanitarian field. There was a twinge of envy, too, as they wondered how much better the IT systems/travel perks/career prospects/business processes/coffee would be “on the dark side”. All wished me luck – and some asked how I escaped. Turns out I was not the only one who had struggled to get my not-for-profit experiences noticed by private sector hirers.

In the course of two years, I’d applied for twenty or so positions before I got an offer. During that time I got to initial interview only four times, and only once did I get past the agency to a proper employer interview. My résumé read very well, my LinkedIn profile was 100% complete, I networked like a heavyweight, my experiences and qualifications were relevant, and in many cases I was so over-qualified for the position I was horrified not to at least get an interview. And I know I am not the only one who experienced these barriers. What could be the explanation?

My thoughts wandered back to conversations I’d had with people in the private sector over the years. How fascinating, they’d say, working for a humanitarian organisation. It must be so rewarding, they’d say, helping people. Of course, it’s not a real job, they’d say. A cushy number, out there saving the world in a job with “no real stress”, when the rest of us have to hold down a “proper job” with “real pressures” like making money and the ever-present “threat of redundancy”.

I only wish I were paraphrasing.

I suppose people don’t know that high proportions of not-for-profit employees are on six- and twelve-month contracts, because they’ll have to go when the money runs out for their project. On top of that, the recent downturns in charitable giving have resulted in many permanent roles being cut in many not-for-profit organisations. You don’t donate, we don’t get paid. Simple.

I’ve had recruiters tell me that my skills are not transferable because they weren’t gained in an industry with real financial goals, real shareholder pressure, real accountability, real focus. I wondered at the time how they thought huge worldwide organisations delivered anything of value without clear funding streams, financial stewardship, accountability or strategic goals.

And it got me thinking about the amazing people I have worked with, and how so many perceptions about not-for-profit workers are so far off the mark.

Sure, the humanitarian field is full of people who want to contribute to a particular cause. People who give their homes free for marketing photo shoots, team meetings, away days. People who pay for stuff out of their own pockets because they don’t like to claim expenses. People who have taken a 30% pay cut – or more – to come and work for an organisation they can believe in.

But most large not-for-profits also have a predictable and bureaucratic corporate hierarchy with CEOs, Directors of Finance and HR, a National OHS Manager, Accounts Payable, R&D staff, admin assistants, payroll officers and business analysts, as well as all the people on the ground delivering the humanitarian services. A big corporation is a big corporation.

Large not-for-profits have roughly the same working environments as large private sector organisations: the inefficient IT systems, pointless office politics, severe financial pressures, interminable board wranglings, bad office layouts, cryptic management reporting and out-of-date intranet sites know not whether you are trying to make money or save the world.

The not-for-profit sector has to deliver pretty much the same as the private sector, but with far less funding and very little long-term financial security. It’s the Ginger Rogers of the business world: Fred Astaire got all the glory, but Ginger did everything he did backwards and in heels.

As for the people who work in not-for-profit, what skills or experience could they possibly have that the private sector would want?

Well, they have to be extremely resourceful and focused to get anything done with the short-term funding they often work with. They have to be black-belt project managers and compliance experts, to survive the unbelievable red tape and often unrealistic timeframes of federal government funding. They become forensic financial managers, because they hold themselves way more accountable for every cent of donor funds than any audit committee could.

They are unusually creative and innovative, because the money and the time will never stretch to the ambitious goals they set themselves. So they think outside the box again and again, and solve major problems on a shoestring because that’s all they have, and because improved outcomes for the vulnerable people they serve will motivate them to the last.

They become excellent influencers and negotiators in their attempts to engage and motivate their volunteer workforce, never mind their paid workforce of young MBAs, Ph.Ds. and post-graduates (I’ve had two PAs with Master’s degrees and a junior logistics officer pursuing a PhD in geology – it’s fantastic, and occasionally daunting).

And they normally achieve all of this on 30% less salary, no job security, and more passion than you could ever imagine.

So next time you see an application from somebody from the not-for-profit sector, check your prejudices at the door, look at what the person has really achieved in their career and what talents they are offering you, and hire one if you dare.