Change, Pace and Risk

Nonprofit and for-profit institutions operate differently in important ways, so it's important to know yourself when contemplating changing sectors, writes Trenda Boyum-Breen.

August 23, 2013

Whenever I talk with someone interested in crossing higher education sectors (from public/nonprofit to for-profit, or vice versa) I start with a conversation about change and pace.  As a higher education professional who has crossed sectors several times, the amount of change and degree of pace are two of the most palpable differences within the daily culture of each environment. 

While all of us in higher education are living through or grappling with some level of change, I find that changes in the nonprofit sector tend to happen within various units or departments of the institution, whereas change in the for-profit sector lies within the very mission or fabric of the institution.  

I have also found that nonprofit institutions tend to respond to change, whereas for-profit institutions seek to generate change. Culturally, responding to change translates into a more measured internal pace for the organization, while generating change translates into a fast-paced environment. 

Every institution I have worked in, across all sectors, is aware of the needs of students, communities and the work force, but in my experience for-profit institutions have a collective sense of urgency to meet, or get in front of, those needs quickly -- constantly incubating new ideas and pushing the envelope of innovation.  I have observed that colleagues who join a for-profit institution after being at a public or private one are shocked by the rate of change, and the sheer pace of their new organization.  Comments such as, “It would have taken us two years at my former institution to do what took just two months at this one!” are not uncommon, nor untrue.  And the fast pace of a proprietary institution can be exhilarating as well as exhausting. 

On the other hand, nonprofits or publics, generally speaking, have a culture of taking a more measured approach to change; fully considering options, mitigating risk, and thoroughly vetting an idea before implementing.   

In many institutions the governance structures – constitutions or contracts -- actually guide the vetting process, which ends up influencing and even managing the pace of change.   For example, when deciding on launching or eliminating a program (academic or otherwise), nonprofit institutions require several levels of reiteration and vetting to reach a decision.  In a proprietary setting, boards of directors charge academic leadership and marketing departments to collaboratively stay on top of workforce trends and in turn quickly (relatively speaking) develop and launch – or sunset — a program of study. 

While the rate of change and pace of work may be different in each sector, I have found that both cultures value collaboration and teamwork to move the institution forward; however, that is realized very differently.  

For-profit institutions are change agents at heart, and trying something new or being “first to market” with programs or services is essential to keeping their offerings relevant and meeting the needs of their stakeholders.  Therefore, these institutions are dependent on everyone working together, and cross-functional teams that seamlessly move in the same direction are the backbone to making this happen.  

Therefore, as an employee at a for-profit institution you are expected to stay abreast of industry trends and research as well as stakeholder needs as context for working on a team.  This context is then coupled with internal data that forecasts, measures and tracks success.  With that information at hand, it is also expected that team members trust their instincts, their voice and their colleagues, resulting in the organization’s ability to stay nimble, take calculated risks, and maintain a fast pace.

In contrast, a nonprofit organization has time on its side.  Trust, collaboration and teamwork are established during the planning and vetting process as issues related to change are contemplated, discussed and evaluated.  My years in the public and nonprofit sector offered me an opportunity to work in a culture that responded to change with an eye for the long term; thoroughly considering the impact of the change prior to making a decision about action. 

Of course, this level of due diligence requires different skills for higher education professionals and leaders than those skills needed in a fast-paced culture.  A genuine regard for the collective wisdom that resides within an organization, and the willingness to wholly participate in governance, is critical for success.  It is also helpful to understand how to facilitate group dialogue and maintain transparency as the vetting process takes its course.

High degrees of change and rapid pace are a bit counter to what most of us know in the field of higher education -- they may even be counter to our experience and development as professionals. 

Therefore, if you are contemplating crossing sectors you may want consider the daily culture of the institution and how your skills may be a good fit, be challenged, or even expanded accordingly. 

From my experience, it is not easier to cross from nonprofit to for-profit or vice versa; each time I have returned to the opposite sector I have experienced some level of recalibrating of my skill sets and perspective. 

However, I will offer that if you are considering joining a for-profit organization, it is important that you more than just like change, but that you thrive in it as you will face it every day.  And while you can acquire the skills needed to be successful in a fast-paced environment, it is also necessary to have some level of comfort with the risk-taking inherent in such an environment.

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Trenda Boyum-Breen

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