A few months ago, an acquaintance asked my advice on how to find a job in an environmental non-governmental organization. Sarah (not her real name) is a skilled professional, who spent over a decade in structured finance. She is able to pull together complex financial deals, is accustomed to operating in a sophisticated international environment and executes in a high-pressure commercial setting. She was now looking for a more purposeful use of her time, and environmental causes were going to be it.
Her story is not unique. More and more professionals in the private sector are interested in making a contribution to solving big global environmental issues, and, for some, permeability across sectors is even encouraged.
In reality, moving between the private sector and NGOs is not so easy. Sarah struggled to find a way in. It seemed that those she spoke to in the NGO world did not quite know what to make of her. Some didn’t believe her commitment: surely giving up such a high salary must mean that something is wrong? Others could not imagine what they would do with someone with those skills. This was an odd situation for someone like Sarah, who embodies a huge cumulative investment in training and experience on the part of her employers.
Environmental NGOs are focused on some of the most important issues in the world: addressing water scarcity, preserving biodiversity, avoiding global collapse of fisheries, mitigating climate change. You would think that the most important task of any organization in this space would be to attract the best talent from across the world for the job, and that would result in a steady exchange of talent to and from the private sector. Yet when it comes to competition for talent, that flow is relatively limited.
I should be clear. Working in an NGO requires expertise and experience that exceeds what can be developed in a private sector organization.
Professionals in the not-for-profit sector need to be comfortable with a level of complexity and uncertainty that is unusual in commercial companies – weaving policy issues on a frontier with broad community engagement and values-laden problems.
Their authorizing environment is more nuanced and sophisticated. Shareholders are only in part replaced by donors, who often have opinions not just about the results they want, but also about how they should be achieved, and who are in turn complemented by a broad constituency of stakeholders that need to be supportive of the work. And while companies are expanding the scope of their mission to include concepts like “shared value”, operationally their work is still mostly defined by a narrower set of outcomes.
Outcomes in environmental NGOs are also harder to define. In most not-for-profits there are fewer controllable metrics that can discipline resource allocation, and outcomes in the environmental world are layered with scientific complexity.
On the other hand, many critical skills that NGOs desperately need to execute at scale are developed most effectively in the private sector. Complex project and financial management, collaborative problem solving, pithy communication, the ability to formulate a defined strategy to achieve an objective and follow through on it, even the ability to run an effective meeting, are all skills that are often better honed in commercial organizations than anywhere else.
Despite this, many NGOs assume that, in tapping a broad pool of talent, they cannot compete when it comes to salary and are therefore cut out of a large segment of potential employees. Sarah’s case, however, points to a challenge that goes beyond compensation to reveal that many NGOs are actually ill-prepared to receive professionals that want to move.
Many environmental NGOs need to shift from hiring for tasks, to sourcing talent. It is a move towards hiring people for who they are, and not just for what they know how to do today. It requires creating greater space for mentorship, training, and professional development, and investing in people as much as in outcomes.
This in turn requires many NGOs and their supporters to recognise that building high-performing institutions is more than doing great projects; it must be part of their strategy to achieve impact. The most forward-leaning NGOs are already recognising this.
It is hard to imagine having planetary scale impacts without developing adequate institutions for the task, yet most NGOs, and donors, assume that the best dollar spent is only the dollar spent on a project on the ground. That is akin to assuming that large, high-performing companies operating on global markets run themselves as a collection of local projects. They don’t.
Finally, it implies adopting performance management as a pillar of the way in which NGOs are run. A precondition to attracting great talent is a meritocratic environment, where the basic tenets of institutional management – measurement, prioritization, focus and accountability – are exercised at all levels of the organization.
Sarah’s story is emblematic of an ongoing missed opportunity. We need effective institutions that are able to execute against big plans to deliver real, tangible, measurable outcomes at the scale of the monumental challenges they seek to solve. The cost of failing far outweighs the resources required to source the best skills available from across society, and invest in them over time.