By Mimi Roberson, CEO, PIVOT
The Center for Creative Leadership recently surveyed more than 500 female leaders about ways to attract and retain top-notch women. As someone who currently leads a nonprofit but has been president and CEO of a hospital system with 2,500 employees and 1,000 medical staffers, the top answer hit home. The women surveyed tended to be motivated by opportunities to make a difference in the world. They saw their careers as a calling, one that they wanted to be meaningful and enjoyable.
My experience in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds (in addition to my current role at PIVOT, I’ve served on many nonprofit boards over the years) has been that women’s innate tendencies and acquired skills lend themselves to success in both. But many of us don’t quite appreciate that the nonprofit world a great place to find a career that’s a calling – if only we let ourselves make the leap.
Women excel across all industries and job functions. We have great female software engineers, construction workers, pilots, doctors, lawyers, and, yes, hospital executives. But it’s also true that women are drawn to certain professions in large numbers – particularly professions involved with caring for and nurturing others. That nine in 10 nurses and more than three-quarters of U.S. public school teachers are women (and nearly 90 percent of primary school teachers) is no accident.
Nonprofits fit those same molds. A nonprofit’s calling is to make a difference in the world. Nonprofits run after-school programs for disadvantaged kids, they feed the hungry, they protect animals, they preserve the natural environment – they engage in all sorts of areas of need in their quests to do what they can to make the world a more just, safer, healthier place. But for diverse reasons, the sorts of women who can do so much for nonprofits are often hesitant to join and lead them.
I earned a law degree and wanted to use it. As my career progressed, what drove me was to do meaningful work, do it well, and to include others by being a part of – and, later, creating and leading – teams of people who aspired to do good things. I always kept a toe in philanthropic endeavors. But I wasn’t alone in associating my success as a human being to my success along a career path that fit neatly along societal expectations. That is, if you have an accounting degree, you become a CPA; if you have a law degree, you practice law; if you have an MBA, you go into corporate management; and so on. Such expectations can give rise to the belief that you’re somehow shortchanging yourself if you dedicate business hours to work not directly related to your hard-earned educational and professional qualifications.
My time at PIVOT has taught me otherwise. I have learned that the skills successful professional women have honed indeed apply wonderfully to nonprofit work. What kinds of skills do I mean? Pretty much all of them: communication and networking skills, skills in managing people and relationships, strategic planning skills, money-management and budgeting skills, data-management skills, strategic planning skills, and on and on. If a skill is valued in corporate America, it’s valued in nonprofit America.
I think what’s holding some of us back from making the leap to an immensely rewarding career in nonprofit leadership is that we feel that doing so would mean sacrificing the career we had envisioned. My sense, though, is that idealized career paths exist mostly in one’s imagination, and my experience has been that doing something deeply meaningful to me and of great benefit to children and young people in need – as is the case with my work at PIVOT – quickly washes away lingering doubts.
And you don’t need a law degree, an MBA, or even a paid job to flourish in the nonprofit sector. Women who have dedicated themselves to raising families have quietly developed many of the competencies that nonprofits covet. Managing a home involves bargaining, budgeting, managing, planning, communicating, relationship-building, empathizing – and, lord knows, multitasking. It takes a ton of energy and an ability to deal with stress triggered by everything from “what’s-for-dinner-Mom?” to medical and veterinary emergencies. These are qualities that nonprofits thirst for.
Pivot certainly does. We connect existing nonprofits to help them achieve together a greater good than might be possible on their own. Our need to empathize, build relationships, and communicate among organizations with apparently divergent – but upon closer inspection shared – goals makes ours one of many nonprofits particularly suited to a woman’s perspective and capabilities.
As the nest empties, a “stay-at-home” mom (they do leave the house) can make a huge difference as a part-time or full-time contributor to the sorts of nonprofits they often volunteer for anyway. For such women, the challenge is to have the self-awareness to recognize all you can bring to a nonprofit and the self-confidence to just go for it. The nonprofit world will welcome you with open arms.
Whether you’re a corporate warrior or one who has dedicated your life to your children or your parents or others, I invite you to join me in the nonprofit world. We women have the chops; it’s really just a matter of marshalling the courage to dive into a true calling.
By Mimi Roberson, CEO, PIVOT
PIVOT (a 501c3) was founded by John Elway, Larry Mueller, and George Solich to harness the power of doers and dollars to help Colorado’s NextGen succeed.