Using Your MBA in the Nonprofit Sector

Published on June 27, 2009

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in the transition from profit to not-for-profit companies for MBAs is merging an agency’s vision and mission with sustainable financial practices, said Isabelle Goossen, ’78, vice president of finance for Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“The most important thing you can bring to the process is the ability to work with people who may not understand the financial ramifications of certain things,” said Goossen, one of several alumni panelists who spoke at an event hosted by the student-led Philanthropy Club at Gleacher Center on June 27.

With the arrival of new president Cheryle Jackson in 2006, the Chicago Urban League re-evaluated its mission and shifted its focus from social services to economic empowerment, said Gus Tucker, ’92, director of the Chicago Urban League Entrepreneurial Center.

“Within the next five years, at the Entrepreneurial Center we want to be 70-80 percent self-sustaining,” Tucker said. “Some of the programs we have on tap are strictly about, ‘How do we create services that people will pay for and compete in the marketplace?’”

MBAs should not make the mistake that working in the not-for-profit sector will be easier than working in the for-profit world, said Margaret Annett, ’83, corporate treasurer of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I’ve done a $140 million financing and $5 million a day goes through our cash system,” Annett said. “This is a real job. We don’t just spend our time wandering through the galleries.”

Consequently, three reasons not to seek a job in the not-for-profit sector are being tired of working so hard, just wanting to “give back” to the community, or doing financial work so you can do other tasks at the agency, she said. “You need to actually want to do investment accounting, if you want to work for me,” Annett said. The compensation may not be as high at not-for-profits, but the opportunity exists for a better balance of work and life, said Chris Nordloh, ’02, CFO of Chicago Commons. “That’s a way that you get rewarded,” he said. “For example, I get five weeks of vacation and two weeks of paid holidays. I get seven weeks off per year and I take them off. Additionally, I have time to do things like pick up or drop off my son at preschool.”

One of the biggest pitfalls MBAs should avoid in the not-for-profit sector is being closed to learning, teaching, and coaching, said John Rush, managing director of Cleanslate Chicago. “You have to avoid this idea that, ‘I have a degree from a particular institution, I’m better than you, and it’s my way or the highway,’” Rush said. “This loss of team dynamic, know-it-all attitude, and non-teachable, non-coachable spirit are like poison.”

The panelists helped Katie Forristall, a student in the Evening MBA Program who co-chairs the Philanthropy Club, think about how to approach a not-for-profit career and how to eventually work for such an agency without forcing her MBA skills on others, Forristall said. “You have to have a give-and-take,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘Everybody’s going to listen to me because I’m a Chicago MBA.’ You have to be willing to learn from coworkers and employees.”

                                                                                                                        — Phil Rockrohr