Crossing The Line

 In Charity, Church, Fred's Blog, Leadership, Millennials, Philanthropy, Service, Transitions, Uncategorized, Vocation

Listen to “Crossing The Line” by Fred Smith


One of the most pronounced trends in the non-profit world in the last ten years has been the number of men and women in business careers making a transition to the non-profit world. Books like Bob Buford’s “Half-Time” both launched and responded to a wave of men and women who wanted to move “from success to significance.” For many who had spent a good part of their lives and careers intensely focused on financial returns, advancement, awards, and promotions, the world of non-profits appeared to be the best place to make a difference. Having accumulated enough to make the move possible or having made the decision to leave the work they no longer enjoyed, they looked to non-profits as the place to find more meaning and to change lives. Ben Sasse in his new book, “Them” quotes one of his fellow politicians as wondering “whether this is a responsible way for a grown-ass man to spend his time.” We’ve all read about the crisis of meaning when people come to a point in their lives when what used to motivate and give satisfaction and purpose is no longer able to supply that.  It is then that we start looking for what John Gardner termed “self-renewal” and Peter Drucker called work that changes human life altogether.

While most assumed there would be some differences in the way those two worlds operated, I think many discovered they had no preparation for how different they are! Making a lateral move from business to non-profit leadership was more of a shock than they knew it would be and it has taken them years to make the adjustment. Being on a board that meets periodically to review finances and staff decisions is not preparation for leadership. Having a general desire to do something that changes lives and makes a difference is, in the end, naïve and fizzles out quickly. Scores of well-intentioned and talented people have not made the adjustment and chosen to go back into business or professional life and be satisfied with board roles, starting social enterprises or spending more time on philanthropy. The two worlds have unique rules, incentives, values, and assumptions as well as different realities.  A lateral transition is far more difficult than it appears. Crossing the line can be dangerous to both.

It is only recently that I have been noticing another shift. People on staff with churches (especially larger churches) are moving into the non-profit world by establishing their own 501(c)3 organizations. In the same way, they are learning that the traditional non-profit world is not the same as the church. Most people would assume those worlds would be fairly similar, but they are not and the distinctions are important.

Men and women on church staff have had to learn not only about the cultural differences between churches (language, values, incentives, etc.) but also the unique operating principles of each.

First, church staff have typically never worked with boards. They might have been managed by a pastor or executive pastor, but they have never faced the unique relationship between a governing board and an executive director. In fact, the legal requirements and expectations of a non-profit governing board are far more demanding than those of a most often distant deacon body or church committee.

Second, most churches have budgets and the operating budget provides the funding for the program. Staff are not responsible for raising their budget. In fact, they are discouraged from doing it as that competes with the overall operating budget of the church. While many staff have learned how to raise additional money for special projects from church members, they have typically not been asked to raise a whole operating budget.

Third, church staff understand the politics and systems of their church. They understand the “ecosystem” of their congregation and the needs of that body. However, they have very little experience in understanding the complexities and needs of the larger community. By necessity, they have become expert in a well-defined organization but a community where many non-profits navigate and compete for support of all kinds is foreign to them and they do not factor in how much they will need to learn about that community.

I think this is a trend that will only increase – especially with younger staff who are uncomfortable being confined to one place and want to “make a difference” in the world. They recognize the church is not “the world” in which they want to spend their lives. They have different expectations, and this is going to play out in interesting ways. If I were the senior pastor of a church or in a leadership role in the congregation, this is something I would want to keep on my radar.


Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 4 comments
  • Fonda Latham

    I often run into people who made such a transition thinking it was going to be easier work and they would be slowing down. They consistently comment on how much harder leading a nonprofit is than they thought it would be.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Fonda. Did you read the Facebook article I posted on retirement? It is the best I have read yet.

  • Stefanie Weiland

    Thanks, Fred, really interesting. It made me think of an article I recently read by Bridgespan Group about the non-profit CFO and the difficulty that people face when coming into that position from the business world:

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Bridgespan is such a good resource! Thank you for sending this along.

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