Should corporations learn from non-profits on team leadership?

From the Female Element Blog
Female Element blog is about experience and current trends in project management, digitalization and agile organizational transformation seen by eyes of a woman. Why to distinguish such view? Female and male brain operates differently and we may have various interpretations for the same situation. Female leadership is a thing and should be recognised. But mostly because more inclusivity for women is good for all aspects of business and we still have way to go.

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My most recent experience with project management is in non-profit environment where all of our team members are volunteers. Working with volunteers on long term assignments bring many specific challenges and opportunities yet I believe there are principles that may be transferred to a corporate world to benefit both individuals and companies. 

Selection of the project management approach

The decision to select agile project management methods was easy. Purpose of our work was to realize a new product vision. We needed to keep flexibility,  create ability to adjust quickly and manage progress by learning market feedback. 

Another reason came from nature of volunteering - volunteers may leave the project any moment, so we needed to manage the work by assigning small, understandable tasks within short time intervals (sprints) that required  minimum oversight and were possible to be completed shortly. 

“Agility plays a central role in the organization of the future, as companies race to replace structural hierachies with networks of teams empowered to action”, 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Study.

We would not have a chance to finish our project without agile approach. Companies seem to have a choice and that may slow them down. Is it possible to see any new product release or upgrade as a task for empowered, self-sufficient team that wants to succeed while not relying on a big company behind their back?

Motivation and engagement of the team members

Our whole team consisted of volunteers. Volunteers dedicate portion of their free time to give back to communities and support their cause. They are driven by their passion and willingness to learn new things. They are also professionals who are glad to acquire new skills and use their expertise and experience to make the project a success. 

Employees in organizations are indeed not volunteers. They operate within their range of responsibilities, yet they are expected to deliver innovations and continuously improve their operating processes. How to unlock potential of employees and support their professional growth within an organization? We’ve used a free volunteering marketplace to offer professionals to learn new skills, get practical experience and grow with us. Our project culture is open minded, transparent and empowering.

True talent development in a corporate environment should not be different, it requires to take the risk and enable employees to try new tasks and step outside their comfort zone. I like this example of large organization change, source McKinsey interview with ING leadership management on their agile transformation:

“We requested everyone to reapply for a position in the new organization. This selection process was intense, with a higher weighting for culture and mind-sets than knowledge or experience.... nearly 40 percent are in a different position to the job they were in previously.”

Non-profit organizations and corporations don’t seem to have much in common, but that’s just the first sight. Both models seek operating efficiency, results, effective dealing with limited resources and delivering innovation to better serve their customers or communities. 

Thanks for reading this! 




Posted on: October 09, 2018 08:41 PM | Permalink

Comments (21)

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Lenka, thanks for sharing. Managing the projects with volunteers is really a challenge. I think agile is a best fit. Within two weeks sprints, teams can generate some work. Also, volunteers can inform the team about their availability in advance.

Pench, thanks for your feedback. I enjoy working with volunteers because I feel we can give them opportunities for career growth by providing them with inspiring enviroment and support them to try and learn. The time aspect is indeed difficult to manage but we also try to reduce this risk of unstable resources by sharing, transparency and having more people with overlapping skill set.

Question for you Lenka... Regarding the McKinsey ING interview on transformation, how did they gauge "culture and mindset"? Do you have a link so I can explore their measurement?

Lenka, Thanks for sharing an insightful information on use of project management in non-profit oriented projects.

Thank you Rajesh for your comment!

There is one specific aspect where corporations can learn from project management in non-profits. Dealing with volatile resources.

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Meet of three components of talent management!!!

For Therese, I put the link to the ING interview, please see below. The portion I cited is close to the end of the article.
They decided to adopt Spotify organization model for their transformation. Because their organization was large a they wanted to make a real change, they went for a risky step a gave their employees a choice. I like it and I really admire the willingness to take that risk.
I have experience with step by step agile transformation, more of a DAD model, it took longer but risk was smaller and people were learning benefits on the way. Good examples and successful projects were fueling willingness for further changes.

For John, volatile resources are surely a risk for any type of project. What do you think are the main factors contributing to volatility in a corporate enviroment? How would the leadership style change if a PM would have to assume that any of their key team members are not for granted?

Well, Lenka, assigned resources to your project can inconveniently be reassigned to other projects or duties without your consent or knowledge. It's not about changing your leadership style to cope with this issue. As a PM, assume by definition from the get-go that your team members are not for granted and act accordingly. Address it as a risk factor.

Good article, Lenka and thanks for sharing. In my personal experience working with volunteers was very challenging.

Interesting article Lenka. Thanks a lot!

Indeed, non-profit organizations and volunteers can bring charismatic leadership and fresh ideas that employees of for-profit organizations - who are focus on meeting KPI - may not have.
Thanks for sharing this interesting blog post.

Thanks for sharing.

Probably not. Not for profit and commercial organisations have different goals and with all due respect different motivation.

It's valuable to learn lessons from non-profits since they are not driven by profits, so the lessons are not as clouded by financial factors.

Thanks Lenka, and good to hear about your personal experience

Thanks, Lenka, for the article. One reason I volunteer in rules where I can use my PM skills is so I can better understand how my skills may apply in different contexts. Sometimes I find myself refining my own practice for professional application based on my volunteer work in a nonprofit.
I liked this statement: "
Our project culture is open minded, transparent and empowering."

That is a great takeaway for corporations.

Kind regards,


Great, Thank you for sharing!

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