There is massive room for business know-how within the non-profit sector,” says Kevin Frey, the Toronto-based CEO of Right To Play, a global organisation that helps improve the lives of more than one million children via weekly sport and play activities.
“The question I’m often asked,” continues Frey, “is why top talent would come here if they can make more money elsewhere? The answer is that the top talent that is attracted to the non-profit sector are the individuals who are driven by a desire to make the world a better place. They get a deep personal satisfaction and sense of purpose from knowing that their daily work is having a positive impact on the world. Impact has to matter more than money.”
The top talent that is attracted to the non-profit sector are the individuals who are driven by a desire to make the world a better place
Frey is speaking with some insight. He is just over a year into his job at Right To Play, joining in August 2015 from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, where he was Managing Director of the flagship MBA programme. His CV also includes launching Teach Away Inc., one of the world’s largest teacher recruitment firms, and two e-learning companies, Skooli and LearnKit.com.
Frey had become the first new CEO to join Right To Play since its inception in 2000 by founder Johann Koss, the social entrepreneur and four-time Olympic gold medallist. Under Koss, Right To Play has expanded to seven national fundraising offices outside its Canada base while operating across 20 countries with 600 staff and 14,400 volunteer coaches.
That’s a large multi-national by any measure and Frey is tasked with taking the group to the next level by applying his entrepreneurial flair and 15 years of “organisational know-how, strategic capacities, leadership and discipline”.
As Frey explains: “Having been with the University of Toronto for many years, I have an intimate understanding of how large, quasi-public organisations operate and how things move through these organisations and decisions are made. We do a lot of work with governments, both as funders of our work but also as our partners in the field, so that experience has certainly been helpful.”
It’s never money or perks that convince them
He adds: “Right To Play is not an INGO that is doing traditional disaster relief or providing vaccines,” he says, “it has pioneered an innovative niche for itself in the development world byfocusing on using the power of play to transform the lives of millions of children.
Everyone at Right To Play believes in the power of play to change the world. I loved that ambition and I saw massive future potential.”
The switch from private to not-for-profit sector by senior business executives such as Frey is by no means unprecedented but it is still rare enough to cause a stir when it happens, and raise the question as to why it does not happen more often?
According to Sal Badali, a Toronto-based partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Public and Non-Profit Sector Practice, remuneration is an issue and yet it is “a critically important sector in Canada that deserves and needs to attract top talent”. He adds: “Typically you’ll find that those who want these positions and are good at it would be in demand in private sector organisations that could pay a lot more. They often choose to work in the sector because they have a passion for it. Fortunately the sector can pay reasonably; it just cannot pay top dollar.”
If anything, the need to attract top talent is more important than ever. Julia Oliver, who heads up Odgers Berndtson’s Not-for- Profit Practice in London describes “a sector in massive transition” in the UK, partly because the post-GFC austerity programme of successive governments has resulted in charities increasingly taking on the delivery of services previously provided by the public sector. The UK sector has also come in for scrutiny in both media and parliament because of governance issues in some high-profile groups and concerns over aggressive fund-raising activities in others. All of which culminated in a critical report in June 2016 from the UK regulator, the Charity Commission, which said public trust in charities had fallen to its lowest level since 2005.
The charities are run by people who are passionate about what the charity does
Yet Oliver argues: “We don’t have any problem finding people for roles whether they’re remunerated or not. The charities are run by people who are passionate about what the charity does. It doesn’t attract people who don’t have any sympathy for the cause – they would be the wrong people in those roles. It needs to be someone who has the value-set to make that charity and its beneficiaries really thrive.”
As Frey suggests, non-profits are like any other organisations, it’s just that they have a different bottom line. “It is the same operational and logistical expertise that enables an organisation to manage a global supply chain in the telecoms industry that also allows an INGO to efficiently and cost effectively deliver food or vaccines,” he says. “The difference is that while for-profits optimise around maximising shareholder value, non-profits attempt to maximise the positive impact on beneficiaries.”
Frey concedes though that “people do have some preconceived notions about this space” and perhaps the sector as a whole needs to be smarter in the way it recruits senior management. “To attract those candidates,” he says, “I think that non-profit organisations have to clearly articulate and actively promote their impact to potential candidates... It’s never going to be the money or the perks that convince them.”
He highlights the fact that Right to Play’s finance and audit committee is made up of former bankers; the CFO previously held the same position in a Canadian airline; and the vice president of HR was a senior executive at a global food conglomerate. With some incredulity, he also points out the dearth of MBA talent coming into the sector generally, which with his university background he has at least been able to rectify at Right to Play.
Several MBAs are now interning at the group, working on everything from sports strategy to HR, and even an app that Right to Play is launching to fund its non-profit activities.
Frey adds: “We will continue to add folks with experience in complex settings, whether that be from the for-profit or non-profit worlds. I think the distinction is rather irrelevant when you are trying to attract executives. The key is to identify people who have driven improvement in their previous roles and who are motivated by the mission of an organisation, not by the number at the bottom of their pay slip.”