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Building a Nonprofit Talent Pipeline: An Interview with Monisha Kapila

By Nell Edgington

Monisha KapilaIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Monisha Kapila. Monisha founded ProInspire to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders by expanding the talent pipeline, developing professionals, and increasing diversity in the social sector. She has created partnerships with leading nonprofits like Global Giving, Share Our Strength, and Year Up. Monisha’s vision to start ProInspire stemmed from her own experience transitioning from business to nonprofit, and her passion for helping organizations and individuals achieve their potential for social impact.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: One of the things ProInspire does is train business professionals about how things are different in the nonprofit sector. Can you, and how do you, teach people about fundamental cultural differences between the business and nonprofit sectors?

Monisha: Through our work with the ProInspire Fellowship, we recruit and train business professionals to spend one-year working full-time at a leading nonprofit. Fellows have the opportunity to use their skills for social impact, and gain an entry path into the nonprofit sector. Over the past five years, we have learned that it is less important to focus on differences between business and nonprofit sectors, and more important to focus on how to be successful at a nonprofit. We also help our Fellows think abut how to translate these skills to be effective in the social sector.

Before starting the Fellowship, we send Fellows articles on transitioning (some great ones from Bridgespan) and The First 90 Days book. During orientation, we have Fellows develop their transition strategy and their learning agenda. We also discuss the phases of culture shock that people typically feel when they move to a new country, as we have seen Fellows go through similar emotions as they move through sectors. Finally, we have our alumni share their experiences in moving from business to nonprofit. Just having a common language and a peer group helps Fellows with the transition.

Nell: In the past there has been a backlash in the nonprofit sector against people with a business background entering the sector and ignoring the complexities that differentiate the nonprofit sector from the for-profit sector. How do you address these tensions?

Monisha: We do this in a few ways. First, we have a very competitive selection process and evaluate candidates’ ability to be successful in the nonprofit sector before they are selected to be a Fellow. Things that we look for include humility, flexibility, initiative, and managing up. These are skills we believe are critical for anyone to be successful in the nonprofit sector.

Second, we talk about the challenges many business professionals face when moving into the sector and the Fellows think about how they will address them. The top ten we focus on are:

  • Avoiding the “white knight” syndrome
  • Proving that you are passionate about the mission
  • Working with less resources
  • Making decisions in a more complex environment
  • Wearing many hats
  • Learning to self-manage
  • Getting feedback about your performance
  • Finding professional development opportunities
  • Creating your own career path
  • Working hard for less money

Third, we emphasize that the Fellowship is a learning experience. Our partners are looking for Fellows to bring their business skills to the nonprofit, but they must first learn about the organization and then figure out how to adapt their skills in that context.

Nell: What is your view on arguments (like Dan Pallotta’s) that nonprofit leaders are sorely underpaid. Do we need to address social sector salaries in order to attract top talent or are there other more important hurdles to attracting talent to the sector?

Monisha: I think that compensation is definitely a factor in attracting and retaining nonprofit leaders. It will become even more important as we start to see convergence in the social sector, with leaders having opportunities to make social impact in nonprofits, for-profits and government.

I have no doubt that talented people are willing to get paid less to do work that is meaningful. Every year we have hundreds of talented professionals from consulting, banking and corporations who apply to our Fellowship program and take pay cuts to work in the nonprofit sector. But as we see Fellows grow in their careers, compensation becomes a bigger issue.

Nonprofits have a lot of assets they can use to offset the lower compensation. Namely the level of responsibility that leaders get at nonprofits is often higher than they would get in a similar role at a for-profit. When I came out of Harvard Business School, I spent a year as an HBS Leadership Fellow at Accion International. I managed product development, marketing, and partnerships for micro-insurance products. Over time I developed strategic alliances with major companies like Visa. After my Fellowship, I joined Capital One in a product development role, but my responsibilities were more narrow. I was supposed to primarily focus on the product – there were other teams for strategic partnerships and for marketing.

So while I think compensation is and continues to be an issue, opportunities for nonprofit professionals to contribute to multiple aspects of the organization’s success are extraordinary. I always tell ProInspire Fellows that one of the benefits of being at a resource-constrained organization is that you will rarely be told “no” if you want to take on more responsibility. This is particularly exciting when you feel very strongly about an organization’s mission. These opportunities to wear many hats, especially near the beginning of one’s career, might not make up for a lower compensation, but we cannot ignore their importance.

Nell:  Since ProInspire’s model is based on working with individuals (“Fellows”) how do you reach a tipping point that will address the approaching leadership shortfall for the entire nonprofit sector?

Monisha: ProInspire’s focus is on helping individuals and organizations achieve their potential for social impact. With our Fellowship program, we partner with nonprofits to bring in Fellows who address critical organizational needs. We work closely both with the organizations and the Fellows who are part of our program. The Fellowship demonstrates the ways that nonprofits can expand their talent pools and shows business professionals paths into the sector.

I don’t think we will address the leadership shortfall just by recruiting more people to the sector. Our next area of focus is on how do we support emerging leaders to grow and increase their impact at nonprofits. This summer we are piloting “Managing For Success”, a leadership development program for first-time managers at nonprofits. Our goal is to develop a high quality, cost effective program that can be scaled nationally and reach many more people.

Finally, we think it is important to show thought leadership around the issue of talent and leadership in the nonprofit sector. This is an issue that many organizations have put on the back burner and we are working with other partners to make it a priority. I recently participated in the White House Forum on Cross Sector Leadership and was excited to see this is a priority for our government, corporations, nonprofits, and foundations. We will only reach a tipping point when we have multiple players in the nonprofit sector thinking about developing talent to drive forward these important organizations that make a difference in the world.

Nell: ProInspire was launched at a time when record numbers of college graduates have an interest in social issues. What do you think makes this generation different in terms of their approach to social change and their approach to organizational structure?

Monisha: Millennials commitment to social change is unlike any generation before. This generation has been taught that they can do anything, and they feel drawn to doing work that has an impact. Communication and social media have played a big role in making them more connected to world events and causes they care about. We see this with the high level of interest in our Fellowship program. Young people who have great jobs at places like Bain, JP Morgan, and Microsoft tell us that they have been waiting for this opportunity to do work that has a purpose.

I have seen that Millennials are also “sector agnostic” – they want to make a difference and don’t care what sector they are in. This means that nonprofits will start to compete more and more with tech start-ups, social enterprises, and the public sector for talent that cares about social issues.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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