What the Non-Profit Sector Can Teach Us About Leadership Development

There are a variety of opinions and case studies about the ideal way of growing and developing leaders. Leadership development at companies today often entails different aspects that can include experiential learning, overseas assignments, coaching, and mentoring programs.

Corporations make a considerable amount of investment to grow and shape their potential talent into the company’s future leaders. Global spend in 2019 on leadership training is estimated to be at $370.3 billion, with North America contributing $169.4 billion.

Traditional case studies and methods of leadership development showcase success stories from the corporate sector; we rarely see examples of transformative leadership success stories from the social sector. This gives the impression that the ideal place to learn about and grow in leadership development is within the private sector. However, much can be learned from the social and non-profit sectors about leadership development.

The social sector is frequently under-resourced, with operational costs are fluctuating and leaders persistently working with constant changes. Mike Cieri, vice president of North America Sales Learning at SAP, experienced this dynamic firsthand as a pro bono volunteer consultant with Chester County Futures  (CCF), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that provides academic support, mentoring, and scholarships to disadvantaged youth to supprt them in getting into college.

During my conversations with Cieri, who now serves as a Board member at CCF, I learned about his journey with the organization and how it has impacted his leadership perspectives both within and outside of SAP.

In 2016, Cieri was working in Customer Strategy and Sales Operations at SAP when he first learned about CCF through SAP Social Sabbatical, a portfolio of pro bono volunteering programs designed to utilize and develop SAP talent while helping non-profit organizations and social enterprises that focus on digital inclusion to run at their best.

Cieri and three other SAP colleagues were tasked to work with CCF for an on-site assignment as part of the SAP Social Sabbatical for local engagement. CCF students experienced a high drop-out rate in their first year in college. The root problem was that many of the students were first-generation college students and needed additional support to get acclimated to the college environment.

Cieri and his team created the “Steps 4 Success Bootcamp,” an intensive training to teach students financial literary, self-advocacy, and other life skills to help them get acclimated to life on a college campus. In recent years, the bootcamp continues to be held on SAP’s campus in Newtown Square, Pa., and brings in SAP employees to participate and work with CCF’s students. This year, the first virtual bootcamp was held on Zoom.

As Cieri continues to engage with CCF, I spoke with him about his biggest takeaways from his journey as an SAP Social Sabbatical pro bono volunteer as well as a CCF Board member. “It allowed me to reflect and think about how there are so many things we can do if we take a step back, go back to the basics, and utilize everything we have in front of us to the fullest,” Cieri said. “That is how I’m managing my team today. That’s one of the key things I learned.”

Another thing Cieri experienced working with CCF is how a small nonprofit can fully maximize its resources. With a lean staff of 10 employees, CCF serves its constituents efficiently while also supporting the leadership growth of employees through stretch assignments. Coming from the private sector, Cieri observed that despite having plenty of resources, projects still get stuck and convoluted. While working for CCF, he saw how they could do so much with limited resources. Utilizing what is already available and making it better was a consistent approach to solving challenges.

The second insight Cieri shared was the importance of simplicity. He noticed that CCF always finds a way to keep projects simple. The team manages their priorities efficiently, they always think about what they can tackle successfully now versus what they can do later.

“At CCF, it’s easy for a team member to field in for another team member,” Cieri explained. “Everyone is so connected and aware of what the other person is working on. I now do this with my team, and I ensure that all of my teammates understand what the other members are doing. So if somebody does go out on a vacation, there is at least a foundation knowledge in place, so we don’t miss a beat. When you are looking at the non-profit world with limited resources, they do this well. Keeping things simple is probably the biggest thing I learned from my time with Chester County Futures.”

In the years since his SAP Social Sabbatical experience, Cieri continued to remain engaged with CCF and was asked to join the organization as its youngest Board member. For him, it was a natural progression. CCF needed someone who could provide insights into how the organization can be more engaged in the 21st-century digital world. He brings a technical lens to the challenges the organization is facing and can provide different perspectives. Furthermore, Cieri fell in love with the mission of CCF and understands how critical the organization is in supporting low-income students to fulfill their dreams of getting into college and beyond.

Summarizing his journey, he shared: “Whether you are working for a non-profit, for-profit, or a big company, leadership doesn’t change. You still must lead by example, and the people you are leading and working with must feel comfortable around you. As a leader, as long as you are helping your team grow and making them better, you are doing your job.”

Cieri’s participation as a Board member continues to help grow and nurture his humble leadership style within and outside of SAP.


Kotheid Nicoue is program manager and nonprofit-in-residence at for the global SAP CSR team.