David Saltzman is the Executive Director of the Robin Hood Foundation, set up to combat poverty in New York. Last year alone, the foundation invested $132 million in more than 210 of the most effective poverty-fighting programmes in the city. From Saltzman’s point of view, "NGO leaders are brilliant entrepreneurs who oftentimes created something from scratch that is changing the world."

He characterises NGO leaders as overseeing hundreds if not thousands of employees, frequently across the globe. Many of them "have grown organisations" using all the skills a CEO would need: recruiting and training the right people; setting up operating systems; establishing a corporate culture; managing regulations, all with very little money. Others have "had to work with older, ossified organisations, NGOs that had grown stale or just stalled or lost their way." As Saltzman puts it, "In so many ways NGO leaders wrestle with similar issues to people in the for-profit world and that is forgotten or it’s not understood."

And yet despite the presence of luminaries such as David Miliband among their ranks, leaders of NGOs and not-for-profits are currently under-represented on commercial boards.

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The reason for this is twofold, according to Saltzman. Firstly, NGO leaders "do an OK job of promoting our causes but a lousy job of self-promotion." Secondly, people are pigeonholed so that "those of us who work in the NGO world are thought of as having skills and experiences that could only be helpful to other NGOs". He calls it the "Maître d’ effect" because he can imagine "if you’re Steven Spielberg, every time you walk into a restaurant a maître d’ hands you a script that he’s been writing and it must be easy for Spielberg to say, ‘Huh, I like that person as a maître d’ but I’m not sure I want to read that script.’" Commercial-boards suffer from the same problem and so they fail to think of NGO leaders to "deal with these thorny issues of building a company, recruiting and training and so forth," despite the fact the issues are the same regardless of sector.

Certainly, in Saltzman’s experience the coolness emanates from the commercial sector. The Robin Hood board would actively encourage him to look for a commercial board to develop his skills and as a result understand any time commitments this might require.

There is, of course, the added incentive for NGO leaders of the directors’ fees. To the NGO world that extra income is a valuable asset. "It may feel like they may not make a difference to the lifestyle of a corporate board member but they really do affect the lifestyles of the people who work in the NGO world." Not only, then, would you have the chance to tap into a new talent pool but also assist an NGO by allowing its leader to stay in that position.

Clearly, the specific skills of an NGO leader could be invaluable to a commercial board, not least because they work in an environment which cannot fall back on money as a cure-all. The framework of governance, regulation, system-building and man-power, within which they work, provides a unique set of skills invaluable to a commercial board but at the moment NGO leaders are struggling to break through. When will that change so that everyone can benefit is the big question. "I don’t know what the tipping point is," says Saltzman, "It requires lots of boards to change the way they’re thinking. I think that the willingness to add someone from a different world requires some forward and different thinking." Let’s hope we can help make it easier for people to think in new ways.

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