How Nonprofit Khan Academy Uses Corporate Tactics to Grow

How Nonprofit Khan Academy Uses Corporate Tactics to Grow

Ginny Lee wasn’t sure she was made for the nonprofit world. In fact, it took her months to decide to join Khan Academy, which provides free micro-lectures to K-12 students and anyone who wants to learn.

She had spent 17 years on Intuit’s leadership team, where she led a team of more than 900 employees. As of 2019, Khan Academy had a staff of about 230.

In a conversation for the Second in Command Podcast, she shared that she had many conversations with founder and CEO Salman (Sal) Khan, during which she admitted she wasn’t confident bringing her business growth skills to a nonprofit.

But it turned out that’s exactly what Sal wanted: Someone with a business mindset to make his organization more efficient and effective. Although they came from different backgrounds, they came to find they had a shared vision. She signed on as president and chief operating officer in 2016.

Ginny’s experience goes to show that leaders at nonprofit and for-profit organizations have more in common than you might expect.

To expand your reach, think beyond the end-user

While much of Ginny’s role has turned out to be similar to the work she did in the for-profit space, there are a few key differences.

One of the big ones she’s had to adjust to is how money flows. In the for-profit space, customers paying for the product or service you create cover the costs of creating it. In nonprofits, she says that’s not exactly the case.

“I do all those things on my left hand,” she says of building products, marketing, and providing value. “But the dollars come from my right hand.”

The people and organizations that donate money to Khan Academy are not the end-user. Recognizing that helps Ginny identify which grants or donations are best suited for the organization and which don’t align with the mission as well.

“In the corporate for-profit world, you don’t lead with the heart as much. It could be perceived as a weakness,” Ginny says. “In the nonprofit [world], particularly at Khan Academy where we are so mission-based, I have to flex that heart muscle.”

Sometimes, leading with the heart means looking beyond the core audience. Ginny realized that most students arrived at Khan Academy because they seek opportunities to improve their skills. But she can’t wait for the students who need Khan Academy most to come find it.

That’s why Khan Academy also works with teachers and school districts to support not only individual students but also the teachers who are faced with accommodating various skill levels in a single classroom. “The districts want to grow and get their districts to perform,” Ginny says. “We have a small but mighty district strategy to help bring Khan Academy into the classrooms.”

Focus on employees first

When Ginny joined Khan Academy, she brought with her a leadership framework she learned at Intuit. And while the customer may always be right, an organization must focus on strengthening its interior before the customer enters the picture. “You have three stakeholders you have to serve,” she says: “Employees, customers and shareholders.”

Serving employees ensures that all other parts of the company mission are protected. 

“They are all needed to live,” she says. “Think about employees like the air. You can’t survive for two minutes without air. Think about customers as water and shareholders as food. [You can’t survive without] water for two days. Food, for two weeks.”

You need all three, but in different degrees — a perspective that can keep leaders balanced when focusing on short- and long-term goals.

Ginny emphasized the strength of having the right employee in the right role. She cites Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, who has said that while much early career growth may be due in part to hard skills and results, soft skills take over in more senior roles.

“It’s [about] getting the right people in the right jobs in the right functions, clarity around roles and responsibilities, effective decision-making frameworks, and unleashing and empowering that group to bring their best selves to work to deliver [to] that consumer,” Ginny says.

She says every person who reports to her already knows how to do their job and do it well. It’s her job to devise the plans for growth so those staffers can perform.

The CEO/COO relationship requires an energy audit

Ginny and Sal need to be aligned in order for their teams to perform as planned. But that alignment takes communication and considerable give-and-take, she says.

“The things that he gets a lot of energy from—the external speaking, the TED Talks, the donor stewardship — it’s not where I got most of my energy from,” Ginny says of Sal’s strengths. “In return, I get a lot of energy running the company, the internal part of shipping a product, getting marketing to come up with campaigns and awareness to increase reach, putting in HR policies, and making sure we stay on budget.”

Ginny says she enjoys those aspects that don’t give Sal as much energy. “We don’t always agree, nor should we. But together, the company gets the best of both of us. That whole is very much needed for the company,” she says.

And though they function as “yin” and “yang,” their agreement isn’t always instant. “We don’t see eye-to-eye many times because we come from different perspectives,” Ginny says.

“The fact that we have fundamental trust, belief, and respect of the differences, we take the time to share the perspectives and the rationale for why we have that perspective,” she says. By putting themselves in one another’s shoes, they can determine the best way to align their ideas.

This article is based on an episode of Second in Command podcast, where your host Cameron Herold interviews the chief operating officer behind the chief executive officer to learn their tips, systems and insights from being the second-in-command of an amazing growth company.

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