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What can the Not-For-Profit sector learn from a great sports team?

Christine O'Donnell
Christine O'Donnell
Written on the 14 September 2021

I am a self-confessed sports fanatic – and yes, most recently I spent hours watching amazing sportsmen and women competing in individual events and team events at the Olympics. I believe there is something special about amazing human endeavours played on the world stage. So, what is it that makes great sports teams so great and is there something we can learn from them?

I am also passionate about the Not-For-Profit (NFP) sector so I projected this thought further to ask whether there are some important lessons that could be applied here. I looked to my favourite sports team, the All Blacks, for inspiration. I was also influenced by my recent reading of “Legacy” by James Kerr, in which he outlines what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life.


I’ve listed four important lessons that I believe NFP organisations could apply because of their “for purpose” commitment.

  1. Winning culture

  2. Competitive advantage

  3. Leadership

  4. Champions do extra


In part one of this blog, I delve into winning culture and competitive advantage and what we can learn in the NFP space from the All Blacks.

In his book, James Kerr explores the idea that an organisational culture, its values, beliefs, standards, expectations and fundamental behaviours, are a competitive advantage.

He says “it is a sustainable advantage, leading to a higher discretionary effort over a longer period of time, enhanced resilience and resourcefulness, attracting and retaining talent, increasing clarity of purpose, cohesion and commitment, and galvanising teams, business and their leaders materially and measurably to lift their game”.


The All Blacks have enshrined in their culture that “better people make better All Blacks”. Research and history illustrate that as a society we need leaders with integrity, character and humility. Surely better people also make better CEOs, better colleagues, team leaders and staff members in an organisation. Let’s explore this further: the All Blacks are the most successful rugby team in history. What is their competitive advantage? What can we learn from them?

Let’s start with the haka – one of the most obvious traditions of the All Blacks. The haka comes from New Zealand’s traditional Maori heritage and is the ritualised challenge of one group of warriors to another group. Maori believe the haka draws on their ancestors, summoning them to aid their struggle on earth. When teams face the haka, they are facing a collective purpose like they have never faced before. It has been said by the time the haka finished, the opposition had already lost.

We ask why? Because rugby, like business and life is played in your head. The All Blacks commissioned their own unique haka: Kapa o Pango. Similarly, NFP organisations have a unique opportunity to develop cultures that stand out from the rest for “their game” is unique to them. They can develop rituals (eg. regular activities) around their purpose that gives life to the ongoing commitment of everyone in the organisation. In doing so, NFPs can attract the best people; leaders with integrity, character and humility who can win the hearts and minds of staff. NFP organisations can also create a culture people are proud of and they can create a team people want to join. This in turn will add to their competitive advantage.


How does an NFP organisation sustain this advantage over time?

The All Blacks speak of having leadership groups and all players being the best they can be in each of their positions, so they “leave the jersey in a better place”.  This takes commitment, sacrifice and drive. NFP organisations are uniquely positioned to create such legacies; enabling people to be the best they can be by developing a compelling Employee Value Proposition (EVP). By having an aspirational EVP and talent acquisition strategy that supports this and seeking excellence in people and in skillsets they will not settle for second best.

While the NFP sector as a whole may be challenged when it comes to meeting the remuneration levels of the private sector, they are unsurpassed when it comes to their purpose as a means of harnessing communities and staff alike. The question becomes how does an NFP organisation sustain their EVP over time? The more senior All Blacks mentor the younger players into the fold. Similarly, an NFP organisation may use the concept of the buddy system to ensure new staff learn how the organisation operates so each person feels welcome and valued; the essence of building strong cultures building great teams and great organisations.

The All Blacks’ advantage continues by giving team members the tools, skills and character that they need to contribute beyond the rugby field. The All Blacks have great purpose; they want to win and they want to leave a legacy, i.e. leaving the jersey in a better place. NFP organisations can learn from this by galvanising staff around their purpose.

In part two of this blog, I delve into leadership and champions do extra to explore what NFPs can learn from the All Blacks.

Christine O'Donnell

Christine O'Donnell

Christine O'Donnell is the Senior Partner at Meritos, an executive search and recruitment business working with purpose-driven organisations. If you're interested in connecting with Christine, you can find her on LinkedIn here. You can also reach her via email at [email protected]
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Questions to ask to help you understand a candidate:

1. Describe your ideal working environment.

2. What do you enjoy about your current workplace?

3. How does a manager get the best out of you?

4. Describe the best team that you’ve ever worked in.

The reasons why I ask these questions:

1. Reason

2. Reason

3. Reason

4. Reason

Insights by Christine O'Donnell