Executive Volunteers Bring Professional Moxie to Nonprofits

Back in 2006, when she was 52 years old, financial services executive Paula Meyer read a book that changed her life — and launched her into founding a nonprofit organization that is changing the world, one child at a time.

The book, Just Enough by Harvard University professors Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, posits that the most balanced people among successful “high achievers” integrate four aspects of their lives: happiness, achievement, significance and legacy.

Meyer was happy and had achieved much in her career; her family and volunteer work added significance to her life. But legacy, “leaving something that endures after you are gone,” was not yet part of her personal and professional portfolio.

Then she went to Africa.Ngong-Road-Logo

There, in Nairobi, Kenya, Meyer saw such a depth of poverty and need — children orphaned because of AIDS, struggling to survive — that she was inspired to co-found Friends of Ngong Road along with Peter Ndungu, who was orphaned at age 11 in the slums of Nairobi.

The nonprofit organization, now eight years old, seeks to transform the lives of boys and girls equally through education, daily nutrition, caseworker support and an arts-and-crafts summer camp that gets the children out of subsistence living in tin shacks.

Its organizational structure and strong financials — a seven-member board of directors overseeing a $650,000 annual budget and a nearly million-dollar endowment fund — speak to Meyer’s current work as a board member for corporations such as Mutual of Omaha and her past executive positions at Piper Jaffray, Ameriprise Financial and SECURA Insurance.

Executive influence

The success of Friends of Ngong Road is told in Kenya through the obviously improved lives of the 350 smiling, well-nourished, neatly uniformed schoolchildren that the organization serves each year. Here in the United States, the story is about creative middle-aged executives following Meyer’s lead, putting their resources to greater use and transforming their own lives through social service.

Paula MeyerMeyer jokes that, at 60, she is past middle age. In fact, her decision to uproot her life — to leave a high-paying career at age 52 and donate her skills not toward charity but sustainable change — puts her squarely amid the trend to re-examine priorities at midlife, and, ultimately, to give back.

  • Management consultant and former professor William Bridges describes it in his popular business book Transitions as “the shift from the question of how to the question of why.” A careerist naturally moves from wanting to “demonstrate competence” in her or his field to “being motivated to find personal meaning in the work and its results.”
  • The “working retirement revolution” examined in March 2014 by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave notes a pattern of “re-engagement” among young retirees like Meyer. Among the four types of working retirees — many “motivated by important non-financial reasons” — are “caring contributors,” people with financial means who “seek to give back to their community or worthwhile causes.” They make up the largest percentage of working retirees, the study found.

The Friends of Ngong Road board is made up of current and retired senior executives, men and women like former Piper Jaffray executive Karen Bohn, 61, who organizes up to 20 home-based fundraising events a year.

“A lot of people in this 50- to 70-year-old cohort are no longer working full time for pay,” says Meyer. “They have a lot of experience, and they want to use their gifts to make the world a better place. This is not licking envelopes; it’s meaningful work. Our board does the scut work, but we also shape strategy.”

Board member Keith Kale, a former marketing executive at Pillsbury, oversees the newsletter and informative website. Tom Gleason, a retired IBM executive and former Boy Scouts leader, organizes Friends of Ngong Road’s weeklong summer camps in Nairobi.

Meyer and Bohn are the chief development officers, using Gleason’s online relationship-management tool to track some 500 individual contributors and sponsors. They identify top prospects and divvy up calls among the board, which meets semi-monthly.

Crafting solutionsKaren Bohn

Bohn’s proudest achievement has been her “craft ladies” initiative, which yields about 5 percent of the organization’s annual revenue.

During a visit to Nairobi in 2009, she noticed two women who’d been waiting hours in line for free medical care. They were clutching ratty plastic bags — “the scourge of Africa,” Bohn says — out of which they pulled beautiful beaded bowls. Spotting opportunity, she and Meyer combined their Kenyan shillings and bought all of the bowls they could get their hands on.

Now, Bohn invests in about $10,000 worth of handcrafts every year and sells the bowls, jewelry and other colorful items for triple markup (“we’re shameless about it”) at the house parties she organizes. “These are our Girl Scouts cookies!” she declares.

The “craft ladies,” in turn, tithe 10 percent of their revenue back to Friends of Ngong Road. “It’s another example of something that I would not have thought of,” Meyer says. “Everyone on the board comes up with ideas. My approach is: ‘Feel free to add value!’”

Succession planning is becoming a priority. Only two of the seven board members are under age 50, and both Bohn and Meyer are realistic about the unpredictability that comes with age. The 18-hour one-way flight to Africa will become less palatable and physically less possible.

Meanwhile, as the board evaluates whether the nonprofit can be replicated in Bangladesh or India — and can become less volunteer-dependent in the United States — Meyer relishes working with creative professionals who have the means and the selflessness to offer children hope.

“It’s fun to create and work with great people,” she says, “but the most fun is going to Kenya and seeing the impact we have on children’s lives.”

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