Tag Archives: Career shifts

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.”

Flexibility, Focus Ease Strain of Midlife Career Shifts

Sarah Berger, 47, insists she wasn’t afraid when she got downsized from her director-level job in early September — even though she is single and solely responsible for her mortgage and other household expenses. Even though it’s her second career transition in four years.

Even though — as is often said of women on the other side of 40 — she isn’t getting any younger.

“It doesn’t pay to panic,” Berger explains. And here’s where age and experience served her: “I was feeling confident about what I’d achieved. I felt I had something to offer.

“As soon as I got laid off, literally driving home, I already was putting together my list of people to call,” she says.

Berger began with the women in her book club. “These are professional, well-connected women who believe in lifting up others. So I knew that if I called on them, they would use their network to help me.”

A fund-raising professional, she landed an even better position in mid-October — six weeks to the day after her layoff.

“The networking for me was key,” says Berger, the new director of resource development and communications at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit with a 117-year tradition of serving immigrants, refugees and low-income populations in the Twin Cities.

LinkedIn cartoon

Purposeful connections

This so-called “hidden job market” — in which a matrix of personal and professional connections opens doors — accounts for up to 80 percent of new hires, according to Forbes magazine.

That’s why Cathy McLane, 52, began rebuilding her network a year ago when she decided to ease herself out of a role as marketing and communications director at a prestigious private school in suburban Minneapolis. McLane had been there 14 years and recognizes now that she “had clearly stayed too long.”

She was out of practice in the discipline of connecting with professional peers — and out of step with the digital ways networking is now conducted. “I didn’t realize how deep I’d gotten in my little rut, my happy rut,” she says.

McLane activated her social media presence, which now includes 379 connections on LinkedIn and 578 followers on Twitter, with a handle — @CathyConnects — that describes where she wants her career to grow.

And, because no Tweet beats a face-to-face meeting, she started calling on people in similar roles at health care organizations and in higher education (including me, during my years at St. Catherine University). “People warned me that the level of job I want will come through knowing someone who knows the hiring manager,” McLane explains.

She was businesslike, professional and prepared in her informational interviews. And, without fail, she observed three practices:

  • Ask your business contact who else you should meet.
  • Write a timely and specific “thank you” note.
  • Purposefully stay in touch. “Part of networking should be giving back,” McLane says. “You want to add value. So if I find a good article or blog or website, I send that out.”

‘The age thing’

Six months after leaving her job, McLane has yet to land an equivalent career position. She’s got a long-term contract doing project management and internal communications for Cargill, which she hopes will become the “seed client” of the business she is launching: Cathy Connects LLC.

The glass ceiling she hit during her job search is less about gender than age. “People don’t always want 20 years of experience,” McLane says, because it calls up all sorts of speculations and suspicions:

  • Will you demand a higher salary?
  • Will you be digitally savvy?
  • Can you keep pace with the speed of change in today’s workforce?
  • Will you stay in a position for which you’re clearly “over-qualified”?

Consultant Sue Plaster, a former communications and HR executive who herself was laid off at age 50, says the economy and “the age thing” hit middle-aged men and women equally hard, though women likely pay a higher price for looking older. “The self-confidence aspects of the job search are really challenging,” she says.

And so, three pieces of advice for people in a midlife career transition — from three women who have been there:

  • Plaster: “Invest in a professional headshot for LinkedIn that portrays you in a favorable way — not a glamour shot but no selfies either.”
  • McLane: “Take space, not time,” she says, quoting Karen Himle, the recently named vice president of corporate communications at Thrivent Financial. Rather than mindlessly filling up your calendar, “slow down and take space to reorient: What’s important? What makes you happy?”
  • Berger: “I did not say no to a coffee date, ever. My goal was to make one contact a day. Those professional networks are really important.”

Lesson learned: “I have yet to meet one person who’s transitioned who hasn’t landed in a good place. It’s how you approach life, your attitude,” concludes Cathy McLane.