Archie Elam is on his third career transition. Now 61 and living in Stamford, Connecticut, Elam is a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. His two-decade Army career included acting as head of operations for the 18th Airborne Corps 24th Infantry Division in the first war against Iraq.
The Army sent him to get an MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, a degree that started his private sector career in 1996. He was a manager at General Electric, United Technologies, Accenture and elsewhere, mostly focused on Six Sigma, a collaborative program for improving company performance by cutting out waste, and running customer relations management systems and overseeing other large-scale operations.
People want to give back; they want that social impact in the next phase of their life.
Kate Schaefers, a career and leadership coach in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area
His next act? Working at a nonprofit organization. Elam recently graduated from Encore!Hartford, a four-month training program for corporate professionals over age 50 looking for a career in the nonprofit sector, public agencies and government.
“The stuff you volunteer for, you care about, you do for free, and then one day you realize you can get paid to do something you care about,” he said. “How cool is that!”
Baby boomers closing in on the traditional retirement years often seek purpose and a paycheck in a second career, also known as an encore experience, next chapter or unretirement. Whatever the term, nonprofit work — focused on addressing society’s pressing needs and promoting arts and culture — has a particular allure for many in this group.
“People want to give back; they want that social impact in the next phase of their life,” said Kate Schaefers, a career and leadership coach in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. “They also turn the three-legged retirement stool — Social Security, personal savings and retirement savings — into a four-legged stool by adding paid work.”
The timing is auspicious. The nonprofit sector has been vibrant in recent years. From 2007 to 2012, nonprofit employment increased every year, from 10.5 million jobs to 11.4 million jobs, for a gain of about 8.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, total private sector employment dropped by 3 percent in that period.
This year, 57 percent of nonprofit groups surveyed said they expected to create new positions, an increase of 7 percentage points from last year, according to the 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey by Nonprofit HR, a the human resources firm. By comparison, the firm notes that only 36 percent of private companies surveyed said they intended to increase staff size, the same percentage as in 2015.
Catherine Foley, 62, is among those who have shifted from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector. She worked for 25 years at Salt River Project in Arizona, among the nation’s largest public utilities. For 17 of those years she was manager of corporate affairs with responsibility for advertising communications, philanthropy and community outreach.
In 2008, Foley, known as Rusty, took advantage of an early retirement opportunity. In the middle of the worst recession in decades, the timing was “scary,” she said. But she knew that “there were other things I wanted to do with my life.”
For the next two years, she sat on a number of community boards, including the Arizona Citizens for the Arts. In 2010 she became its interim executive director, and a year later she took on the job permanently, overseeing its two employees, many volunteers and $350,000 budget.
“It’s an opportunity to use the professional skills I had accumulated over the years for something I had a personal passion for,” she said. “It’s energizing.”
The transition for experienced baby boomers from corporate America to nonprofit America is probably easier than ever.
The management guru Peter F. Drucker wrote in The Harvard Business Review in 1989 that “management was a dirty word for those involved in nonprofit organizations.” The word suggested a hardhearted focus on the bottom line instead of pursuing a social mission.
Drucker noted, however, that nonprofit boards and donors had come to realize that good management was critical to fulfilling their mission. “The nonprofits are, of course, still dedicated to ‘doing good,'” he argued. “But they also realize that good intentions are no substitute for organization and leadership, for accountability, performance and results.”
The gap has narrowed considerably since the Drucker article 27 years ago. On the corporate side, many businesses explicitly embrace social responsibility as an important goal, while others embrace ventures that seek to blend purpose and profit. At the same time, nonprofit organizations have moved from society’s tributaries into the mainstream.
“There is a greater flow of ideas between the two sectors,” said Thomas J. Tierney, co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, which has headquarters in Boston and helps nonprofit organizations and foundations increase their social impact. “There is a greater flow of talent between the sectors.”
That said, the transition remains personally challenging. Fundraising, writing grants and dealing with donors are unfamiliar tasks to those who forged their careers in profit-making companies. Those who worked for big corporations are used to much more support. Foley, only half-jokingly, said that what she really missed was an information technology department. And the pay is almost always lower, with more modest benefit packages.
The techniques that work well in any job search apply here. Think about your passions. Understand the underlying skills accumulated over a lifetime of work rather than job titles.
“If it isn’t a mission personal to you, you will not get through the tough times,” said Nora Hannah, executive director of Experience Matters in Phoenix, an organization that works with private sector workers who want to shift into community-based nonprofit groups.
The transition from a corporate environment to a nonprofit is largely a do-it-yourself effort. But programs like Encore!Hartford, Experience Matters, Social Venture Partners and Encore Fellowships offer valuable educational and matchmaking services for those seeking a second-act career.
“I can’t tell you how many times we have been approached by people in the for-profit sector wanting to make the transition to nonprofits and they struggled with it,” said Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Encore.org., which is based in San Francisco and promotes second careers for social good. “There needs to be something more like a Match.com.”
The techniques that work well in any job search apply here. Think about your passions. Understand the underlying skills accumulated over a lifetime of work rather than job titles. Network, network and network.
That is what Catherine Bergstrom, 56, a former first selectman in Burlington, Connecticut, did. She completed the Encore!Hartford program in 2013. The program encourages its students to set up informational interviews with nonprofit organizations, and she said she found them invaluable for figuring out what she wanted to do next. “I would call people up and everyone said, ‘yes,’” she said. “I would talk to the executive directors.”
She ended up becoming director of community engagement for Jewish Family Services in Hartford, one of the organizations where she had an informational interview.
The nonprofit job seeker has an additional option for learning about a particular organization: volunteering. The sector is incredibly diverse and complicated, ranging from small grass-roots groups mostly dependent on the passions of a handful of volunteers and donors to professional multimillion- and multibillion-dollar social service organizations. The advantage of volunteering is that it is like dating, a way of figuring out whether an organization is a good match without making a long-term commitment.
Here is a safe bet: The baby boomers making the transition from business into a nonprofit careers are carving a work path that will become ever easier for those behind them to follow.