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Career Shift: My Nonprofit Experience as an Encore Fellow

After retiring from her job as a publishing executive, one woman brings her skills to a nonprofit and learns some new ones

By Louisa B. Hellegers | May 15, 2012

About two years ago, I was leafing through The New York Times when my mother called. The conversation went like this:
 
“Have you read today’s paper yet?” 
 
“Just reading it now.” 
 
“You have to read the Style section; there’s an article about an organization that has your name on it!”
 
The article — “Ready for Life’s Encore Performances” — was my story, up to a point. It was about executives who left their high-paying corporate jobs and took a year or so off “to regroup, rethink and figure out what they want to be when they grow up.” Now they were becoming something called Encore Fellows, applying their skills and experiences to work in the nonprofit sector.
 
The Encore Fellows program, run by the nonprofit group Civic Ventures, was the part I hadn’t done yet. But it was exactly what I wanted to do!
 
Why I Wanted to Be an Encore Fellow
 
When I learned more about encore careers — second acts that combine greater meaning, continued income and social purpose — I knew for sure my mother had been right. (Next Avenue has quite a few articles in the Work & Purpose part of the site about people with encore careers, and one on how to launch your own.)
 
After retiring a year earlier at age 61 from a career as a publishing director and editor in New York City, I had chaired a local singing group’s search committee to find a music director. Running that pro bono search confirmed not only that I was ready to do something new, challenging and intellectually fulfilling, but also that my years of publishing experience could transfer to a very different kind of environment. 
 
So I applied to become an Encore Fellow, which would mean working half-time at a nonprofit for about a year. The program — offered in Arizona, California, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington, D.C. — has two goals: to provide the nonprofit community with high-quality workers and to offer people like me a chance to get the kind of nonprofit experience that could help us launch encore careers. There are expected to be about 200 Encore Fellows this year.
 
Getting Matched Up for the Fellowship
 
After a rigorous application process, the Civic Ventures Encore Fellowships Network matched me up with the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit in New York City dedicated to providing employment and job-related services to people recently released from prison. My job as the Human Capital Encore Fellow was to help ensure professional development for the staff and organizational development for the entire agency.
 
An Encore Fellow’s salary varies by location; the average stipend is $25,000. Although that figure is just a fraction of what I previously earned, the salary doesn’t really matter to me. I’m lucky enough to have earned a pension and to be married to someone who still works full-time.
 
The Encore Fellow Experience
 
The experience I’ve been getting as an Encore Fellow has been priceless. A little surprising, too.
 
I was initially uncertain whether the skills I picked up in my previous career really would translate in this new line of work.
 
But it didn’t take long before I recognized that much of what I had done as a publishing manager and leader was, in fact, organizational development and performance management. Who knew? As an Encore Fellow, I’m using the same skills, training and instincts I used in my past positions to help the Center for Employment Opportunities implement its Human Capital Plan for the growth and development of the staff and the organization itself.
 
One big surprise: I thought I knew a good deal about nonprofits, since I had been president of two of them earlier in my career. But my Encore Fellowship has taught me that there’s a huge difference between a volunteer nonprofit and a business nonprofit like the one I’m at now.
 
A volunteer nonprofit, such as a board of education, has elected officials who act more like volunteers than staffers. A business nonprofit operates much like a for-profit business organizationally except that it doesn’t make a profit. Managers at a business nonprofit such as the Center for Employment Opportunities have the authority that accompanies their responsibilities; ones at volunteer nonprofits don’t.
 
A Big Reward
 
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work as an Encore Fellow has been the fact that I'm able to use my years of experience and intuition about people to help the Center for Employment Opportunities achieve its goals. I’m particularly pleased about how easy it has been to connect with the staff.
 
Talking individually with as many employees as possible was one of my first objectives, and it remains an ongoing goal. I want to explain to them what my role is, to find out what they do, and to hear how they think I might be able to help them and the Center for Employment Opportunities. 
 
I’ve been gratified by the openness of individual staff members, who have confided in me about what they observe at work and about their own goals. It's evident that people trust me — in part, I assume, because of my objectivity. I believe that trust will enable me to succeed during my Encore Fellowship.
 
In the Times article, one Encore Fellow wrote: “I am as active … in fact, more so than 20 years ago … so why would I stop being the person I am …managing, making decisions, solving problems? I just want to do these things in a different context.” 
 
I feel exactly the same way. I haven’t stopped being the person I am either; I’m just operating in a different environment. And it’s great!
 
Louisa B. Hellegers, a former publishing executive, will finish an Encore Fellowship with the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York City later this year. For more information on Encore Fellowships, go to www.encore.org/fellowships.

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