Finding Your Purpose by Helping Nonprofits in the Pandemic
3 who are doing it and how you can, too
Two years ago, Edgar Maxion, 54, stepped away from his position as chief facilities officer at Stanford University. After more than two decades in facilities and construction management, he was burned out. "I was doing eight projects at once," he said. "I wasn't seeing straight. I couldn't even sleep at night."
But he wasn't ready to retire. "In my heart of hearts, I wanted to be in a position where I felt like I was helping someone, as opposed to just getting a paycheck," Maxion said. "I'm thinking: 'How do I help if all I only know about is building systems?"
"I had a lot to contribute and this organization wanted my skills."
While exploring job and volunteering postings on the nonprofit job site Idealist, he discovered Encore.org (a nonprofit that taps the skills and experience of people in midlife and beyond) and its 11-year-old Encore Fellowships program. That program matches skilled professionals looking to transition their skills to assist social sector organizations. They generally do it full-time for six months or part-time for twelve months, earning a stipend of $25,000 for 1,000 hours.
"Encore Fellowships were created as a way to re-engage adults who had retired or been displaced from their previous jobs, providing them with a way to use their experience and earn a modest income while giving back," said Jim Emerman, Encore's vice president and national director of Encore Fellowships.
Boy, has the last year accelerated the need for programs like this one.
And Encore Fellows like Maxion, Harriette Cole and David Pfeifer, featured below, have been finding novel, meaningful ways to assist nonprofits during COVID-19.
"The job loss and social isolation during the pandemic has increased the number of older people looking for both work and purpose," Emerman said. "Simultaneously, nonprofits have never been hungrier for affordable strategic guidance. It's a win-win situation that will, hopefully, allow many seasoned professionals to pivot into the social sector and continue using their experience to drive social and environmental progress long beyond COVID times."
Since the program started, more than 1,200 nonprofits have tapped the skills of nearly 2,000 Encore Fellows. The pandemic has seen 133 Encore Fellows assisting 111 nonprofits.
Edgar Maxion: Making an Emergency Assistance Agency COVID-19 Friendly
After Maxion filled out his application and met with an Encore counselor, he was matched with Sunnyvale Community Services (SCS), a Silicon Valley emergency assistance agency working to prevent hunger and homelessness. SCS wanted an Encore Fellow to manage the overhaul of a multimillion-dollar warehouse property the group had recently purchased. It was a perfect fit.
A month into Maxion's fellowship, the pandemic hit and his assignment, by necessity, turned into a full-time facilities managing job.
"While I was still trying to project manage this construction project, that actually fell off the wayside," Maxion said. "The construction industry shut down for a bit, and rightfully so. Clients needed more help and SCS employees needed a safe space to work."
Maxion retrofitted SCS' 12,000-square-foot space for social distancing. He and his team fine-tuned the HVAC to increase outside air, bumped up janitorial service, bought personal protective equipment for the nonprofit's essential workers, adjusted space allocations for social distancing and established building response procedures after discovering that COVID-19 had spread among staff.
In July 2020, Maxion's fellowship led to a full-time job overseeing the new 36,000-square-foot building renovation. The biggest reward: "It's a joy to help establish formats for the organization that will help them in the long run."
Harriette Cole: Using Her Essence at AARP
For Harriette Cole, 59, an Encore Fellowship with AARP to help the mammoth organization for people 50+ develop relationships with Black talent for live events was a natural segue.
Cole, who lives in New York City, has held editorial leadership roles at Essence and Ebony magazines and spent years coaching recording artists about public speaking, including Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Oscar-nominated Andra Day. Cole has written seven books and runs DreamLeapers, a coaching platform helping people make life transitions.
When her longtime friend, Encore.org board member Lester Strong, heard that AARP was looking for someone to help it grow its presence in the African American community by leveraging live events and accessing Black celebrity talent, he reached out to Cole.
Her biggest concern: Can I commit the time? "Some people who participate in the Fellowship are retired or between jobs," Cole said. "I was going. But it felt right. I had a lot to contribute and this organization wanted my skills."
Cole started her fellowship on March 9, 2020. "What I was supposed to be doing was helping to find talent for three huge music festivals that AARP was sponsoring," she said. "Then the whole world shut down, so there were no more festivals. The Encore team asked AARP if they wanted to put my fellowship on hold."
The answer was no. AARP decided to make a huge pandemic pivot and create an hour-long broadcast called "Real Conversations with AARP" through the group's Black Community Facebook page. Cole designed it, hosted and helped launch the hour-long talk show in June 2020 with guests including author and fashion journalist André Leon Talley, OWN's "Fix My Life" host Iyanla Van Zant and singer/writer/producer Anthony Hamilton.
"I started my career at Essence, which is the biggest Black publication in the country. I was there for eleven years and learned how to develop stories and interview talent. I developed a broad base of contacts there. So, doing an on-air broadcast is easy for me," said Cole.
In August, after her Encore Fellowship ended, AARP asked Cole to stay on as a temporary staffer working as a multimedia producer for diversity, equity and inclusion. She agreed.
She has had to learn some things along the way, like "a new kind of patience," Cole said. "Because I've been an entrepreneur since 1995, working with a company as large as AARP is completely different for me. In this case, I became part of a team and a very large organization that has systems and protocols; I had to learn how to follow those."
Cole noted that the Fellowship and the AARP job that followed have given her a new approach to work.
"When you come from an entrepreneurial background, you're boots on the ground and you do whatever it takes," Cole said. "You make things happen fast and almost by any means necessary. To then go and work in an organization that has thousands of employees and is hierarchical, you have to figure out how to navigate that. That was probably the hardest thing for me."
David Pfeifer: Finding Purpose Without Being the CEO
David Pfeifer, 60, is well acquainted with the entrepreneurial mindset. He had a successful career running small and medium-sized businesses. Two and a half years ago, after selling his last business (an online apparel company), Pfeifer was trying to decide what to do next.
His wife mentioned an article she'd read about Encore.org and urged him to check it out. That's as far as it went, until…
"I used to be the technology guy, but all of a sudden now, it's the younger folks in the office who were taking the lead."
"I was called in for grand jury duty and assigned to be the jury foreman," Pfeifer said. "I was about a week into it and I found I was really looking forward to going down to grand jury duty. I thought: 'Why am I enjoying doing this? Because, clearly, it's not about the money.'"
When he dug down, Pfeifer realized it was the grand jury's sense of purpose that appealed to him. "I thought maybe I don't have to run a company in my next job," he said.
After jury duty wrapped up, Pfeifer circled back to Encore.org and decided to apply to its Fellowship program. It wasn't an easy skate.
"I found the application process and the questions they asked fascinating," he said. "It's more than just: 'Here's my résumé and I'm a smart, smart person, hire me.' The questions asked: 'What do you want to do? Why do you want to do this? What would you enjoy? What environments do you like? What can you contribute?' The application took on its own life in my mind. You really have to think about those questions."
Then, Encore connected him with several organizations for interviews. It was Futures and Options, a nonprofit career development and paid internship program for New York City youth in underserved communities, that clicked.
"I knew how important an internship job was to my son when he got it and how much that meant to him," he said. "I can only imagine looking through the eyes of other kids in New York who maybe don't have the level of support he had and how great it would be to be part of something that could possibly make something like that happen for them."
The match wasn't a slam-dunk, though.
"I met with the executive director a couple of times. I met with her whole team after that," said Pfeifer. "They got to look at me and I got to look at them."
Ultimately, Futures and Options and Pfeifer realized they were made for each other.
Pfeifer started his fellowship in January 2020 as an operations manager, primarily responsible for handling payroll for the group's 20 full-time employees plus over 200 student summer interns, as well as managing other bookkeeping duties, such as billing and benefits. "I was working on the gears behind the operation, so the staff can go out and work with students," he said.
The pandemic meant transitioning the group to electronic financial transactions and some reciprocal mentoring, where Pfeifer would learn from younger employees and they'd learn from him.
"I used to be the technology guy, but all of a sudden now, it's the younger folks in the office who were taking the lead. They're much more familiar with remote calendars and scheduling. I've learned more from them," he said.
When the fellowship ended in September, Pfeifer accepted a full-time job with the organization and is now its director of finance and administration. "The biggest reward is that the nonprofit's work is making a difference in getting high school kids internships," Pfeifer said. "If you want to address inclusiveness and diversity in the workforce, you've got to start out with getting kids in the workforce and giving them the support."
Pfeifer's decision to become an employee, rather than a job somewhere as the top executive, fascinates me. It reminded me of what I so often hear when I interview or meet with people over 50 looking to get back in the workplace.
"I realized that one of the things that was becoming less appealing to me at this point in my career was being the CEO," Pfeifer said. "At this point, I had come to realize that I would be a really good support to a CEO, because I've walked in their shoes. I know what that's like. I'm also not afraid of rolling up my sleeves."
His advice to others thinking about making a similar switch: "It's important to bring your opinions in, because that's what they're hiring you for. And it's important to bring those skills that you have in, because that's what they've hired you for. But be sensitive, or strategic, on how you do that, especially during the learning part of it. Because there is a lot to learn before you run too strong in any direction."
My 4 Tips to Switch to Nonprofit Work
And now four tips from me about transitioning from the corporate to the nonprofit world during the pandemic:
Look for an organization whose mission you're zealous about. Search for volunteering prospects at AARP's Create the Good and Volunteer Match.Or seek out nonprofits that need your expertise through Taproot Foundation or Executive Service Corps-US.
The nonprofit Bridgespan also runs an online job board for nonprofit positions. And Idealist has a searchable database of volunteer and paid positions. Also, Catchafire is a good source for volunteering for professionals.
The federal government's RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) — one of the largest volunteer networks in the nation for people 55 and over — has a deep-rooted interview vetting process to help make the volunteer effort a success for both parties.
Investigate local nonprofit matchmakers. Many big cities and states have connectors for volunteer opportunities. For example, there's Spark the Change Colorado and NYC Service in New York City.
Look for places that let you interview before committing. A conversation with a nonprofit manager can give you a feeling for the group's program and needs so you can assess the fit.
Opt for a short-term assignment. Then, if you're not finding the volunteering rewarding, graciously move on.