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Chucking the Corporate Life to Do Good

How, and why, these three have switched to nonprofit work and are glad they did

By Chris Farrell

In the quest to rethink and reimagine the second half of life, growing numbers of professionals, white-collar workers and highly skilled trade people are making the transition to the nonprofit sector. And they're often delighted about it.

Two men with their arms around each other, smiling. Next Avenue, nonprofit jobs work, corporate
Corporate refugee turned nonprofit worker Dean Kephart with former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak  |  Credit: Dean Kephart

I talked to two of them recently about this — Donna Svendsen and Dean Kephart of the Twin Cities in Minnesota — and just read a terrific, personal book on the subject by another, Lucy Kellaway.

Like others switching from the corporate to the nonprofit world in their 50s and 60s, they're using their accumulated skills and knowledge, have sufficient financial resources to consider a lower paying encore career and are healthy.  

I thought I'd share their insights about why they've made their transitions, how they've done them and advice they have for others considering making similar moves.

From General Mills and Target to the Nonprofit World

Svendsen, 61, and Kephart, 68, had long careers at General Mills and Target, respectively. They were surrounded by colleagues they liked there and enjoyed their jobs, plus perks from onsite dry cleaning to meeting celebrities. Yet in their late 50s and early 60s, Svendsen and Kephart found themselves at a crossroads.

In their late 50s and early 60s, Svendsen and Kephart found themselves at a crossroads.

They both realized it was time to do something that better reflected their personal passion. Each landed at different times with Serve Minnesota, a nonprofit that invests AmeriCorps resources in the state. (AmeriCorps is a federally funded national service umbrella program; participants work in education, antipoverty and other community initiatives in exchange for a modest stipend and educational benefits.)

Svendsen had worked as associate director for the General Mills foundation. Her job largely focused on establishing connections with small local nonprofits. In 2014 and 2015, General Mills, maker of Cheerios, Betty Crocker and other iconic food brands underwent a strategic review and the foundation began focusing more on global sustainable agriculture. That change was smart considering the company's businesses and global operations, says Svendsen. But the new mandate didn't inspire her.

"My passion is around local community giving," she says. "I see myself as a connector."

So, at 56, Svendsen took early retirement from General Mills in 2016. She would tell people that she was "doing me, my home, my life and getting back to who I am."

A Coffee Meeting Leads to a New Job

Eventually, a mutual friend put Svendsen in touch with Kephart, who was Serve Minnesota's vice president of insight and change. They met at a coffee shop, and before long, Svendsen unretired and joined the organization as its full-time strategic outreach director.

A woman standing cheek-to-cheek with a horse in a barn.Next Avenue, nonprofit jobs work, corporate
Donna Svendsen found a way to follow her passion at a nonprofit  |  Credit: Jim Svendsen

Kephart's story parallels Svendsen's in many respects. As senior group manager at Target, he was involved in the company's charitable investments in education locally and nationally. Current CEO Brian Cornell took charge in 2014, deciding the company's community outreach would center around health and wellness. Kephart applauded the focus, but his community conscience lay elsewhere.

"My passion is education," he says. "It was a message to me: I'm old enough, and have been here long enough, to take early retirement."

Kephart notes that his current income at Serve Minnesota has allowed him to delay taking Social Security, which will boost his benefits once he does file.

Svendsen advises others considering leaving corporate life for nonprofit life in midlife to first run the numbers. "Can you take a pay cut? And how can you manage that," she says. "My husband and I looked at the books and said, 'Yes, we can do this.'"


Many of the reflections from Svendsen and Kepart echo the views of journalist turned nonprofit founder Kellaway, who's 62, in her book  "Re-educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband & my hair."

Making a Whole Lot of Switches in Midlife

As you can tell from the eyebrow-raising title, Kellaway went through many more shifts than the typical switcher. Nevertheless, her thoughtful telling of her encore story with all its twists and unexpected moments is far more useful for anyone contemplating a midlife transition than many how-to books.

Like Svendsen and Kephart, Kellaway had status and success in her previous job; she was a longtime columnist for The Financial Times, specializing in skewering management pretensions. At the FT, Kellaway writes, she was surrounded by terrific colleagues. Yet beginning in her early 50s, she found herself growing restless following the death of her mother and, much later, the passing of her father.

"We will show that it is possible, desirable and perfectly natural for people to start again in the 50s — not just as teachers but as anything at all."

Kellaway, too, realized it was time to make a radical change. She decided to become a teacher like her mother had been and to start a nonprofit providing a path for older professionals to become teachers.

"We will show that it is possible, desirable and perfectly natural for people to start again in the 50s — not just as teachers but as anything at all," she says in her book.

So, at 57 in 2016, Kellaway quit the job she had loved for 32 years (although she still periodically writes columns for the FT); amicably divorced her husband; bought a new home in desperate need of repairs; co-founded against the odds the nonprofit Now Teach; eventually became a teacher of economics to teens in one of the poorer parts of London and stopped dying her hair.

Here's my main takeaway from interviewing Svendsen and Kephart and reading Kellaway's book: What they share is passion, curiosity and a willingness to keep learning.

'Keep Yourself Vital and Curious'

For example, teaching in a school with students from families living on low incomes helps Kellaway gain an understanding of the many privileges that helped shape her success. She finds herself confronting the realities of racism and recognizes the power of implicit bias.

Book cover of, 'Re-educated' by Lucy Kellaway. Next Avenue, nonprofit jobs work, corporate

Kephart's advice: "Keep yourself vital and curious and you can avoid the ageist trap. Don't let ageism become a barrier."

We still don't have good catchphrases that quickly capture the encore career stage of life. Retirement? No. Reinvention? Not really. A time for re-education won't work, either, but the insight is spot on. As Kellaway puts in her book's last paragraph:

"I entirely accept the ruling of my friends and family that I have hopelessly failed to reinvent myself, but inside I feel different. I now see what should have been obvious all along — what changed is not my character but my experiences. I am immersed in a new world that feels a long way from my old one. Though I have not been reinvented, what has happened is just as radical and a lot more interesting. I am being re-educated."

Her words sum up the countless stories I've heard and the many columns you've read at Next Avenue about people looking for purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life. Yes, change is coming too slowly. But the transition is inexorable, with more and more experienced workers embracing their version of re-education.   

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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