• October 21, 2014

Retired Corporate Lawyer Takes a Leap Into the World of Volunteering

After more than two decades as a financial-services lawyer, I wound down my corporate career in 2006 and happily retired my BlackBerry. For the first time since law school, the demands of a hectic work schedule no longer drowned out two persistent voices long echoing in my head — "Get in shape" and "Give back."

To get in shape, I joined a local gym and began a rigorous workout routine. The following Christmas, finding myself in the best condition of my life, I promptly skied beyond my abilities and tore a knee ligament­ — my first and only skiing injury in more than 40 years of skiing. Fortunately, knee surgery and rehabilitation has alleviated that problem while imparting renewed respect for my limitations.

To give back, I hoped to turn decades of passive check writing for nonprofit groups into vigorous and meaningful participation. While skiing had been a true passion since high school, no single nonprofit cause gripped me with the same fever. I was open to any group with a mission I could endorse that believed it could benefit from my lending a hand.

So where to begin?

Guidance came from the book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career by Herminia Ibarra. A celebrated professor of leadership at Insead, the global graduate business school, Ms. Ibarra offers a simple premise to anyone considering a major life change: Be patient and don't try to reinvent yourself right away.

In her research, she has found that looking for the "perfect opportunity" can lead to frustration as well as inaction. By contrast, people who ultimately succeed in "rewriting" their identity tend to go through a more circuitous process.

Ms. Ibarra recommends taking small steps, or short-term commitments that allow you to make new contacts and learn about a new field — the good, the bad, and the ugly. With each experience, it's a lot easier to fine-tune future plans.

Following her approach, I wrote to Paul Tudor Jones, a former client and hedge-fund pioneer who started the Robin Hood Foundation following the 1987 stock-market crash. That led me to Suzi Epstein, head of Robin Hood's jobs and economic-security portfolio, who encouraged me to meet Plinio Ayala, president of Per Scholas.

Per Scholas, a nonprofit group based in the South Bronx (a mere 25 miles south of my comfortable suburban existence), uses education and technology to break the cycle of poverty. It employs 60 people in the South Bronx. Half are devoted to training unemployed and underemployed individuals as "A+" certified computer technicians and placing graduates in entry-level information-technology jobs that pay a living wage. The others work at a facility that refurbishes end-of-life computers and laptops contributed by New York businesses and nonprofit groups and distributes them free or at an affordable price to students, older people, and low-income families.

Embracing Ms. Ibarra's premise, over lunch with Plinio, I swiftly enlisted for a three-month volunteer stint at Per Scholas to manage its move from a single massive facility into two nearby locations. The project offered a pleasant departure from my former legal career. At the same time, I discovered that as a corporate lawyer, I had absorbed extensive project-management skills from working on complex corporate transactions with many moving parts and parties.

After the move, Plinio and I tailored a continuing role for me — vice president of special projects — a position well suited to my skills and work habits. While I continue to volunteer my time, we have structured it as a staff position, which gives me some authority and presence both within the organization and externally. I work about 25 hours a week, so have the time and flexibility to pursue other interests.

In more than two years at Per Scholas, my projects have varied widely. Working with managers at the organization, I have negotiated a lease and planned a new work-force training center in the South Bronx (scheduled to open next year), revised the group's employee handbook, obtained environmental certification under international standards, compiled a manual on how to expand the program to new locations, and started a Good to Great campaign based on the book of that name by Jim Collins.

By leaping into this work, I emerged with a long-term role supporting the Per Scholas mission that draws on my extensive legal and business skills and, on a personal level, proved deeply gratifying.

About the same time, I sought an international cause to balance my work in the South Bronx. Through a friend, I stumbled upon the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of world poverty. It places small amounts of philanthropic capital in businesses in India, Pakistan, and East Africa that deliver critical goods and services like medical care, water, housing, and energy.

As Acumen's front-line troops are thousands of miles away, active participation proved more daunting. But I persisted.

As a volunteer mentor under the Acumen Fellows program, I assisted one of the fellows, Jon Yates, while he was stationed in Nairobi. Mr. Yates was studying the impact of local farming on the growing of artemisinin, the main building block of a new generation of low-cost anti-malarial treatments.

In my previous career, I had done legal work for several agricultural firms, so was able to retrieve some relevant knowledge and help Jon fashion his analysis of the plight of small farmers in Kenya.

The hardest part about switching to nonprofit work was mastering the ins and outs of a new industry — the vocabulary, the history, the players. For my work at Per Scholas, I had to learn about "sectoral work-force training," which was entirely new to me.

The greatest rewards were the thank-you notes from graduates earning a living wage at information-technology jobs, or students writing papers on their first home computers.

As I continue my work with Per Scholas and Acumen Fund, the voice now says, "Give back more," so I'm constantly on the lookout for new ways to add value to each of their operations.

Along the way, I've reached a few conclusions about joining the nonprofit world:

  • Take the leap. All the preparation in the world might do you more harm than good. When the opportunity to get involved presents itself, give it serious thought but avoid paralyzing analysis. Go with your gut, dive in, and keep experimenting until you find the right opportunity.
  • Consider working with a nonprofit group to structure a high-level volunteer job where you can put your skills to work. Ask for flexible hours if necessary. With my part-time schedule, I am able to take on consulting projects to supplement my income.
  • Pay attention to "culture." Nonprofit groups are as varied and idiosyncratic as businesses. Your prior work provides clues to where you'll be happiest. If small and informal appeals to you, for example, stay away from large, structured organizations.
  • Support the leader. If you hope to participate at a senior level, be sure you admire and respect the person in charge. Nonprofit groups thrive on teamwork, so be prepared to take direction from the leader of the team.
  • Be proud of your gray hair. Your business and financial skills are needed by nonprofit groups. In my nonprofit work, a deep trove of knowledge from over two decades as a business lawyer remains my greatest asset.
  • Manage your expectations. Nonprofit organizations serve people whose needs are enormous and growing. Even so, it can be discouraging to know that billions of people at the bottom of the pyramid survive on less than $2 a day or that almost half of New York City high-school students don't graduate on time or learn enough to earn a living wage. Problems can seem intractable; It can be tempting to throw in the towel and revert to checkbook philanthropy. So judge your contributions by a sensible standard.

Winter is fast approaching, and I have a new knee brace on order. At 53, I look forward to resuming my skiing, more aware of my limitations but no less enthusiastic about the sport. But I'll also continue my work in the nonprofit world, with the satisfying knowledge that my capacity to contribute isn't limited at all.

Gary Rindner is vice president of special projects at Per Scholas, a nonprofit group in the Bronx, N.Y., that uses education and technology to break the cycle of poverty. He can be reached at grindner@optonline.net.

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