A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits
John Armstrong would seem the perfect “bridger”—someone with a potent private sector resume, a lifelong commitment to public service, and the desire to become a dynamic leader in the nonprofit sector.
An MBA, Armstrong spent nearly two decades at Hewlett-Packard (HP) in various management roles, accumulating experience in finance, marketing, and strategy. At the same time, a powerful public service thread extended throughout his career–from West Point to leadership roles in the Army to a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in eastern Europe.
After retiring from HP in his early 50s, Armstrong took on a number of volunteer commitments, including tutoring at a charter school for low-income kids, serving with Habitat for Humanity, and volunteering at the Alliance for Climate Protection. These explorations helped him hone an interest in environmental education and left him wanting to do more.
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Like millions of other baby boomers, Armstrong gave up thoughts of retirement to launch an encore career that amounts to a kind of practical idealism, combining the necessity of a longer working life with the spirit of service. Last year a national survey by Civic Ventures found that as many as eight million boomers were already in “encore careers,” combining continued income, new meaning, and social impact, and that fully half of those who hadn’t already done so were interested in moving down this path.
As Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits underscores, this impulse comes at just the right time, given the profound need for talent in the nonprofit sector today. The crucial challenge will be in helping those who want encore careers move from aspiration to action.
To be sure, some will be able to do so through well-designed matching services and job boards. But others will need to adapt or upgrade skills. To meet this latter group halfway, we will need to bolster the bridge from midlife careers to significant service careers in the second half of life.
Fortunately, there are signs of promising new pathways. For example, a growing number of community colleges and continuing education programs around the country have developed expedited, inexpensive one-stop programs aimed at helping boomers retool for encore careers in the social sector. Given the prevalence of these colleges and programs in virtually every community in the country, the prospects for expansion are heartening. Alongside new forms of education, we’re witnessing the emergence of new kinds of training opportunities—fellowships and other midlife internships—with the potential to expose bridgers to nonprofit culture while exposing organizations to a new source of talent.
Just a few months ago, Armstrong joined the Silicon Valley Encore Fellowship program, where he was placed in a one-year role at Environmental Volunteers, helping bolster the group’s outreach and communications capacity—and helping him bolster his resume in the nonprofit world. He hopes the year will be the springboard to a new body of work. (Thanks to new national service legislation signed in April 2009, federally-funded Encore Fellowships will be available to aging boomers in all 50 states next year.)
These new pathways can help turn a growing well of interest in encore careers into a windfall of time, talent, and experience for nonprofits. And, given the sector’s upcoming needs, not a moment too soon.