From For-Profit to Nonprofit: Why So Many Execs are Making the Switch?

It’s been an intriguing trend that we’re seeing more and more of these days... executive types leaving their posts in Corporate America to dabble in the nonprofit industry. In fact, some philanthropic foundations have actually been recruiting execs to help nonprofits run more like a business.

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To get a little first-hand perspective about this phenomenon and what’s behind it, I chatted with Dallas-based Teresa Keenan, who spent nearly 30 years in the telecommunications industry before transitioning into the nonprofit sector and choosing to become a executive director instead of retiring. The path that led Teresa here is an interesting one that perhaps other executives who've made the switch can relate to.

A Corporate Background

For the past three decades, Teresa worked in the for-profit world in various positions at Verizon Information Services, formerly known as Bell Atlantic and the GTE Directories Corporation. Over the years she worked in sales and marketing, information services, and general management in over a dozen different roles.

She began considering a career change when it became obvious that the phone industry (i.e. yellow pages and land lines) was a dying industry. When presented with nice retirement package, she decided to take it rather than watch the last pieces of the industry shrivel up and wither away. Teresa took a year and a half off to consider her options, which actually included going back into the corporate world. But during that time, she participated in some endurance events sponsored by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and became intrigued with how the nonprofit world worked.

First Glimpses into the Nonprofit World

Throughout her 30-year career, Teresa donated to philanthropic causes but wasn’t ever able to find much time to volunteer. If you’ve been following our Southwest section, you know this is a huge moment for philanthropy in Dallas. Teresa couldn’t help but notice this too, so she signed up for some classes and networking events to learn more about getting involved.

Related: IP’s Southwest Funding Guide

One of Teresa’s first moves was to sign up with BoardNetUSA, which has been a common route for other executives who’ve taken this path. This is a good resource for individuals looking to join a nonprofit board and organizations who need board members.

An organization in Plano, City House, called Teresa and she ended up joining its board. City House, an emergency home for abused, neglected, and transitional kids, had had struggled through the recession and found themselves without an executive director. Teresa, who quickly fell in love with the organization, stepped into the role pro bono and stayed there for five years.

A Local Need

However, Teresa didn’t stop here when she made the leap from for-profit to non-profit. She’s now stepped into the role of executive director at a brand new nonprofit startup in Dallas called Incarnation House. This organization is targeted at at-risk high schoolers and literally located in Teresa’s own backyard – she lives about three blocks from North Dallas High School. This is a school where over 80 percent of kids are economically disadvantaged, 71 percent of kids are high-risk, and approximately 200 students are homeless.

Incarnation House started as a "drop-in-Friday" program at a church in Uptown Dallas. This neighborhood used to be a run-down and poverty-stricken, but it’s recently developed into a wealthy area following the development of the West Village, DART station, and the park over the freeway. The area is drawing more residents, but has also become known as one of those places where you ship your kids somewhere else to go to school. Despite the recent prosperity, this is a place where kids are still living in shelters, couch-surfing, living in motels, and struggling with basic needs.

Now, Incarnation House is separate 501(c)(3) from the church, and a new center will open in January with computer labs, a kitchen, rec area, art studio, and sound and video studio. It’s mission is to not only fulfill basic needs, but also figure out what kids need to earn a living wage, set life goals, and address issues of mental health, education, college applications, scholarships, and vocational opportunities.

But as with lots of local nonprofits, there will still be a lot of church involvement. Teresa discovered that about 50 percent of volunteers came from churches in Collin County, and there’s a lot of overlap between philanthropy and local churches, especially in terms of volunteering.

For-Profit/Nonprofit Overlap

When I asked Teresa how her corporate background prepared her for nonprofit work, she told me that her general management background prepared her for certain parts and that her sales and marketing background has helped her with fundraising. She says that her financial management and communication skills have also boosted her ability to develop partners and teams.

However, there’s still a big learning curve, which Teresa admits. City House, for example, didn’t have a well-established business end for a while, so she had to spend a lot of time with the program people and avoid making unilateral decisions without their input and knowledge.

What’s Next?

For all nonprofits, securing funding is always the next big step. According to Teresa, Incarnation House is looking at private foundations that are open-minded about start-up organizations, including the Meadows Foundation.

Related: The Lowdown on Meadows’ Local Giving in Texas

Incarnation House got seed money from the board, so it’s really in need of funds to get off the ground, more so than funds for day-to-day operations. Locally-focused funders willing to provide building renovation costs, furniture and supplies, and staffing and volunteer training are the target. Teresa already reached out to the Uptown Association and West Village, who agreed to partner up. And she thinks this is a great cause for potential donors who want to support something right in their own community, especially millennials who are getting more into donating their time and not just money.   

Teresa shared that one donor has pledged a $250,000 matching grant, so the group needs to raise at least that amount by the end of the year. Start-up nonprofits often connect with marketing, PR, and social media specialists to get the word out. Minerva Consulting is launching an Incarnation House campaign in September.

Lessons Learned

When I asked Teresa about what she learned while working in the nonprofit world that she didn’t know before, this is what she said: “I really didn’t know there were so many homeless kids. I didn’t realize how big the issue was. I also learned what a giving community Dallas is in terms of support.”

And when I asked her for her best piece of advice to give other executives interested in making the transition to the nonprofit world, she simply said “Do it.” She says she works just as hard now as she did in Corporate America and puts in about the same number of hours. Sure, the pay is farless, but the rewards are far greater.

“I spent many years feeding shareholders’ pockets, but today I feed my soul,” Teresa said. “If something goes wrong, the next day is always bright because I’m helping others. I didn’t think I’d stay for more than five years, and now I’ve put off retirement for another five years.”