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So You Want To Run a Nonprofit

Ever dream of giving back by working your day job? Here’s what it takes

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by Teresa Dumain

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More than 1.5 million tax-exempt nonprofit organizations operate in the U.S., according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Meet one baby boomer who, at age 58, crossed over from a for-profit executive position to run one of them.

Joseph Abely's current job: President of The Carroll Center for the Blind, a nonprofit agency in Newton, Massachusetts

His previous jobs: Two years as President and CEO of CaseSight, a legal services company; more than 18 years prior as Chairman and CEO of LoJack, a stolen vehicle recovery system

What prompted the switch to nonprofit: Circumstance and timing: After many years consumed in his work, Abely was looking to take a breath. "I came to a stage in my life when I wanted a little more time to myself." He had held a seat on the board of directors for the Carroll Center for about six years when he took over as interim director, and was then asked to stay on as president. "What the Carroll Center does for people, and helps people do for themselves, was a big part of what drove me to take the job." In 2011, he sold his company and accepted the job. 

The people his center serves: The nonprofit is known for helping people who lost vision in adulthood regain their independence, both at home and in the workplace, through vocational programs, education and technology training, transitional assistance and support. "We want to help them do what they did before they lost their sight," explains Abely. The organization also works with blind or visually-impaired school-age children and the elderly.

Challenges he expected: There's not a lot of government funding, so raising money is an aspect that of course can be tough, says Abely. Every day, he learns more about how to work with legislators and federal agencies, for example; as well as bringing on the right people to help get that part of the job done—same as you would in a for-profit company.

Differences he didn't: There's a certain lack of control that you need to get used to, says Abely. Any business has a sales funnel: you go out, prospect consumers, qualify them, and sell to them. In nonprofits and especially in the disability world, referrals and the services provided are subject to government funding. Furthermore, when you're selling something, there are aspects of the product you can address, fix or even change. At a nonprofit, that’s just the beginning: "Here, everything can be right, but you still need to fight for funding," he says.

What it takes to run a nonprofit: Patience and good employees. Being patient took a little practice: "Profit motivation isn't there, so any sense of urgency is directed at serving the constituents," explains Abely, an admittedly impatient person who realized he needed a softer approach, which came with experience. “I learned a long time ago that you are only as good as the people around you,” he says. At the Carroll Center, he struck gold: "The managers and staff are unbelievable. I'm not a clinician, I can't do the work they do, and it's important to know that. So I rely on them, and I learn from them."

Why the move was worth it: "It's all about the mission and the people," say Abely. "Can I get paid more in the private sector? Yes. But I get paid competitively and what I make works for me. I still work hard every day, but I take vacations and I have my weekends. And I feel lucky that at this point in my career, I can still add value, and also give back. And when I go to bed at the end of the day, I feel good."


Photo Credits Dice: istockphoto, Blind person: E+/Getty