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Can your passion have a purpose?

Finding meaningful work in the nonprofit sector


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In a recent New York Times Magazine article, author Charles Duhigg described the general malaise permeating his 15th Harvard Business School reunion. Despite achieving lofty career success, many former classmates "weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives — in fact, they were miserable." This small, elite sample reflects a broader longing for more, much more, from work.

Millennials are at the forefront of seeking purpose at work. According to Gallup, the emphasis for this generation has switched from paycheck to purpose. And millennials are not alone. A Stanford University-led study estimates that 34 million Americans over the age of 50 are actively dedicating themselves to contributing to the greater good, to "making their corner of the world a better place."

Mark Twain wrote: "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." Discovering our WHY is driving more and more business professionals, like myself, to begin a second career defined by purpose.

My transition — from portfolio manager at Janus Funds to social entrepreneur helping individuals become self-sufficient — often sparks questions about how I went from investing in stocks to investing in people. One common theme is that I'm still on the hunt for unspotted potential — in search of undervalued and overlooked talent rather than companies. But the real answer is that I have a passion for moving people from poverty to prosperity and I wanted to activate that passion.

Almost weekly, a successful professional asks me for tips on making the shift from a for-profit job to a for-purpose job. Here are some lessons about I’ve learned during my journey that may prove helpful to others seeking a similar change:

Define your passion

Discover what part of the world you want to change. What moves you to tears? What excites you? You might have a variety of causes that call to you and narrowing your interests is an important process. I’ve been interested in helping people move out of poverty since my early 20s. But only after learning more about various models of poverty alleviation —through education, orphanages, schools, micro-finance in developing countries and through traditional urban poverty relief programs — was I able to realize that my passion was moving people out of poverty permanently, not simply alleviating the condition of poverty.

Start by volunteering and giving

See if you're happy committing time, treasure and talent on a sacrificial level before making the leap. Meaningful volunteer experience will also boost your resume, aiding your transition. I began writing small checks, then making larger gifts before finally volunteering for anti-poverty programs.

Do your homework

Before committing, research the issue, the solutions and the various players. When I wanted to dive into poverty alleviation, I asked Jeff Johnson, the founder of Mile High Ministries and a Denver thought leader on urban poverty, for a recommended reading list. I read over a dozen books on the root causes of poverty.

Find the right entry point

For example, if you're an accountant, look to gain entry through the financial end of a nonprofit. If you're a marketing professional, look for a marketing opportunity in your desired field.

Expect to work long hours for less pay

You're not looking financial rewards. Enjoy the non-monetary reward of being fulfilled. I've been surprised by how much joy I experience as we activate and witness life transformation. I knew that helping others would be gratifying; I just didn't expect to be so contagiously happy. There is nothing more satisfying than watching someone's potential unfurl before your eyes.

Prepare for roadblocks and setbacks

You're not moving to Neverland. Be creative about problem-solving and remember that you can't effect change overnight. In my own venture, I've had to bring my A game. My willingness to research and understand the landscape and then innovate and execute a solution has been crucial to our success. Honestly, this has been as hard as it has been fulfilling — even my adult kids tell me I need more work-life balance.

Pursuing a purpose-driven career isn’t always the easiest path to follow, but it is a road well worth traveling.

About Helen Young Hayes: Helen Young Hayes is the Founder and CEO of Activate Workforce Solutions. Prior to activating her passion for unleashing talent, Helen was Chief Investment Officer and fund manager at the Janus Funds. She brings the same passion and dedication of investing in and discovering the potential of companies to investing in and discovering the potential of underserved men and women.

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