I spent the last 20 years of my career as the chief strategist of the Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (INPEx). We were a small, for-profit marketing company that had gigantic clients
(Pfizer, Nestle, J&J, etc.) for whom we created mutually beneficial partnerships with nonprofits — specifically nonprofits that had broad networks of local chapters.
We designed and managed programs that worked to sell more of the for-profit company’s products, and delivered bottom-line benefits to the nonprofit partners. “Buy this product, and you are supporting this cause that you care about.”
The nonprofits were most often hundreds of totally independent groups, such as local humane society animal shelters, that were otherwise considered unmanageable, and even scary, for marketing companies to work with. (Sometimes, we facilitated strategic plans for huge nonprofits, to make them better business partners for their corporate sponsors.)
Our special ingredient was to give the charity chapters digital tools that equipped them to promote the for-profit company’s brands to the charity’s loyal constituents. We created marketable channels of consumer influence … out of chaos. We pioneered the use of Salesforce CRM to do this. In the case of animal shelters, we saved millions of pets’ lives.
Sounds great, right? It was. It was extremely gratifying, and lucrative, for everyone. Win — win — win. We harnessed the capitalist engine for good!
How did this all come about for me? When I look at it from the benefit of hindsight, it gives the impression that it was a nice tidy plan. It wasn’t.
When I graduated from Hamilton I was totally directionless. So I was a golf caddy for rich ladies in the Hamptons while living in a shack. Then I spent the better part of a year hanging out in the desert Arab world – living for free in the hospitable arms of Islam. Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Turkey.
Back in the good old USA I got a very unsatisfying job, and then went to business school and got an MBA. I learned absolutely nothing in “B School.” But, I had learned how to write and present, at Hamilton. With my MBA working as a sort of union card, I joined a succession of top-flight marketing companies (Pepsico; Con Agra; Grey Advertising). I stood apart from my peers, largely because I COULD WRITE, and they couldn’t!!! I kept getting promoted.
Then one Sunday I was sitting in church, listening to a sermon on how to intentionally live a good life, and I looked around the sanctuary and saw my fellow congregants who worked at great NGOs and nonprofits with inspiring missions, and I thought, “Jeepers, I just spent the last fifteen years selling sugary soft drinks, highly processed red meat, and ready-to-eat cereal to bazillions of people.”
I had to find a more wholesome purpose. So I took a year off to learn how to create meaningful work, instead of “getting a job.” * It was really scary, and for a long time, it felt like I was going nowhere.
Then I tripped over the guy I would create INPEx with. He had already started to develop the concept, but I immediately saw its potential. I was “all in.” We built something really special.
We cold-called our way in to see marketing leaders at Fortune 100 companies and showed them how they could build their sales while doing good. It was a story. It was a vision. We showed them a place they had never been to before. No one had ever been there. My Hamilton training — in storytelling — made all the difference.
That’s my story. Do I now have advice? I humbly offer these guideposts that served me well.
Career paths are messy: Just keep your eyes and ears and your heart open so that when the right opportunity knocks, you will see it and feel it. If the unfolding path includes the sense that you ought to caddy for rich ladies or hang out with Bedouin, go with it. See where it takes you.
Be lucky: Be grateful that Hamilton taught you to do critical analysis, and write, and to present your ideas and stories – that made all the difference for me. I was also lucky to have my wife Cris — she was a graphic designer who doubled her workload to pay the bills so I could take that year off to search for meaningful work.
Diversify: I learned a long time ago that there are five kinds of work that make a whole person thrive.* Your professional work; the work you give away pro-bono; community work; homestead work; and the personal health work you do to keep your body and spirit strong.
Along the way, I was a volunteer firefighter; on the governing board of a church; an elected trustee of the town I lived in; cleaned my own gutters, and mowed the lawn, and shoveled the drive; practiced yoga (I sub teach these days); am the president of my Hamilton alumni class; and president of the board of a homeless shelter. Exercising all these kinds of work keeps your career work informed and fresh, and less intense.
Have Fun: Laugh a lot. Especially at yourself. I had a governing rule when making resource allocation decisions: “If it ain’t fun … I ain’t interested.” Try it.
* Highly recommended resource: Rick Jarow, “Creating the Work You Love” http://www.rickjarow.com/