Head, Heart and Hands: My Transition to a Fulfilling Life in Non-Profit

After 27 rewarding years in the worlds of accounting, finance and investment banking, I switched gears to become Executive Vice President of MEOR, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and empowering Jewish students at top universities across the United States. Many of my friends and colleagues thought that I was out of my mind to make such a sudden and drastic change, but my decision to change course was anything but sudden or drastic.

Just over eight years ago, MEOR’s Chairman of the Board, a business contact of mine, approached me, urging me to get involved with the organization. I was immediately intrigued because MEOR reminded me of my own struggle during my college years at The George Washington University.

As a student, I was eager to learn and understand more about my Jewish identity and plot the course for a life that included sustained personal growth. I grappled with the role that spirituality would play in my life long-term, what values I would hold dear, and what kind of family I would want to raise. Unfortunately, there weren’t many answers to be found on campus, and it took me years of exploration to find the clarity I required (ultimately culminating in my Aliyah to Israel at the age of 25).

MEOR represents the Jewish empowerment resource that I sought out during my college years, and it is thrilling to think that I can have a hand helping today’s Jewish youth avoid the same anguished struggle.  But that alone didn’t seal the deal for me.

It was all about the passion.

For five years, I served as an advisor and consultant to the organization, leveraging my years of experience with investors to improve donor relationships. Much like the numerous start-ups and venture capital funds that I worked tirelessly to help fund, I saw an energy surrounding MEOR that was exciting.  The drive and dedication of the organization’s founders was inspirational…and contagious.

Powered by passion, my volunteer consulting gig took on a life of its own. I was spending so many hours working with MEOR, that I needed to figure out a way justify it to my partners in the banking business. And then one day, it hit me.

I was far more in love with MEOR than I was with my banking business, and thanks to my unique skills and experience, I could help MEOR run like a business (no longer a non-profit or a start-up). So, I accepted an invitation to join the organization full-time to do just that.

I’m often asked if the transition has been difficult and what it means to me. In response, I would break it down as follows:

Head – After more than two decades of high-profile work with investment capital, I needed to be sure that my new path would not only keep me motivated but also intellectually stimulated day after day.  From the outset, I knew that the work would be tremendously challenging – there was no question that raising funds to provide promising Jewish leaders with the ultimate platform for Jewish community, continuity, and connectivity would keep me on my toes.  But when I became a full-fledged member of the team, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how fulfilling the endeavor is on a cerebral level.  Managing entirely different kinds of “futures,” I find myself thinking at a whole new level.

Heart – Though I always enjoyed my craft, it was the ability to work towards the “greater good” on a daily basis that really drew me to the world of non-profit.  While consulting for MEOR, I got a taste of the positive power that pervades the life of non-profit professionals, and I wanted to feel that empowerment all the time.  Truthfully, many of my tasks remain the same – there is no shortage of phone calls, meetings, strategy sessions, and e-mails.  However, now that I work toward strengthening Jewish peoplehood, even the most mundane tasks have been transformed into uplifting and life-altering work.  Don’t get me wrong – slogging through a mountain of e-mails will always be difficult.  But with every other e-mail chronicling how our programming is changing the lives of Jewish students, the work stands as a constant reminder of its own importance, grabbing you by the heart and pulling you ever forward.

Hands – What surprised me most about my transition into non-profit is the pace of business.  Coming from the world of investment banking, which is known as a fast-paced and demanding industry, I was amazed by the time demands and unrelenting tempo of my non-profit work.  But the parallels end there, as non-profits also necessitate a truly unique hands-on approach, rolling up your sleeves and becoming personally involved in every aspect of the organization.  It’s not micromanagement; it’s the nature of the beast.  Even with the world’s best non-profit staff (which we have at MEOR), an organization cannot simply rely on the delegation of tasks.  While everyone has their own tasks to perform, they also need to be mindful of everything that their team members are doing at all times to ensure that the organization is putting its best foot forward, living up to its mandate and mission, and appropriately thanking donors, partners, team members and volunteers for their individual contributions.  It’s a heightened – and more meaningful – version of the hand holding that I remember from the world of finance.  We’re not just raising and spending money; we’re changing the world.

Diving head first into the world of non-profit was the best business decision I have ever made.  It’s one that pays dividends every day in the form of fulfillment, pride, and passion.

About the Author
Debra Kodish is the executive vice president of MEOR, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and empowering a new generation of young Jewish leaders on top US college campuses. Prior to joining MEOR, Debra was a founding partner of Keshet Advisors and Kodish Capital.
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