After a 30-year-career in human resources, Mike Jacobson began a classic American retirement in Florida. By day, he worked on his golf game, in the evenings he and his wife sat by their pool. Jacobson didn’t give much thought to doing it any other way until the day his wife, Susan, asked him if he ever thought about his legacy.
“She said, ‘We’ve been fortunate, raised our kids, had a good life. Do you ever think about how you want to be remembered?'”
Susan Jacobson began volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity work site in Sarasota, swinging a hammer for the first time in her life. Her stories about how fulfilling the work was inspired her husband. Coincidentally, Mike Jacobson met a Habitat board member who asked him to help on a committee when he learned about Jacobson’s history as a human resources executive at American Express, ATT and other major companies. He soon became the executive director of two affiliates in Florida and then took a job in 2010 as the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Capital District, the first time the board hired someone whose background wasn’t in nonprofit work.
“If there’s one thing I believe in my heart of hearts has enabled us to change the business model and the culture, it was to bring in people who were not from the not-for-profit world but driven people from other sectors,” Jacobson said.
As executive director of a Habitat affiliate, Jacobson, 62, spends a lot of time talking to business leaders about why they should work with the organization.
“We have to turn our mission into a business model and give people something to hold onto to show why it’s good business to be in business with us, how it adds real value, not just ‘It feels good,'” he said.
Doug Sauer, the CEO of the New York Council of Nonprofits, Inc., which offers support, legal and technological aid to not-for-profit groups, said when a nonprofit puts out a job listing, three-quarters of the applicants will be from the business world. Sauer said that, especially during the recession, people who were laid off tried to make the switch to nonprofits. It’s not always a good fit, Sauer said. Applying a business model doesn’t always work, because nonprofits must comply with different laws and regulations and often run on grant money. Sauer said many people from the business world are not prepared for the level of commitment necessary at a nonprofit.
“There may not be an HR department, you might also do the plumbing, and you might have to lick envelopes,” Sauer said.
Jacobson said he’s never worked harder than he does at Habitat, but he loves it. At work sites, he met children whose challenges matched the ones he had growing up. Jacobson shared a bedroom with his brother in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while his parents slept on a pullout couch. Jacobson’s experiences have changed him. If he’d known as a young man what he knows now, his life would have had a different direction, he said.
“My advice for young folks is always find your passion as soon as you can, don’t wait until you’re my age. Start setting a path, and by the time you get to my age you will have done so much more.”
Denise DiNoto, a communications and outreach specialist for Consumer Directed Choices Inc., sought a job at a nonprofit because she wanted to help people. At her previous job at the Department of Health, she did too much of what she called “cubicle work” — paper-pushing and screen time. She found an opening at the agency that provided her with support instrumental to allowing her to live independently. DiNoto, 40, has a form of muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. Consumer Directed Choices is funded by Medicaid, and it is designed to allow senior citizens and people who have disabilities to choose their own caretakers and the kind of assistance they need, when they want it. Instead of a nursing agency making the decisions, the person receiving the care makes the decisions. DiNoto has a personal assistant come to her home to help her bathe, eat, dress and shower. DiNoto believes strongly in the mission and loves the part of her job that involves outreach and explaining what the nonprofit does.
“I am the CEO of me, and CDC pays the bill,” DiNoto said.
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