Leaps and Bounds
Three professionals’ journeys from the for-profit to nonprofit world
Photography by Alex Stafford
GIVING UP A HIGH-POWER OCCUPATION TO WORK for an underfunded community nonprofit seems like a serious career stretch. To some, it may seem impossible. To others, a little crazy.
Rarely is it a first-choice profession. But a single, definitive moment in a person’s life can change his or her entire definition of success.
Suddenly, achievement becomes less about monetary gain and more about making a difference. It could be by helping someone spend the last days of his or her life with comfort and dignity, giving a teen in dire living conditions the educational tools he or she needs to excel, or assisting a child who has slipped through society’s cracks rediscover his or her self-worth.
Gulfshore Business met with three seasoned professionals who spent successful years in for-profit industries before diving into the nonprofit realm for a deeper sense of fulfillment. Here are their stories.
A VOW TO HELP OTHERS: JEFF MCMANUS
JEFF MCMANUS SAT WITH HIS AILING FRIEND IN hospice each week leading up to the last few moments of his life. At visit’s end, each step McManus took away from Avow’s critical care unit was one step closer to the inevitable farewell he’d soon bid his companion.
Flooded with heartache, McManus found some solace in the manner in which his friend was being cared for.
“In some part, at least, [my friend] was able to maintain a joyful attitude because of the incredible care he received … and I just thought that was so remarkable,” McManus recalls. “It was the only exposure I had to hospice and I thought, ‘this has got to be a really special place.’”
That was in 2012. McManus couldn’t have known that by year’s end, he would join Avow as vice president of advancement.
At the time, he was the senior individual and planned giving officer at Ave Maria University—a job that had come unexpectedly, as well, and the start of McManus’ transition from the for-profit world to a more philanthropic one.
He had made the leap in 2008 from owning a successful real estate law and estate-planning practice in Traverse City, Michigan, to joining Ave Maria, after much cajoling by its founding team members (whom he met through a series of discussion forums held in Michigan when the school was still located there).
“I was very happy in law. I had absolutely no desire to change. I hadn’t been looking for a change. It was totally an odd set of circumstances,” McManus says with a laugh. But the offer was too good to refuse. For a while he felt content helping bright-eyed youth obtain scholarships and securing funds to support the Catholic university’s mission. Until another opportunity arose to help people in a different stage of their lives.
When McManus got wind of a similar leadership position in late 2012 at Avow, the positive feelings he had about the organization that served his friend earlier that year resurfaced. A meeting with Avow board members and senior management charmed him further.
“It was the most incredible culture I had ever been exposed to in a business setting,” McManus recalls. “It was clear that their mission was totally based on the patients and the families and care that was needed to provide for them.”
McManus, now a part of that leadership team, reflects the same goodhearted attitude he admires in colleagues. It’s evident in his deep relationships with Avow donors and his tendency to still get emotional in the presence of campus benches dedicated to people who have passed while in the organization’s care. “Philanthropy work is not easy work unless you have the right culture to work in and the right attitude,” he admits.
McManus is eternally grateful for the “perfect storm of events” that ultimately led him to the nonprofit industry. Had he kept his law practice, the 64-year-old says he’d likely be winding down to retire and dedicate his remaining days to volunteer work. Now that philanthropy is at the core of his career, his plans to slow down are no longer.
“The dream that I had to be able to help people is now being fulfilled by my everyday position here,” he says.
QUEST FOR A QUALITY LIFE: JAN SOMMER
NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO WALK outside of his or her house and hear gunshots, Jan Sommer says. But for some children and families in Southwest Florida, that’s the reality.
Sommer, who serves as the research and development analyst at Quality Life Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard in Fort Myers, spends a chunk of her time studying ways to educate and empower at-risk youth.
She’s a petite woman with shoulder-length brown hair and a delicate handshake, yet she’s been a firm presence in the economically challenged Dunbar community since joining the “Q” in 2010. But it’s not where she imagined ending up.
Sommer entered the professional world armed with a law degree from Indiana University—a tangible payoff from a rocky start. Sommer, who grew up in a “working poor” neighborhood, struggled with the college application process; her parents, albeit hardworking people, hadn’t received higher education and without proper guidance, the procedure overwhelmed her.
“When you don’t grow up in that atmosphere where it’s expected for you to go to college, it’s very different. You don’t know how to do anything,” she says.
“It seemed like everyone else was three steps ahead of me.” Sommer’s upbringing rooted her passion for helping disadvantaged youth. How she could be effective at helping children became a probing question throughout the course of her career.
Following graduation, Sommer spent more than a decade as a criminal defense attorney in Indiana before realizing she wasn’t making the impact she’d hoped to. “You just want to feel like what you’re doing is not just like a rat in a cage spinning its wheels. You want to have an effect,” she says. “After a while I started thinking, ‘There’s only so much you can do on that end and prevention is really the key.’”
So she started fresh as a juvenile probation officer in Southwest Florida. But even then she felt her impact on youth was too little, too late. Her next step was to become a Guardian ad Litem and support children aging out of foster care. That’s when she learned of Quality Life founder Abdul’Haq Muhammed and his similar mission to help underprivileged minors.
Shortly after the pair met, Muhammed offered Sommer a job writing grants. “And I’ve been here ever since,” Sommer says, smiling, her eyes bouncing around an office at the Q. The rest of the center comprises a music room, wooden dance floor, classrooms and books sectioned by reading level. Filling the hallways are children ages 2 to 18.
The goal, Sommer says, is to help children succeed in life by offering educational and emotional support. “It’s really about character building,” she adds. For Sommer, it’s a chance to facilitate change rather than react to it.
She admits her career move to the nonprofit industry has not come without challenge. “Small nonprofits have a tough time,” Sommer says. “People say defense attorneys are underfunded, but, wow, I had no idea.”
Working on the administrative side, Sommer sees what happens when grants run out and there’s little left to pay staff members, or when a program idea blossoms but fails to soar without financial backing.
There is a major payoff, Sommer says. It’s when she sees a child’s improvement. “When I see those glimmers come through it just really makes me happy,” she says.
“It just feels better to be able to focus on the positive as opposed to worrying about the negative after it’s already happened and trying to turn it around.”
With experience in the judicial cycle, Sommer also knows that each time the Q succeeds in its mission to better a child’s life, it positively benefits the community as well. “Prisons and the court system and all of that (are) very expensive. If we can prevent all of that from happening, prevent people from being the victims of crime and prevent people from going south, that’s the key,” she says. “And I’m so thrilled to be a part of that.”
SOARING NEW HEIGHTS: KATHRYN KELLY
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER, A WILL TO GIVE. GOOD friends and a touch of naivety. Such are the things that led Kathryn Kelly to create The Heights Foundation in Harlem Heights, a low-income neighborhood in the Iona-McGregor area of Lee County.
A background in architecture also helped. The fifth-generation south Floridian spent years as an architectural project manager in Fort Myers and then Seattle before returning home to develop a piece of her family’s land.
Kelly desired change. She’d enjoyed a successful career working for well-known firms in the area and on chic high-rise developments in the heart of downtown Seattle, but she felt she hadn’t quite hit her stride.
Kelly set her sights on working for a builder once she finished helping with her parents’ property. But a family she’d soon meet would lead her on a much different path.
Around Thanksgiving Day in 1999, Kelly started an outreach mission with her church for the Harlem Heights community. Her father’s field hands came from that neighborhood, she says, so she felt a lifelong connection to it.
Kelly pulled up to a home, armed with a plump turkey ready for basting, when five children ran up to meet her. The plan was to hand the food off, feel good about it and move on.
“But there was something about these kids that really, really touched me,” she recalls. The house was in obvious disrepair. “They were so happy and I was looking around at the squalid conditions and realized they didn’t have a clue because they were so young. They didn’t realize how bad things were.”
For five months, Kelly came to the home bearing gifts for the children, whose mother eventually invited her inside. The stench of poor plumbing met Kelly’s nose immediately. The concrete floor was damp from a leaking kitchen sink, and mats laid out in one of two bedrooms seemed to serve as the children’s beds. Plastic bags with food hung from the ceiling fans to keep away the rats.
“It literally broke my heart,” she says. “Honestly I felt embarrassed that I had driven down Gladiolus my whole life and it didn’t really occur to me that there were kids living in horrible, horrible conditions.”
Kelly initially formed The Heights Foundation with her friends (including David Lucas of Bonita Bay Group and his wife, Linda) to help buy a new home for the Morales family. But Kelly felt there was more to be done in the community. Step by step, she developed the organization into the force it is today.
“It’s kind of funny looking back on it,” she says. “It seems incredibly disorganized but I was using the skills that I learned as an architect. It was basically just problem solving, only normally I’d be designing a building, not designing someone’s life.”
She’s in contact with the Morales family to this day, but she’s since helped many other children and families through the organization’s reading, tutoring, arts and second-language programs, medical care, and family advocacy connections—many of which are offered on a sliding scale so families are not burdened by cost.
Fifteen years into a career she never intended to have, Kelly still beams when she sees lives improve with a little support from the foundation. But, as with any job, there are downsides.
“The work we do is valuable and I see it all the time, but some days it’s not easy,” Kelly admits. “We see situations with kids that are tough or we don’t have resources to do the things we want to do, that I know we could do if we had the money.
“The hardest thing is not being able to have the impact I know we could have because it all boils down to money. Which I think is sad, because the talent and the capability is here.”
But if there’s something money can’t buy, it’s the lessons Kelly has gleaned from her journey. “You learn you actually do have a sphere of influence in the things you can do and in the people you know who allow you to do a lot of different things. That’s one of the things I love about what I do.” GB