The Cure for Burnout: Go Nonprofit

CFOs who have transitioned from companies to not-for-profit organizations love their work, even if the switch wasn't necessarily easy.

Three years ago, Usha Chaudhary was deep in the doldrums. After 20 years at the same company, she was working about 80 hours a week, and she needed a change.

In less than month of job searching, she received an offer from the United Way of America to become the nonprofit’s CFO. Soon, her finance career took a dramatic shift. Shedding the familiarity of her job at Freddie Mac as a vice president for the mortgage lender’s investments and capital markets division, she became the overseer of a significantly smaller budget and staff — and an entirely different business model.

She now works about 60 hours a week on average, sometimes on the weekends, and has constant contact with the office. But at this job, working hard isn’t a drag. “Maybe it’s psychological, but I don’t mind it as much,” Chaudhary told CFO.com. “Even though the challenges and stresses are there, because of the type of work I do or the environment I’m dealing with, it doesn’t seem as stressful as it did at Freddie Mac.”

Finance executives who have made the switch from the confines of the corporate world to the unknown of a nonprofit organization say they find their current jobs more rewarding. Still, they acknowledge that nonprofit newbies have to make both professional and personal adjustments. “It’s a completely different mind-set,” Chaudhary says.

That can mean checking your ego at the door. Former corporate CFOs used to their own administrative assistants will often find themselves working on the front lines of a nonprofit, whether that means making their own photocopies or working alongside volunteers to further their organizations’ cause. “You have to be the type of person who will roll their sleeves up and not only help within the financial and accounting department but also be willing to help deliver the services that the nonprofit is delivering,” says David Seabrook, CFO of College Summit, which helps low-income high school students get a higher education.

UshaChaudhary“We can’t always say that if you invest X dollars in this infrastructure, you’ll see this level of improvement in this community,” says Usha Chaudhary, CFO, United Way of America, on the challenge of working for a nonprofit.

There’s no question a personal adjustment is required, say the CFOs who helm the finances at nonprofits. How can it not, when you move from an environment where bottom-line results reign, shareholders’ needs come first, and regulatory compliance is a major priority, to an outfit where those concerns are secondary or nonexistent?

To be sure, nonprofit finance executives consider internal controls important, but achieving their organization’s mission — often involving the greater good — comes before all else for their employers. Forget the earnings-per-share targets, the quarterly pressure to meet financial goals, and think more along the lines of expanding affordable housing or raising millions of dollars in donations to help a community devastated by a major storm.

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