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How to Save the World By Shifting Your Career

For two decades, Pamela Barnes' job was all about measuring results. As a corporate finance officer for several international companies, quantifying the return on effort was what she did all day. Then she segued into nonprofit management and found that those organizations needed measurement, too. That will be her top priority this fall when she starts as president and CEO of EngenderHealth, an international women's health and advocacy organization. Barnes, pictured at right, told me how she engineered the transition from for-profit to not-for-profit and how other women can do the same.

Q: It looks like your career reflects your passions. Meaningful work is particularly important to women, according to numerous academic and consulting studies. How did you find nonprofit jobs that mixed your skills with your passions?

A: It's taken me a while to realize that my passions and the disciplines I learned in business school are not on separate paths. People assume that passion and good management run on separate paths. That's not the case. Mixing passion, accountability and responsibility -- and leading a team that shares those values of respect and trust -- are what it takes to create a vision that tangibly improves the lives of others.

Q: When you decided to move from a high-powered corporate career to the nonprofit world, did you take a plunge or step into it gradually?
A: In the early 1990s, my husband left Wall Street and became a teacher in Spanish Harlem. He just threw himself into it. I worked with strong people, but I had never seen passion ignited like that. I took an exit package from GTE and started volunteering with two organizations. I did research with Catalyst and worked with the executive director of Planned Parenthood Hudson Paconic.

Board work is important, and many people get on boards and then try to shift into a staff position. But I found that working from the inside gave me a better sense of what skills I brought to the organization. Within six months, the Planned Parenthood CEO asked me to be her COO. Even when I got a degree in public health, it was my business and management skills that she needed. People think that to move from a for-profit to a not-for-profit, they have to add skills. Not necessarily. What are the skills you already have? Use those.

Q. How will you be applying your measurement skills to EngenderHealth?
A: If we're going to see improvement in health statistics for women and families, change will come from women. Engender has helped set the table for that. We're doing fabulous work. But how do we show the impact? In the corporate world, it's market share and earnings. Is success in family planning how many men and women you give contraceptives to? Or is impact measuring the fact that a family now has the number of children they want? How do we measure the positive effects?

Q: To summarize, if women are interested in bridging from corporate to not-for-profit, they can take on non-profit projects that let them apply their business skills. That gives them a case study right away for their resumes, and it lets them see how they might fit into the nonprofit's operations.
A: I believe the goal is to put our strong business skills to work for a mission we care about. So, know what the mission is and understand what the organization is trying to accomplish, and then find a way to put your skills to contribute to a specific project. This could give you a case study that will help you see if the work really touches your passion.

This Q&A is condensed and edited from the original interview.
Globe image courtesy Flickr user Amy L. Riddle, CC 2.0