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How I Left Investment Banking and Joined a Nonprofit

How I Left Investment Banking and Joined a Nonprofit

Giving back to my community has always been in my DNA. For as long as I can recall, I’ve volunteered as a teacher and a mentor in my spare time. I taught at a middle school in Newark, promoted STEM in high schools, volunteered at a low-income credit union, and taught finance courses at two universities in New Jersey.

Professionally, my days were spent at a number of banks and hedge funds. In my nearly three decades of working, my career has taken me from UBS in Tokyo to Citibank in Frankfurt and beyond.

As much as I enjoyed my time in the private sector, I was ready for a change. I wanted to combine my years of experience working in finance with my passion for service, but finding a job at a nonprofit was a lot harder than I had expected. 

There were several jobs that I had applied to thinking I was a perfect fit, but never heard back. I even went over my resume with several trusted friends to see if there was anything I should be doing differently. We couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t even getting a call back.

It was frustrating and disappointing. I thought my background was right, but something was wrong. I just wasn’t getting the interviews and the interest that I thought I would.

Researching Professional Development Opportunities

I felt stuck until I saw an online link to LeaderLink, an initiative created by Robin Hood and CommonGood Careers that helps experienced finance professionals transition from the private sector into senior-level jobs at nonprofits. The program seemed perfect in terms of getting the guidance I needed to get a job at a nonprofit. They offered hard skills, like key nonprofit accounting principles, and provided support for the job search: resume tips, job search strategies, and opportunities to network, so I applied.

For the first time, I was surrounded by fellow finance professionals who were of a similar age, had similar careers, and were equally committed to helping others. It was refreshing.

What I Learned in My Professional Development Program

During the seven-session course, we learned how to apply our skills to the nonprofit sector. While I had an MBA with a finance concentration and spent years analyzing financial statements, I wasn’t familiar with how those principles applied to nonprofit accounting.

In the program, I started to apply my knowledge and the key differences in metrics. In particular, my classmates and I studied what was an acceptable and healthy cash on hand to monthly average expense ratio, 990 reports, and how to look at restricted assets.

Beyond accounting principles, we also focused on recrafting our resumes for nonprofits and did mock interviews. I was paired with a mentor, who was quite helpful in strategizing which jobs to pursue, which nonprofits to look at, and how to best present my skills and experience.

Based on the requirements included in the job listings I was looking at, I thought I needed to be a certified public accountant, so I didn’t bother applying. But my mentor and other members in my cohort explained that my management experience was more important. And since I was applying for a managerial role, I only had to have an understanding of accounting principles and the organization’s accountant would handle the day to day tasks. Buoyed by their advice, I began to start applying to positions that I otherwise would not have.

Finessing How I Presented Myself During Interviews

In addition, through the mock interviews, I learned that I was downplaying one of my greatest strengths for a nonprofit – my experience working in diverse environments. I wasn’t talking about some important skills I possessed, such as building consensus, having an ability to hear others with different perspectives, and understanding the needs and sensitivities of those that need help.

Each week, we received a bulletin with job listings, which is where I first heard about the opening at ScriptEd, a Robin Hood-funded nonprofit that teaches students in under-resourced schools to code.

I applied, got an interview, and now I’m the Director of Finance and Operations. My involvement in the LeaderLink program gave me a lot of credibility with ScriptEd.

My New Nonprofit Career

I’ve been working at ScriptEd now for four months and I enjoy coming to work every day. I love the energy and dedication of the staff. I am a little older than everyone else and some of my references and jokes go over their heads, but they keep things fresh for me.

At times, I still catch myself marveling at how much I enjoy working at a nonprofit. I vividly remember opening an envelope with a thousand-dollar grant check for ScriptED and being so excited. It was a tiny sliver of our overall funding, and in the past, I routinely made $10 million dollar trades on any given day, but that check meant more to me than my best days or even months trading. It’s an affirmation that other people value the work that we do and believe in our cause.

I’ll never forget that feeling.

About the Author: Allen Smith is the Director of Finance and Operations at ScriptEd. Before joining ScriptEd, Allen sandwiched a career in finance around community service and teaching. He held numerous high-level finance positions at hedge funds and international banks, before teaching middle school in Newark as well as finance courses at New Jersey City University and Kean University. Allen received his BS in Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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