By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/12/2010 5:45:44 PM ET 2010-12-12T22:45:44

Mark Judge, 59, spent 22 years in the publishing industry. Last year, he decided to take a buyout and turned his career sights on doing good.

Judge had been vice president for a small publishing company that was going through consolidation after its acquisition a few years earlier by Scholastic. Judge saw the handwriting on the wall. Scholastic had started moving some operations to New York, and Judge (who is from San Jose, Calif.) did not want to relocate. He was also thinking about beginning a new chapter in his life.

“I had continuously worked for 35 years. My thought was to take some time off to take stock,” he said. “I decided to look seriously at non profit work.”

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Judge is now doing a paid fellowship working for two nonprofits — the Youth Science Institute and the Resource Area for Teaching.

Dusty Donaldson, 56, of High Point, N.C., was an associate director at Wake Forest University for nearly seven years. She was laid off last year when her department was eliminated.

When the shock over losing her job subsided, Donaldson decided to take a different career path and work for a nonprofit.

A lung cancer survivor who had volunteered and advocated in the lung cancer community while working at the University, Donaldson turned her energies to finding work supporting the cause. After a few failed attempts finding a job that paid doing advocacy work, she launched her own lung cancer nonprofit this year — the Dusty Joy Foundation.

“I want to educate people and increase the compassion for lung cancer,” she said.

A growing number of fifty-somethings are pondering career second acts, or are looking to do something with a purpose, said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business.

“There are a lot more people who have been laid off from their jobs, or saw the handwriting on the wall and are calling us and asking for informational interviews,” she said, adding that nearly half of the individuals going for certificates in nonprofit management at the Center are over 50.

“Many who have come out of the corporate sector tell us: ‘I want a job in the nonprofit sector and I don’t want it to be a volunteer position.’”

Many workers who are over 50 are finding it’s harder today to return to a job in their long-time careers, whether they were laid off or felt it was time to move on. This fact, combined with a natural introspection that comes with age, has some people looking into changing gears totally and giving back to their communities.

“You have a lot of people reaching their 50s and 60s now who came of age at a time when there was a great deal of interest in cultural change, including the civil rights movement and the women’s movement,” said Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Baby Boomer think tank Civic Ventures.

While they may have volunteered or been involved in organizations when they were younger, he continued, financial responsibilities and family obligations led many to concentrate on getting a pay check instead of doing good.

Now they “want a second bite of the apple,” Freedman said.

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The other factor driving some into nonprofits, he added, is “virtue out of necessity.” People realize they have 10, maybe 20 years left in the workforce, but they want to do something that will keep them motivated, he explained. And they also need a paycheck, even if it’s smaller than the one they were getting in previous careers because nonprofits typically don’t pay as much as regular desk jobs.

Indeed, Judge and Donaldson both realized they would have to tighten their belts to go into nonprofit work.

“As a vice president within the Scholastic Corporation, I was well-compensated,” he said. “My current income from both the fellowship at Youth Science Institute and Resource Area for Teaching is less than half of my former income.”

But Judge can handle the decline in pay.

“Our two sons have completed college and are living on their own now,” he noted. “My wife Andrea, who is an elementary school teacher, and I can manage with a reduced household income.”

Donaldson is hoping she can get grants and donations to further develop her nonprofit and eventually launch a lung cancer website for the community.

Since she and her husband are in a good economic position because they don’t have a mortgage or any debt, and she believes they’ll be in good shape if she makes just enough through her new venture to pay for health insurance, about $1000 a month to pay for a high risk plan.

“My COBRA runs out the end of this month,” she added.

Roy Cohen, a New York career counselor and executive coach who has seen a growing number of his former Wall Street clients contemplating nonprofit work advises anyone thinking about making the move to first examine their current assets, liabilities and lifestyle to figure out if it’s really something they can afford.

“There’s a tendency to idealize this option, but if you’ve got two kids in private school, two BMWs, and a spouse who’s not working, it’s not going to work if you don’t have a lot of money set aside,” he maintained.

Clearly, the nonprofit world is not for everyone. In addition to making less money, you can expect what many in the sector describe as “messy” organizational structures and day- to-day operations at many nonprofits and charities.

“There are cultural differences,” said La Salle University’s Otten. “The nonprofit sector tends to be more collaborative, which is a good and bad thing.”

Nonprofits want everyone’s opinion to be heard, so decision-making tends to take more time, she said. Another issue is that nonprofits can be overly tolerant of underperformers and inefficiency.

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“It really takes a long time to fire someone,” she noted.

And the organizations are just not run like businesses with a focus on staying in the black, she said, even though that’s changing. It’s partly a lack of knowledge and partly intentional, she noted. When doing good for society you “can’t always be bottom-line focused.”

Otten’s advice: Get your feet wet first.

She suggests that those interested in nonprofit work volunteer or join the board of directors of a charity in their community. Both, she added, give you credibility, and being on a board opens up your network and lets you find out where jobs are available in the sector because nonprofits can be so interconnected.

No matter what nonprofit work you pursue, Freeman stressed, you should chose what you know and not veer too far away from what you are already good at, or are experienced in.

“I think all this infatuation with reinvention is unhelpful,” he said. “It pays to start with the strands in your life, including your interests in and outside of your previous career.”

Judge found work that fits his interests and passions, and his transition into the nonprofits he chose has been easy because of his background in educational publishing.

The kids who come to the Youth Science Institute and the excitement they express learning about geology and botany have inspired him, he said.

“You don’t have to go far for motivation because it’s right in front of you all the time,” he explained. “You don’t get that everyday in the for-profit workplace.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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