Jobless Professionals Yearn to Do Good

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal
By Kyle Stock
June 9, 2009

A few months ago, Andrea Kornfeld was working on a computer program to shave milliseconds off of transactions at Merrill Lynch.

Now, she’s a Peace Corps volunteer teaching computer skills to high-school students in Cameroon.

Ms. Kornfeld, 26, applied to the program in August, before the worst part of the financial crisis. Her acceptance arrived a few weeks after she was laid off in January. “Honestly, getting laid off was a good thing,” she says. “Merrill Lynch just wasn’t a good fit for me and it gave me an opportunity to do something different.”

The recession is proving a boon for volunteer programs and social-enterprise groups, which are swamped with midcareer applicants like Ms. Kornfeld. Some lost their jobs, others are planning to change careers. Many of the organizations say the applicants, and their business backgrounds, will be welcome additions to their causes.

Applications to the Peace Corps, a U.S. government initiative launched in 1961 to strengthen diplomacy and help developing nations, are up 16% over last year, says spokeswoman Laura Lartigue. Among those ages 50 and older, applications are up almost 50%.

Teach for America Inc., a nonprofit that places recent graduates and professionals in low-income public schools, received 42% more applications this year, according to Kerci Marcello Stroud, national communications director. Nearly one-quarter came from people working, as opposed to attending school, an 80% increase from a year earlier. “This pool of applicants is more qualified than ever,” Ms. Stroud says.

Regional programs are also in demand. The Appleseed Foundation, which enlists lawyers to work on social causes in 16 cities, has seen a surge in queries about its fellowship program, in which law firms typically pay employees $50,000 to $75,000 a year to take sabbaticals. Executive Director Betsy Cavendish says law firms are showing more interest because it allows them to retain employees at a fraction of their usual salaries. Midcareer attorneys and recent law-school graduates are applying to Appleseed to log work experience and gain expertise as paying jobs are drying up. “We’ll give them an edge when they go back to a firm,” Ms. Cavendish says.

Some applicants are walking away from good jobs. Abbas Manjee, a 24-year-old Melrose Park, Ill. native, said he turned down a promotion from Merrill Lynch in favor of a Teach for America classroom. Mr. Manjee says he’s learned a lot from banking, “but I’m not fulfilled.”

With applications surging, these groups can be more selective. The Peace Corps, which pays stipends of $150 to $400 a month, typically accepts a third of applicants. With more applicants, and 8% fewer positions, the rate will likely fall this year. Teach for America, where annual salaries range from $27,000 to $45,000, expects to accept about 15% of applicants this year, down from 20% a year ago.

Nonprofits say they are putting a premium on applicants with business backgrounds. The Peace Corps is trumpeting a fellowship program that helps volunteers pay for an M.B.A. after their service. The agency hired Shari Hubert, a former recruiter for General Electric Co. and Citigroup Inc., to overhaul its recruiting processes. One of her tasks is to meet a growing world-wide demand for people with expertise in microfinance and small-business development.

To that end, the agency is accepting more people like Steve Smith, a 65-year-old former restaurateur who until recently ran a small business maintaining vineyards in California. Mr. Smith wanted to join the agency in the 1960s, but got sidetracked by the Vietnam War and raising a family. Divorced and with his two kids in their 30s, Mr. Smith’s 60th birthday rekindled the dream. “I just filled out the paper-work, sold my company, gave all my possessions away and here I am,” Mr. Smith said Thursday as he waited to board a plane to Cameroon, where he will help farmers develop small businesses.

Business-savvy volunteers are particularly good at helping nonprofits do more with less, says Sandy Scott, director of public affairs at AmeriCorps, a partially government-funded organization that places volunteers at numerous nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. “These people are setting up credit unions, writing grants, managing resources — it’s called indirect service,” Mr. Scott says.

AmeriCorps plans to place 88,000 workers this year for 10-to-12-month terms, 17% more than in 2008. Participants receive small living allowances and help paying for higher education. The competition is fierce: In the first five months of this year, the organization received more than triple the number of applications as in the same period in 2008.

To stand out in a stack of résumés, applicants should be well-rounded and flexible about what they are willing to do and where and when they are willing to do it. Ms. Lartigue, with the Peace Corps, said candidates should highlight language skills — particularly French and Spanish — as well as prior volunteer experience, including community service, pro-bono work and involvement on nonprofit boards. She says applicants should consider additional training in specific areas, such as teaching or microfinance. Mr. Smith, whose experience with both farming and business helped him get a slot, says he has no idea what he’ll do when he returns from Cameroon.