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Setback Becomes Springboard for Nonprofit Career

Setback Becomes Springboard for Nonprofit Career


January 06, 2010

On Aug. 24, 2005, Kirt Barden was a veteran corporate manager with a thriving new business. On Aug. 25, Hurricane Katrina blew it all away.

Barden, 57, lost 80 percent of his personal assets in the storm, but what he gained was much greater. In the days and months that followed, Barden witnessed a great outpouring of charity and was inspired to reassess his own life choices.

In December 2007, Barden moved to Pennsylvania with his wife, Peggy, and took a job with the Salvation Army of Greater Harrisburg as director of philanthropy.

Now, he’s putting his business savvy to a new use, trying to breathe fresh life into the local nonprofit during uncertain economic times.

What has the transition from corporate to nonprofit life been like?

I call it a shift from success to significance. You review your life, to really look through and discover what are your skill sets. After you understand and get a glimpse, you decide how you translate that into something with more significance.

It impacted me to see people like my employees who couldn’t go home because their homes were under water, and it impacted me to see so many organizations and individuals helping. I wanted to be part of that in some way. The reason I’m with the Salvation Army is they’re in alignment with my personal mission and goals. That’s hopefully sharing the love of God by helping a lot of people. That’s success to significance.

How can corporate experience benefit a nonprofit organization?

Nonprofits are being forced very quickly to run like a business. The mindset in the past hasn’t been that way, but it’s been a hard situation they have to run in this economy. That’s where I think people like me coming into that environment can help. You have to react fast and be aggressive in the marketplace. I got used to that. I had no choice.

If you’ve not had the business experience, how do you know that those skills can be greatly utilized in the nonprofit arena? That’s why it was hard to sell myself. A lot of corporate people come from an environment where they are cocky and arrogant, and nonprofits perceive them as not being caring. But there are a lot of corporate people who care a lot.

Could this be a trend in the nonprofit sector, and how do you think the economy factors in?

I think a lot of people, now in their 50s, had a measure of success and now they’re stepping back and saying ’That’s all it is?’ I ran all these operations, did stuff, I was very successful, but when I was in New Orleans and saw people dying, saw people lose everything, I wondered ‘Is there something I can do that might have more significance?’ I think there’s going to be an unbelievable conversion in the next 10 years, because of age discrimination. A lot of baby boomers will be pushed out of jobs, a combination of that and desire of people to create significance.

What kind of strategies have you implemented?

I wanted to do some of the basic stuff I learned in the rental business, like thank our customers consistently. I wanted to thank our special donors.

We’re doing some of the basic stuff that is transferable. Going face to face and talking and listening to their needs, listening to how they want to give; some people through time, or their treasure, or their talents. Someone may want to ring Christmas bells. Someone might want to give $10,000. Someone else might not be able to do either, but they might give us $100 a year.

We’re just really doing basic marketing and sales things, being aggressive in the marketplace, getting out there and telling our story. When I’m able to share exactly what we do in the Harrisburg area, most people say ‘What?’ People just need to know what we’re doing and they need to know how we’re doing it.

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