Switching Gears After Decades in Financial Lending | Net Impact

Switching Gears After Decades in Financial Lending

Donna Callejon, Chief Business Officer, GlobalGiving

Donna Callejon is a self-described iconoclast who spent fifteen years honing her business and marketing skills at national mortgage lender Fannie Mae. And if iconoclasm sounds like an unusual quality for an executive at such an established organization, that’s okay. Donna delights in defying expectations. So when she eventually took the plunge into the world of small nonprofits, no one who knows her was surprised at her willingness to try something completely different – and be so successful at it.

Getting to know the (business) environment

When asked about her career path, Donna laughs and says she didn’t start out with any grand ambitions to make the world a better place. In fact, she cites the age-old drive to be independent from her parents as the motivating factor for her move into banking – the first job she was offered after college.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. She was also deeply engaged by Fannie Mae’s mission to connect home financing with people who really needed it. That mission gave her the energy to tackle her work with gusto, learning the ropes in marketing, finance, and planning with astonishing speed. Within five years, she was SVP of Fannie Mae’s Single Family Business unit, with earnings of $1 billion a year. She joined the board of the bipartisan Center for Policy Alternatives, giving her insight into the complexities of balancing passion with policy.

Making the big transition

Even though Donna was quickly moving up and contributing her time on the side, she was feeling out of place.

“I have a real issue with authority,” Donna explains, “so striking the right balance of managing up and challenging authority was something I had to work at. I think Millenials often face this challenge, too, and should find peers or mentors to help them refine their style.”

While at Fannie Mae, she took a company-sponsored leadership course and discovered that, perhaps, she was ready to step back and do something different. Given her ongoing role on a nonprofit board and deep knowledge of the funding market, she knew strategy consulting would be a smart step into full-time nonprofit work. So for the next few years, she worked closely with several organizations, including one of the fastest growing women’s philanthropic funds in the world.

“I learned a lot there about how nonprofits work,” she says, “and the challenges of balancing passion and policy with the managing of 501(c)(3) status.”

Knowing where you can add value

Donna underlines the importance of being open to understanding how an organization functions. She has seen many a businessperson crash and burn because they thought managing a nonprofit would be nothing compared to managing big budgets and lots of customers. “Businesspeople often come into the nonprofit sector thinking it will be easy. It’s complex to raise a budget each year, manage time against funder requests, and still stay on course.”

Donna’s broad experience in the business and nonprofit worlds really paid off when a friend introduced her to GlobalGiving, which connects givers to grassroots nonprofits. She was immediately attracted to the same things that had initially attracted her to Fannie Mae: a mission that mattered and a group of smart people with high standards.

Donna's advice

Donna calls out some things to consider as you begin your career.

  • Take the boring courses. “I highly recommend taking a course on nonprofit accounting to gain better operational knowledge,” advises Donna. This is how you gain a systems view of how things work, which opens doors to the truly exciting opportunities.
  • Lose the ego and look to others. Before you go thinking you deserve to chime in on every conversation with the CEO, make sure you learn from those around you. Study how those with experience have done it. Follow them on Twitter, set up Google alerts to track their organizations, then reach out for informational interviews. They’ll be flattered you asked.
  • Don’t forget your peers. It can be difficult to get a clear view of your own work style. Soliciting input from someone you can really listen to without being intimidated is important. Ask a peer or colleague to coach you, and help you get a better understanding of how you work and how you can keep improving.