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When he was five years old, Steven Elson built pretend skyscrapers out of blocks. It was the start of a love affair with buildings.

At 60, his passion hasn’t subsided. Today, after being laid off from a top commercial real estate job in Connecticut, US, in 2008, he is working in the non-profit sector, overseeing the development of affordable housing projects. “Every day is fascinating, and every day is a new problem," Elson says. “It’s like Rubik’s Cube. And I can’t stop smiling. We’re helping people rebuild their lives."

For the reconstruction of his career, Elson can partly thank EncoreHartford, a 16-week fellowship programme he completed last summer. Begun by the University of Connecticut’s Nonprofit Leadership Program and now in its fifth year, it has helped more than 100 unemployed corporate professionals, mostly older than 50, make the transition to professional and managerial jobs in the state’s non-profit sector. The average salary: $50,000 (around 30 lakh)., a non-profit group based in San Francisco that promotes “second acts for the greater good", reports that 31 million people, ages 44-70, are interested in making the leap to a new kind of work with some kind of social purpose. To help them do that, the organization is working to increase learning opportunities through its Encore College Initiative and a limited number of fellowship programmes outside the classroom.

In November, Pace University in New York started the Encore Transition Program, aimed at helping executives and professionals explore changeovers from midlife careers to non-profit and public service organizations (Pace’s programme, like the one at the University of Connecticut, has no ties to The tuition costs $1,250, and classes are limited to about a dozen students.

The five-session programme provides an overview of New York’s non-profit and public service industries. Leaders in the arts, education, healthcare, social services and government meet with the group to share stories and allow students to make connections to tap for possible job openings or informational interviews. “This is not a job placement programme, but an exploration of opportunities," says Joan K. Tucker, the programme’s director.

“What I learned is that when you think that you might be at the end of one career, that’s not necessarily so," says Patricia Carroll, who enrolled in the inaugural course. For the last 20 years, Carroll, 56, a Rutherford, New Jersey, nurse, has held executive-level positions in healthcare administration. But, she says, she is ready to explore all alternatives. So she signed up for the Pace programme. “The course helped me explore what my ‘next step’ might be," she says. “Hearing from people working in the non-profit sector who have already made the transition showed me that I’m not too old to have five-, 10-, 15-year goals just like my children in their 20s do."

On the West Coast, LA Fellows was created in 2010 at the Los Angeles Valley College to offer unemployed mid-level managers an opportunity to find a job at a non-profit or commercial organization. Fellows receive seven weeks of training covering executive-level topics like critical thinking, advanced computer skills and generating business leads. Each fellow volunteers 100 hours as an intern at local non-profits, which eliminates gaps on résumés and provides networking opportunities with potential employers.

Leadership Pittsburgh Inc., another non-profit, offers a 10-month programme in which participants spend about 12 hours a month exploring ways to make a difference in the Pittsburgh area. Afterwards, graduates are offered 10-month stints on non-profit boards. Their interests and skills are matched with the needs of local non-profit organizations and state commissions that serve the region. Tuition for the current programme is $4,900 a participant.

The EncoreHartford programme costs $2,850, though grants are available, and it includes a crash course in non-profit management and finance: 64 hours of classroom training held in local non-profits and two months’ full-time work at the managerial level at a Connecticut non-profit. A searchable list of non-profit management courses offered at universities across the country is on the website of Seton Hall University and includes undergraduate, graduate and non-credit courses.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a course or two to bolster skills and catch a hiring manager’s eye. For example, Betsy Werley, 58, an “innovation fellow" with, spent 26 years working first as a corporate lawyer and then leading projects at banking giant JPMorgan Chase. When she decided to move to the non-profit industry, she took courses at New York University in areas where she felt she needed some help—technology for non-profits, for instance, and an introduction to fund-raising. “You get in the door with your for-profit skills and experience," Werley says. “But those are just the starting point. You have to demonstrate that you understand non-profit culture, by taking courses and doing volunteer work."

There is also, however, a secret ingredient. “You must truly be passionate about the organization’s mission," she says.

Elson with his building blocks can attest to that.

©2014/The New York Times

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