Monday, December 31, 2012

It Is in Giving that We Receive

I haven’t been the most faithful blogger lately, but recent interactions with two well-known people have caused me to reflect on a topic near and dear to me: volunteerism. As we look back on one year and prepare to start another, such reflection is natural, a form of examination of conscience. In this post, I’d like to discuss how doing good for others can also be good for you; how altruistic service can benefit your career, though I hope the former is your true motivator.

On December 2, I had a great conversation with C.J.Wilson, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. We met at the Winter Wish Gala fundraiser for The Partnership at, a nonprofit organization with which my employer, Watson Pharmaceuticals, partners.  C.J. presented the Major League Baseball Commissioner’s Play Healthy Award to a student athlete and a youth coach who are committed to fair, clean competition and a healthy lifestyle. C.J. is also a supporter of The Partnership, which is apropos because he lives a “straight edge” life – eschewing alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs – and is a proponent of healthy, sportsmanlike play.

In the course of our conversation, C.J. asked me about the role of a corporate board of directors, and while the technical answer involves a fiduciary duty to shareholders, it is more than that.  A board helps discern a company’s vision, sets compensation for executive management and policy for the organization, and lends its expertise to the proper operation of the corporation.  I told him it’s the same as serving on the board of a volunteer organization. I told C.J., who is also a business owner and race car driver, that whether it’s a local youth group or a college’s board of trustees, serving as a director on a nonprofit board is a good way to lend his expertise in ways mentioned above.  It’s also an opportunity to network with other corporate professionals who, once they learn of his ability as a strategic thinker skilled in more than pitching, may very well invite him to join their boards.  C.J. is no stranger to philanthropy, starting his own nonprofit foundation to help children and teens who have medical, financial or social challenges. He is a role model – not just for youth, but for all of us, especially to those to whom much is given (and much is expected).

Over the past few days, I learned of the work of meteorologist and reporter David Brown, who is leaving his dual positions at WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston, to become Chief Advancement Officer for the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, MA.  They are a leading independent oral health research institution, which started as a provider of free dental care for children in Boston. David’s résumé shows a true commitment to helping others through significant involvement in a variety of volunteer positions. I’m sure that in those roles he contributed his own talents and learned about nonprofit operations, especially the all-important role of fundraising.  As Chief Advancement Officer, David will be responsible for generating donations needed to keep the Forsyth Institute in operation.  David is an example of good things happening to good people.  His dedicated service helped prepare him for this new stage of his career.

I could say the same thing about myself.  Over the years, I’ve served on the boards of more than 50 nonprofit organizations.  I did so because I believed in their causes and have a sense of duty to give back to the community in which I live and work.  Jobs that I’ve had over the years, particularly my current position as director of corporate giving at Watson, resulted from contacts or experiences resulting from my community service work.

Whether just starting a career, in the twilight of it, or retired, we all have perspectives, expertise and life experiences that can and should be put to work on behalf of others. All it takes is as little as an hour or two a month to make a difference.  Over the course of nearly two decades, I’ve known hundreds of college students who have talents in communication, construction, finance and fundraising, health and wellness, human resources, law, real estate, teaching, technology, and many other fields.  So many organizations need their – and your – time, talent, and yes, your treasure.  You may not be able to donate all three, particularly if you’re saddled with college debt, but perhaps you will consider the first two to start.  

What’s your passion?  Is there a disease that impacted your family or friends?  Is there a cause in which you are interested, anything from animal welfare to literacy to human rights?  There are organizations out there begging for your involvement.  Contact one and offer your services.  You will be welcomed with open arms.  You may even get more out of it than you put into it, developing your people skills, learning about operations in areas outside your field of expertise, and meeting people who could become mentors, advocates, references, employers or friends.  

One last thing…In my previous post I said I would write about employment benefits, but work and life got in the way.  My thoughts on those will eventually make their way here.  However, as we enter the New Year, and harking back to that examination of conscience I mentioned earlier, I want to provide links to two columns that appeared last week in the New York Times.  The first reflects on philanthropy by the top one percent, or more accurately, the top one-tenth of one percent, and is written by Nicholas Kristof.  The second is by Frank Bruni and causes us to think about what is really important in life.  It’s a valuable lesson on which to reflect each day of our lives. Have a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yay! You're Hired. Now Let's Talk About Retirement.

Congratulations! You’ve got a job offer. Before you accept, start thinking about retirement.

If you’re a 22-year-old with more than 40 years of your career ahead of you, retirement may be the last thing on your mind.  However, by taking advantage of the benefits your new employer may offer, a small investment today will pay big dividends when you’re 60+.

In the past month or so, I’ve had the money discussion with my kids and with other former students who have been out of school and in the workforce for anywhere from one month to five years.  The most important point I stress is to think long-term.  Delayed gratification is a foreign term to many 20-somethings.  They want to go out several nights a week, have a new car, go on vacations to the Caribbean or Europe, have an incredible apartment, and start paying off those college loans – all on a first job starting salary of $27,000.  While some may have the family means to be subsidized by parents to do all of the above, many more find out that living at home for awhile or rooming with friends in a less-than-desirable neighborhood is more realistic.

A first-time, post-college employee is usually interested in two things in a job offer:  salary and vacation days.  There is much more to consider before you accept an offer.  What health benefits (medical, dental, vision) are offered, how much do you contribute toward them, and how long do you have to wait before they start?  Is there a flex-spending account? (More on that in a future post.)  What about insurance coverage, tuition reimbursement, stock offerings, and affinity programs offering reduced prices on company products or other pricing discounts?  Then, there is the long-term item: is there a 401(k) or 403(b) and if so, is there a company match?

For too many people, Social Security is their only retirement plan.  Who knows what that program will look like five years from now, much less 50 years from now?  The days of private companies offering pensions are pretty much over.  It’s an expensive proposition for them, and of course, for the private sector, it’s all about the bottom line.  I only worked one job that offered both a pension and a 401(k), and I left that position almost 20 years ago.  Still, it’s nice to know that my five years and eight months there still qualified me to receive just over $300 a month for however many years I have in retirement.  Public employees on the municipal, county, state and federal levels still have pension plans, at least for the time being, though nearly all are now contributory, meaning you put in a little to help fund your own retirement.

That’s really what 401(k) and 403(b) plans are.  You contribute a portion of your salary either pre-tax or after-tax, and often the company matches a portion of that amount.  It’s more important for a 22-year-old to contribute even a small amount than it is for someone my age putting away the maximum allowed each year.  Why?  It’s all about compounding.

One of my former students, Andrew, remains a close friend.  We chatted the other day about finances and, as I knew he would, he has made some very wise decisions. Andrew is 23 and works for a major employer in Connecticut.  He participates in his company’s 401(k) and plans his expenses accordingly.  Because the deduction is taken out even before he gets his direct deposit, he doesn’t miss it.  His company offers a 401(k), match up to 6 percent of his contribution to the plan.  That’s “free money.”  Hopefully your employer also has some form of match.  It means your employer is giving you money toward your retirement.  The longer you are employed and do not participate in the 401(k) plan, the more “free money” you lose.  Some companies have a “vesting period,” meaning you need to work a certain amount of time (normally one to two years, but sometimes longer) before you actually own the company match.  Leave after six months and you don’t get the match.  Andrew is setting himself up now for a more comfortable and secure retirement.  That’s smart and pretty forward-thinking for a 23-year-old.

To illustrate the power of compounding, I will use an example provided by my employer.  Jennifer and Brian are the same age.  Suppose Jennifer started saving $2,000 a year (that’s just $38.46 per biweekly paycheck) from age 25 to 35, and then stopped saving. Her friend Brian started saving $2,000 a year at age 35, and continued until he was 65.  If both accounts earn 8 percent annually, at age 65, Jennifer will have $335,000 in her account, but she will have contributed only $22,000.  Brian, who started saving at age 35 and contributed $62,000, will only have $247,000.  Both cases do not include a corporate match but do include the reinvestment of dividends and capital gains and no current taxes paid on earnings in a retirement account.  The lesson is simple.  The longer you invest, the more you can earn trough compounding.

A 401k or 403(b) – in general, they are pretty much the same – is not the same thing as having a pension.  First, you, not your company, make your own investment decisions.  There is no guarantee of gains and, in fact, you may lose some of your principal (the amount you invest, plus your corporate match, not just any dividends you earned) sometime during the course of your career.  During the Great Recession that began in 2008, at worst I lost about 30 percent of my portfolio and for a brief time, those losses ate away at my principal – the amount I contributed.  With the gains in the stock market recently, my accounts have bounced back.  Fortunately, I have no plans to retire anytime soon and kept contributing to my 401(k), picking up some bargains thanks to lower stock prices.  Your tolerance of risk and the amount of time you have to invest will determine the type of investment you make.

I’m not a financial advisor and I won’t get into all the various possible investment scenarios to consider.  But, with a traditional 401(k) or 403(b), you invest with pre-tax income, which reduces your gross pay, meaning you pay less income now, with the thought that you may be in a lower tax bracket after you retire.  You will pay tax on the amount you withdraw and there are penalties for early withdrawals (before age 59½) except for some specific circumstances.  In a Roth 401(k), your salary deferrals are made on an after-tax basis and your earnings grow tax-free.  You will not have to pay taxes on the money when it’s withdrawn, provided you’ve held the account for at least five years and you have reached age 59½ or have become permanently disabled.

The average 401(k) balance in the United States is less than $75,000.  That’s not enough on which to retire.  Most financial advisors tell you to spend no more than 5 percent of your retirement fund balance each year.  Five percent of $75,000 is just $3,750 a year, or a little over $300 a month (like the pension I mentioned above). The average monthly Social Security payment is just under $15,000 a year, or about $1,200 a month.  Today, would you be able to get by on just $18,500 a year?  If you plan to live with your children and stay healthy – perhaps.  Don’t plan on it.

One less night out a week, invested over the course of at least 40 years, can help ensure you don’t have to work until the day you die.  What I cited in this post is for illustrative purposes only.  Talk to your HR reps, your parents, a financial advisor, and become a student of finance and the markets.  The payback will make it worth your while.  There are many retirement calculators online.  Try this one from CNN, and don't be shocked by the amount of money you need to put away to retire in a manner in which you will be comfortable.

One last thing…I will try my best to write more frequently and will follow up with a piece on other job benefits soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Case Study in How to Get a Job

With about a month to go until many students graduate, the search for a job should begin in earnest.  Actually, it should be in high gear. A typical hiring process could take a month or two…at least.  A job opening is posted and applications solicited.  Interviews must be scheduled and references checked before an offer is made.  The successful applicant then should give at least two weeks’ notice to his or her current employer.  If this is your first full-time, post-college job, you may still want a couple of weeks to prepare for your entry into the workforce.  Just to give you an example, I left my position at Marist on January 6, and it appears that no decision will be made on a successor until May at the earliest.

A Marist Communication/Journalism major graduating on May 20 personifies the textbook lesson in how to land a job.  A week after he receives his Bachelor of Arts degree, Bryan Terry of Colonie, NY will start as a news assistant at YNN, a 24-hour news channel, in their Albany, NY hub.  How did Bryan do this? He earned it.

Bryan reminds me of myself at his age.  We were both news geeks, very focused on broadcast journalism.  It is that early interest in what he wanted to do with his life that helped Bryan create a path to his first job offer in the field he has wanted to enter since he was in the sixth grade.

Bryan took advantage of many opportunities offered to him.  He has a 3.9 GPA, plays trombone in the band, studied abroad in Florence, worked with the Marist Poll, and selected three internships that provided him valuable work experience from both sides of the reporter’s notebook – the newsroom of WRGB-TV in Schenectady, the team that produces Capital Tonight on YNN, and the press office of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. At each employer (and you should always consider your internship provider as an employer, whether or not you are paid), he worked hard, doing more than was required; was not a clock watcher; and shared his knowledge of social media.

How well did he do? You can see the respect and true affection his employers had for Bryan in their video tributes.  He may forever be called “Intern Bryan,” thanks to being assigned that moniker during his tenure with Capital Tonight.  His dedication, tenacity, and passion for his work left an indelible impression on each employer.

Bryan also maintained his relationships with his supervisors, sending them an occasional email or visiting if he was in the neighborhood.  I have written before about the importance of networking.  When you meet someone, you shouldn’t think, “How is this person going to get me a job?”  You should show genuine interest in the person with whom you’re communicating, and consider how you can help him or her.  Is there information you can provide?  Do you have knowledge in an area the other person does not and that you would be willing to share?  Was there an interesting item you read in mainstream or social media that is worth passing along? Bryan did this. An email here, a phone call there, an occasional visit, none intrusive, just enough to keep his “top of mind awareness” among potential employers.

Bryan blogs as a class project, but his work product shows he has a reporter’s instinct for news, that he writes well, and that he is not afraid to tackle tough issues.  He follows the right people and organizations on twitter, exhibiting an interest in national, state and local government topics, trends in journalism, a familiarization with his craft.

He checked in with people who would know what jobs might be open now or in the future. That’s how Bryan found out about the opening for a news assistant at YNN.  He had advocates within the organization who could attest to his skills.  He had references who could provide specific examples of his outstanding work (rather than a blasé chat that a human resources professional could sniff out as BS in less than a minute).   His résumé and cover letter extolled his virtues but addressed the needs of his employer rather than thumping his chest about who he is or what he’s done.  Both were also error free, having been proofread by several people.  After his interviews, Bryan immediately sent thank you notes to those who met with him, reiterating his interest in and qualifications for the job.

Bryan’s reward:  a job that is waiting for him a month before graduation.  He communicated his passion and ability, put those qualities to work to create a positive reputation, and as much as this is positive for him, it’s just as positive for YNN, which is fortunate to have someone as talented as Bryan on its team.

One last thing…A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted that one of my former students had a summer internship in finance for a prestigious firm in Manhattan and that anyone interested should direct message me for details and I would connect them to her.  Only two people did: A Marist sophomore and a student in London, England. The Marist student follows me on twitter, but I can’t honestly say that I know him well.  Still, the fact that he contacted me quickly, explained his credentials in 140 characters, and went back-and-forth with me to exchange information, always expressing his appreciation for helping him with this connection, spoke volumes about him.  He got the internship and thanked me immediately after getting the offer.  It was networking all around – my former student contacting me; my using social media to connect with prospective employees, and someone who follows me on that medium to reach out, follow through, and land the gig. That’s an age-old process that still yields results in 2012.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Unholy, Weak Response to Homeless LGBT Youth

It’s been three months since I updated my blog and I thought Easter would be a good time to resurrect it (no pun intended).  I debated writing a post about my new job, but will hold off on that for now because of events that developed over the past week, one of the holiest periods on the Judeo-Christian calendar.  Sit back; this is a long, passionate, personal post.

During “Holy Week,” Catholics and other Christians reflect upon the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is a time to seek forgiveness of one’s sins, to commit to be more Christ-like, and to celebrate the redemption of women and men through the selfless act of one Man offering up His life for the sins of the world.

However, this sacred time was marred this year by a response the previous week by New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose cold, unfeeling and “victimhood” response to a request by Carl Siciliano, the executive director of New York’s Ali Forney Center, which serves homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth, many of whom are forced out of their family’s lives and dwellings solely for being lgbt.  Many of these families consider themselves “Christian” and cite biblical admonitions against homosexuality while throwing their sons and daughters out, choosing to ignore the loving Christ who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, and offered consolation to the imprisoned and afflicted.

Dolan’s response led a very dear friend, 24-year-old Joseph Amodeo, to resign from the junior executive board of Catholic Charities.  He blogged about it on the Huffington Post, which led to calls from Associated Press, the New York Times, the WashingtonPost, and other media outlets.  For someone so young and so faithful, Joseph has made a tremendous impact in advancing the understanding of lgbt issues and pointing out the hypocrisy of Catholic leadership, which, thankfully, does not mirror the majority of followers in the pews.

This was not the only missed opportunity for the Church to remove the plank from its own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.  A New York Times article detailed how the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), under pressure from right-wing Catholics, is ending funding for organizations that serve the poor and marginalized, including immigrants, solely for “guilt by association.”  The issue? Some of these organizations are affiliated with umbrella groups that support equal rights for lgbt Americans, among other issues.  The CCHD said they needed to "more explicitly express the ‘positions, activities and relationships’ grantees are prohibited from taking part in, such as ‘advocacy of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, racism, as well as use of the death penalty, punitive measures toward immigrants.’ ”  It is ironic that through its defunding, the Church itself is perpetrating “punitive measures toward immigrants.” And somehow, I doubt these same right-wing Catholics are as concerned about enforcing Church teaching on the death penalty and immigration.

I withdrew from active participation in the Catholic Church after Pete and I got married on July 24, 2011, doing so because I did not want to put the pastor of my parish in a position of turning me away should another priest or parishioner object to me being a Eucharistic Minister, lector, or even an usher.  It would be OK for me to sit quietly in church and continue to drop my generous donations in the basket each week, but in all other ways, I was unwelcome and unwanted by the Church to which I devoted my life for 53 years.  Donations that would have gone to the Church this year will, instead, go to the Ali Forney Center and The Trevor Project, the latter provides intervention and support to lgbt youth considering suicide.

Sadly, the Church of the 1960s and 1970s that marched in the streets for the rights of minorities, the poor, the marginalized, has given way to a Church that is consumed with others' sexual behavior, nearly exclusively homosexuality.  And the seminary system, especially in New York, reinforces the view of priesthood as “do as I say” (though, so often not as I do), a legalistic, pharisaic power-trip inconsistent with the compassion of Jesus, the True Pastor and Good Shepherd.  If the Catholic magisterium truly wants a smaller, purer Church, it is getting its wish.

Cardinal Dolan loves to play the victim, complaining about government interference in religion.  As I have said before, the Church can’t have it both ways.  It should not interfere in government, particularly when it comes to civil marriage offering dignity, recognition and protection to gay and lesbian couples.   

One last thing…Even though I am no longer welcome in the Catholic Church, I am grateful to clergy and laypeople from other denominations – Jewish and Christian – who have reached out to Pete and me to offer us a new spiritual home.  While we are so touched by their inclusion and thoughtfulness, we have decided to remain outside of any organized religion and will continue to live our lives is a way that truly answers the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

Addendum (April 9, 2012). My friend Melissa Steinbach read this post Sunday and gave me a Hudson Valley perspective: "People have no idea of the magnitude of this problem. I work as a case manager with homeless youth ages 16-21 in a transitional living program in Poughkeepsie. The statistics are astounding and some suggest that around 40% or more of homeless youth are LGBTQ. It is unbelievably sad that someone would throw away their own flesh and blood because of his or her sexual orientation. I love seeing articles and blogs like this because the word needs to get out and programs like ours need funding so all homeless youth have supportive environments regardless of their sexual orientation!"

Melissa's program is River Haven's Transitional Living Community (TLC).  It is a part of a great organization called Hudson River Housing and yes, it also deserves our financial support.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Glancing Back but Looking Forward

Many people reflect on the year that just passed and say they're glad it's over.  As I glance back at 2011, I can't do that.  It was a very good year.  That's not to say it was perfect, but there is much for which to be thankful.  It's also my belief in positive thinking.  I tell students that, even in bad times, if you believe in yourself and exude confidence (minus arrogance), success will follow you.  That had to be reinforced with one of my former students who is still not working, seven months after graduating.  She was obviously despondent, but I told her that can't be reflected in who she portrays herself to be.

If you internalize defeatism, it will be read on your face and ooze from your pores.  I'm not a New Age type of guy, but I honestly believe in a person's aura, the vibes and sometimes even a color that surrounds a person.  It's not a perfect system, but I'm pretty good at "reading" someone, as are HR people or others who interview prospective candidates for jobs.

In 1987, when I came back from two years of study abroad in Rome, it was very difficult to find a job.  A position similar to the one I'm about to leave was open at Marist. I was told by the College's HR department I wasn't even qualified for an interview.  After months of searching, I accepted a college PR job in Presque Isle, Maine, not my ideal location because my family and friends were in Poughkeepsie, but I needed a job.  Two weeks before I was supposed to start, I saw a friend, John Mack, then president of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation, who gave me a job at the utility -- in my home city and for more money than I would have earned in Maine.  After constantly being told, "NO!" I finally had two who said, "YES!"  It's difficult to remain positive in the face of rejection, but no one wants to hire a person with a negative attitude.  Exude confidence with a dose of humility.  You will succeed.

For Pete and me, 2011 was a year we will never forget.  June 24, we watched, emotionally, as the New York State Senate passed a Marriage Equality bill 33-29, with our Senator, Steve Saland, casting the deciding yes vote.  The State Assembly had passed the bill earlier and staunch advocate Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law immediately.  We witnessed one of the most historic civil rights landmarks of our lives.  We "proposed" to each other that night, announced it on twitter, and were heartened by the response from friends and those we know only through social media.  We became the first same-sex couple in Dutchess County to get married the day the law went into effect -- Sunday, July 24.  We will mark our "first anniversary" in 2012, but our 32nd as a couple on October 25.

There were several health issues for Pete's mom, necessitating visits to the hospital and nursing homes for rehab throughout the year.  Yet, today, Marj is home with us, faring as well as can be expected, and will celebrate her 95th birthday, God willing, in March.  My mom continues her incredible life journey at age 92, and with the exception of really bad knees, is in wonderful health.

I had knee surgery for a torn meniscus in mid-December, but thanks to a tremendous doctor, William Thompson, I'm mobile, pretty much pain-free, and looking forward to starting my new job very soon.

Ah yes, the new job.  I wasn't looking to make a change, but this position fell into my lap, thanks to a friend of 34 years (we worked together as radio reporters), whose two sons were my students and studied abroad with me in Italy and Israel.  Two of my friend's direct reports are also my former students, who remain very close to me.  It was an offer I couldn't refuse and answered a question about what phase my career would take as I approach my 54th birthday next month.  I am grateful for this new opportunity and for friends who made it happen.

I look back at my 17 years at Marist with much affection and a sense of accomplishment.  However, the job was more than scoring media placements in regional and national newspapers and on radio and TV, or participating in some history-making events.  Rather, it's the relationships developed with students and coworkers that were the highlight of my years at the college.  I count a number of former students among my closest friends.  Two of them became adopted sons and were the witnesses for our wedding.  A third has recently entered that same category.  I love them and an immensely proud of them, especially because they seize and excel at so many opportunities offered to them through internships and jobs, intellectual and athletic pursuits, and more than anything else, they are honorable, respectful and loving.  What more could a dad ask for?

So, I'm grateful for 2011 and look forward to 2012.  Here's to a New Year filled with health, happiness, peace and prosperity for all!

One last thing...thank you for the warm best wishes as I start the latest chapter of my life.  More than 1,000 people read the blog post announcing the new job.  For many bloggers, that's just a blip, but for me, it was an honor.