Donna Deutchman Chief Executive Officer, Habitat for Humanity, San Fernando, Santa Clarita Valleys
Choosing between her natural calling as a change agent and risking proven success for the unknown, Donna forged a rewarding new career in nonprofit leadership where she makes a difference for some of California’s most impoverished families.
Sometimes the wisdom of knowing the difference between reaching an early finish line and walking away can be difficult to explain to the outside world, but to the individual, it is profound. The decision to make a change can be very bold and courageous.
My first early finish line was the result of self-realization beginning in graduate school when I identified the difference between what I thought I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to be. For most of high school and college, I strategically took classes and jobs related to my goal of earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
I was successful in graduate school, earning straight A’s, but realized that I didn’t feel genuine in the role of a clinical therapist. Fully immersed in the university environment for several years, I discovered that devoting my time to research and publishing versus working with clients and people did not fit with my nature and who I really was.
The idea of leaving a Ph.D. program was unthinkable to other students, friends and faculty. I was told that it could bring down the standing of the entire program. To avoid that, I was granted a six-month leave of absence with an option to return.
I realized two things: First, I had actually reached one goal set in my early educational years—completing a degree and several internships. These were complete activities, not only steps toward an end. Second, I needed to “re-purpose” the tools that I had learned and become the best person I could be.
The university offered me a job in the Gerontology Program working on the most cutting-edge programs on healthy aging in the country under the direction of the best leaders and visionaries in the field. This was where I found my tempo! But after nine years of rapid growth and success, the board of directors suddenly shut the door on expansion and initiated a slow-growth policy for new programs. My once dynamic working environment became mired in bureaucratic red tape.
It was abundantly clear that the changing culture of the organization left me with little opportunity in the way of personal mission or professional growth. But this was where I had found my tempo! I had learned that program development and creating new services are instinctive to the very core of my being!
The moment came when I had to choose between resisting my natural calling as a change agent and risking proven success for the “unknown.” Unlike graduate school, this time the finish line was drawn unexpectedly compelling a move on my part. I realized that I had already reached the finish line but had missed the sign.
Knowing the institution I had helped to create was no longer able to maximize my talents, I packed my bags and walked away. In this case, the “unknown” was the only path that allowed me stay true to myself. In retrospect, my decision to leave was a blessing. I went on to forge a new career in nonprofit leadership that reflects the person I am today.
I’m not a “company gal” who expects a gold watch or standing ovation for my accomplishments. I’m more of a “JoAnne Appleseed” wanting to look back one day and see how many orchards I have planted and how many families can feed themselves from the fruits of my labor. This is what matters to me.
Find your tempo. Don’t be afraid to change course or shift the direction of your life especially in the face of proven success. Stay true to the person you are—and to the one you want to be.
Donna Deutchman is the Chief Executive Officer for Habitat for Humanity, San Fernando, Santa Clarita Valleys, a nonprofit that lifts families out of the cycle of poverty housing through homeownership, self-sufficiency skill building and education. A leader in the development of direct services, research, and policy, she has dedicated her career to advancing the missions of non-profit organizations through effective innovation and self-sustaining business practices.