Today’s post is from Bill Holston, Executive Director at Human Rights Initiative of Northern Texas. Bill is a regular comm-enter in our LGL community. As I’ve gotten to know Bill, I’ve been inspired by his amazing career transition. The work his team is doing changes and saves lives. I invited him to share his story. He offers insights about moving toward your calling, transitioning to an executive role, and leading in a mostly volunteer environment.
The Transition from Attorney to NGO Leader
For more than 30 years I practiced business law. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. But over time, I realized my passions lay elsewhere, inspired by the volunteer work I had done over the years.
The journey began 25 years ago when I said yes to a pro bono political asylum case representing Martha, a young mother. Her husband was a truckers’ union leader in Guatemala, killed by a death squad. When Marta received death threats, she fled her country. I helped her win asylum and was totally hooked. Since that first case, I’ve represented people from twenty different countries. I took the cases as a volunteer with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a local non-profit. Two years ago, the position of executive director opened. My wife and I talked it over and I decided to apply. I was 55 and ready for new challenges.
The beauty of the organization I lead is the pro bono model. We recruit and train volunteers to do the work. This permitted us last year to do almost four million dollars of free legal work, with a staff of only ten. The cases are extremely time-consuming. Many of our volunteers are from big law firms, and all have very busy practices. We clearly communicate the level of commitment. They do the work, because it is extremely rewarding. They get to do for once, what they imagined doing as a lawyer, changing, even saving lives. Another key to our success is recruiting a talented staff, who make sure that we are accepting cases worthy of our volunteers time and providing first class training and supervision of the casework. We do not hand over a file and wish them good luck.
The transition from lawyer to executive has been difficult. Of course I had passion for the mission, but there are many tasks I had to learn. As a small shop, I pay the bills, do the HR, and do development work. My primary role, however is to provide leadership to our team. It’s my responsibility to guide our extremely dedicated staff to do emotionally difficult work, with limited resources, with a commitment to excellence.
The most difficult part of the transition has been learning how to set priorities. It’s challenging to determine exactly what the best use of my time is. Thankfully, I’ve found the thing I enjoy the most is the best use, that is relationship building with our staff, volunteers, Board, and media.
Considering a Transition?
Maybe some of you are considering a transition. First, let’s talk money. I was able to pursue this passion at this stage of life primarily because of my lifestyle choices. My wife and I have avoided debt and live in the same modest house we purchased in 1986. Because our values coincide, we can afford to live on a non-profit paycheck. Next, you should be working as a volunteer in order to know first of all what mission interests you and second learning the work from the ground up. Pay attention to building good relationships in your community. These will prove invaluable.
So, what has our team accomplished? Among many others, we helped a young aid worker from Zimbabwe, tortured for whom he chose to deliver food to. We helped a young woman avoid the brutal practice of female genital mutilation.
We assisted a young man from El Salvador, who refused to join a violent street gang. They took him, slit his throat and left him for dead. These are sobering stories, but because of our volunteers, all these people are obtaining legal status and live free and safe lives in America. I’ve never looked back.
Hear Bill share his story in his Ignite speech.