When Anne Nolan first walked down the darkened steps into a homeless shelter, she started to cry. "I was so overwhelmed by the emotion of the place, the humanity, the pain," she recalls. "I was terrified and frightened. The dilapidated building was filthy, and it was mobbed with people lined up for food and shelter."
That was eight years ago. Today, Nolan, 60, is president of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state's largest provider of care and shelter to the homeless. The nonprofit expects to serve some 7,000 people this year, from a newborn to an 89-year-old, and demand is growing. "When our consumer base grows, that's not a good thing," Nolan notes.
Spoken like the veteran of corporate America that Nolan is. Her career path included stints as a university professor (she has a master's in counseling and a doctorate in education) and nearly 30 years working for big companies like Fleet Financial Group and Digital Equipment in various senior executive slots.
But by 1999, her everyday world was "flat.... There was no passion," Nolan says. With her company at the time dissolving, she had the chance to step off the corporate merry-go-round, with a year's pay to tide her over. At 52, she was years from retirement. Big salaries and year-end bonuses had kept Nolan tied to those corporate posts. "I got so far away from where my heart had been back in my idealist days growing up in the '60s. I had started my career in education with such energy and enthusiasm and a belief that I could make a difference."
Seeking. She started to walk 6 or 7 miles a day along the Blackstone River near Providence with her dog. "I wanted to do something that would make me proud, something to feel passionate about. Something that would make me cry for the good reasons," she says. And one day, something shifted. "'That's it,' I said out loud. 'I'm not going back to the corporate world. I'm going to get a job at a not-for-profit.'"
Nolan heard about Travelers Aid, the old name for Crossroads, arranged to meet with the president, and paid that first visit to a shelter. "I knew I had found my place," she says. Whenever Nolan bought a lottery ticket and dreamed of what she would do if she won, it was always the same fantasy: start a nonprofit to help homeless families. A strange choice, she says, considering that her only exposure to homeless people was stepping around them on city streets.
Impressed with Nolan's corporate background, the president named her to a board position that first day. Later, when the president left, Nolan got the job. The pay: only about half her six-figure corporate compensation. She did belt-tightening and tapped into her home equity—all worth it, she says. "I love my job. You can't put a price on that."
Turns out that her corporate career had readied her to help the homeless. "I held a patchwork of unrelated positions and industries that suddenly all connected. Whether it was financial controls or organizational development, environmental construction or an FDIC audit—suddenly it was all relevant."
Nolan has used her business acumen to transform Crossroads Rhode Island into more than just a shelter and soup kitchen. Yes, food and shelter are available 24-7, but there is also a range of housing options, full-spectrum healthcare and dental service, basic adult literacy and GED training, and job search help. There's a nursing assistant training program, plus hands-on instruction in printing and graphics.
Crossroads has helped over 25,000 adults and children in the past seven years. The nonprofit's annual budget is now about $10 million, up from some $3 million when Nolan started, as the number of donors has grown nearly 10-fold. She says she has even bigger dreams for Crossroads. Nolan still cries sometimes when she enters the shelter, but it's no longer from despair.