Mark O’Donnell: I was the new kid on the block at a place I had worked for a decade.
Mentors helped Mark O’Donnell forge a successful career, first in alumni relations and then as a university administrator, ultimately preparing him for his current role as president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Massachusetts, which provides caring adult mentors to 4,000 youth every year.
This is his story.
When I majored in history and political science at Franklin Pearce University, I was determined to become a lawyer. But in applying for paralegal jobs in the late1990s, my earlier work-study experience with the alumni office led me to take jobs in the Babson College and Bentley University alumni offices.
These world class institutions were doing groundbreaking work and enabled me to travel across the country. My job introduced me to highly successful people who wanted to give their time and money to help others. What I learned from them—a serial entrepreneur in Palo Alto, a COO in Phoenix, a judge in Florida, and many others—became an experiential MBA program.
In my next role as an associate dean for the College of Engineering at Northeastern University, I again was the new person operating in a very different environment. Fortunately, the university’s leadership team took me under their wing – and taught me a great deal about managing a large organization. I continued to travel and network and helped raise funds for groundbreaking technologies, scholarships, and advanced research.
Going from well-established private business schools like Babson to Northeastern, a billion-dollar multi-faceted institution, taught me that the world can be large and complex or small and comfortable. Along the way, dozens of mentors gave me countless hours of their time. Most importantly, I learned that as long as you have the willingness to adapt, learn, and bring with you the best practice fundamentals from where you came, you will be just fine.
Years later, in 2011, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Massachusetts (BBBSEM), then struggling from the recession, asked me to join its fundraising team. I had spent most of my career trying to make well-funded institutions gain elite status. Could I do this at a youth mentoring organization? Is this the right career move?
The opportunity came when I was travelling frequently and expecting our first child in just eight weeks. My wife and I reflected on what we wanted for the next chapter and came to the conclusion that given my experiences and interests, I could truly get behind BBBSEM’s mission At home, I wanted to be present. I accepted the offer.
I spent my first nine years at BBBSEM in familiar territory as senior vice president and chief development officer. I leveraged new and existing networks and helped to fund expansion of the nonprofit’s one-to-one mentoring programs. In a twist on my previous mentoring experiences, it was I who mentored the agency on how to operate more like a university – how to expand and engage with a growing base of supporters. I also became a Big Brother for our programs, twice.
Last July, my board voted me in as president and CEO. Leading to that decision we concluded that as we stand today, we have a world class model, the best service delivery staff in the country, and a strong, dedicated board and volunteer corps. What the organization needed was someone who could help design strategy and then clear the way to allow everyone on the team do what they do best. I knew I could do for the organization.
Embarking on a new role as chief executive of a multi-million dollar agency would be challenging in any case. Doing so at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic while navigating conversations and actions following the murder of George Floyd only increased the challenge. I did the only thing I knew to do in these instances and sought mentorship from outgoing CEO Wendy Foster and the CEO of the Connecticut BBBS agency, Andy Fleishmann.
Switching from a narrow development lens to an overarching leadership mindset was humbling: I was the new kid on the block at a place I had worked for a decade. Today, I live and breathe mentoring, professionally and at home as a parent of 6- and 10-year-olds. I also am a founding member of the board of Youth Villages MA/NH, an amazing organization committed to creating outcomes that avoid foster care and allow children and their families to live successfully together.
I was lucky from the start, raised by supportive and loving parents and then supported by caring adults throughout my life. Being able to lead an organization that recruits and supports adult mentors for kids who really need them is, perhaps, the best way I can repay those who helped me.