The article below was published by The Biscuit as a part of Josh’s new series highlighting staff leaders in Charlotte’s nonprofit sector who are shaking things up and making an impact. You can find it, here.

Spend any time with John Searby, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation’s newish Executive Director, and you will understand what a game-change he is to the nonprofit sector. You might also get an invite to kayak with him when the weather warms up.

Searby, who lives with his family on Like Wylie, loves everything outdoors. That passion coupled with a diverse background that includes coaching, fundraising, sales management, marketing and design makes him a unique talent in a nonprofit sector that tends to value direct experience over skills developed in different industries.

I first met him during the sales management phase of his varied career when he made a huge impact on Carolina Raptor Center’s Quest capital campaign to build a new nature center at Latta Nature Preserve. Then with Adams Outdoor and a board member at the Raptor Center, Searby repositioned the pursuit of corporate sponsorship as an opportunity for those businesses, seeing the 100,000+ visitors the new Center will attract as a marketing opportunity. His efforts significantly moved the needle as Charlotte Metro Credit Union signed on as a lead sponsor.

“If you’re willing to think differently, the whole world opens up,” Searby said.


Looking at things a little differently is Searby’s thing. Hired as the head of Catawba Riverkeeper in April of this year, he sat down with me this past summer to share how things were going.

“I don’t understand why there isn’t more collaboration between the environmental organizations in Charlotte,” he said at the time.

Given his can-do attitude, it’s not surprising that I would find myself in the audience for a December convening of every major environmental organization in Charlotte just a few short months later. Searby served as moderator and convener for an event that took place on a stage in the beautiful new Dimensional Fund Advisors building in South End.

Participants included many recent transplants to the Charlotte area who work at Dimensional, a company that announced its intent to expand to Charlotte in 2015 and only recently unveiled their new headquarters. A mix of mostly Millennial and young Gen X employees, the audience was exactly the constituency so many of the environmental organizations represented struggle to reach.

Throughout the presentation, a resonating theme emerged: While each organization focuses on a different aspect of the environment, their missions are incredibly intertwined.  And yet, when an audience member asked where someone can go to get more information about the nonprofits in the room, the panel struggled to suggest even one website that modeled that.

“I hope our meeting tonight sparks something,” he said that night. “Younger generations don’t want to be a part of just one of us, they want to be a part of all of us.”


Throughout his career, Searby has demonstrated an entrepreneurial mindset, tackling business challenges through the lens of creativity and innovation. Those skills were very much needed as he took over the reins of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation at an important inflection point. The organization’s board empowered him to conduct an informal assessment and put a plan into action.

Searby’s goals for Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation are to make it more sustainable, community-focused and poised for growth and innovation. In less than a year, the organization’s membership has increased by more than 20%, new partnerships with the private sector are in the works and the staff and board are re-energized following a facelift to their job descriptions that they led themselves.

“Walking the walk” with his staff was an important component of Searby’s first 90 days on the job. Coming from the private sector, it was vital for him to show that he was fully committed to the mission. That meant rolling up his sleeves and leading by doing.

There is no question Searby took a sizable salary hit when he left the private sector to — as he puts it — “follow my personal passion beyond the logical end.” Having spent two decades working in a variety of sectors and companies, he spent time unpacking what he wanted out of his remaining years in the workforce and determined to align his personal and professional passions.


Searby’s advice for those considering their own realignment into a career in the social good sector:

  1. Pursue your passion – find that thing that makes you excited to wake up each morning. As corny as that sounds, it makes all the difference.
  2. “What you’re good at is more important than what you do,” Searby said. Think about your transferrable skills, not just your job title or direct experiences. Nonprofits need capable professionals who are talented in a number of ways – understand what you bring to the table.
  3. Network as much as possible to see if you really want to commit to the change. This is more than a career change; it is truly a lifestyle change and you need to consider that from all angles.
  4. Serve on the board or a committee of a nonprofit organization. There is perhaps no better way to understand the inner workings of a nonprofit than to serve in a governance role for one.

Interested in learning more about Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation? Check them out as a part of an upcoming Local Water Symposium in conjunction with the Queens University Learning Society on February 26.