Mark Swann was only 28 years old in 1991 when he noticed a small classified ad in The Boston Globe. An upstart nonprofit called Preble Street in Portland, Maine, was seeking a full-time executive director.

His wife was pregnant with their second child, so they were looking to leave Somerville, Massachusetts. Swann, sporting a beard and ponytail, was already familiar with Maine, having graduated from Bowdoin College with a history degree in 1984.

After talking with an attorney friend in Portland, Swann decided to apply for the job. As he was being interviewed by a panel that included clients, student interns, board members and the nonprofit’s only employee – a casework supervisor – he was struck by one thing.

“I remember thinking halfway through the interview that everyone is on the same page,” Swann said. “I was pretty young to be hired as an executive director, and on the other hand they were really small and trying to figure out where they were going. So it was a nice fit. I feel like I have grown up at this agency.”

Swann was the youngest of three children in a “solidly middle class” family in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a small town about 30 miles south of Boston. His father worked at a community bank for 20 years, before leading a nonprofit hospital, where his mother was a secretary, for another 20 years.

Swann said his father’s compassion and generosity was a tremendous influence on his upbringing. He said his father, when dining out, would routinely leave larger tips after receiving poor table service. His theory was that the server was likely having a bad day, leading to bad tips, and that his generosity might be able to break the downward spiral.

“I think that had a lot of influence on me and who I strive to be,” Swann said.

After graduating from Bowdoin, Swann returned to the Boston area, where he drove a paper delivery truck. His boss encouraged him to keep a suit in the truck, so he could set up job interviews along his route.

“He just kept saying to me, ‘Don’t drive this truck. You’ve got more to do,’ ” Swann said.

Although he rarely wore the suit, Swann said he spent most of his time talking to nonprofit agencies. During college, he spent some time at a drop-in center in Liverpool, England.

“That experience was huge for me, because it not only showed what kind of person you want to be, but there’s potentially a career path here,” he said. “I found how much I really liked the framework of the nonprofit sector and that people came together around a mission and common values and made a commitment to that mission and to those values. That’s staff, volunteers, donors and board members.”

After applying to be a volunteer, Swann was immediately hired for an open position at a refugee resettlement agency called the International Institute of Boston. During his six years there, he earned a degree in public affairs from the University of Massachusetts and began to wonder if he could make it as an executive director.

That’s when the small ad in the Globe led him to Portland, where the 55-year-old has spent half of his life leading Preble Street.

In 2001, he received the Common Good Award from his alma mater, and in 2012 he was a finalist for the Citizen Before Self Honor, a national recognition given out by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. And this year, he will be a commencement speaker at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, which will present him with an honorary degree.

“I can try to live up to the example my dad gave, but also make a living at it,” said Swann, who was paid $104,532 in 2015. “There are times it’s a bit overwhelming to think about how far this agency has come in the past 25 years or so.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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