FORTUNE -- Dana Freyer traveled to Afghanistan’s Guldara village for the first time in 1972 when she was 28 years old. In one of her first jobs out of college she’d worked as a New York-based assistant to the Afghanistan ambassador to the United Nations. She went to see the mystical country that she had only heard about from others. Now 69, Freyer still remembers the lush green valleys and vibrant farming community that surrounded her.
A few years after her trip, the Pittsburgh, Pa. native got a job as an associate at the Manhattan-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. After rising up the ranks from part-time associate, to associate, and then special counsel, Freyer became the head of the firm’s arbitration and alternative dispute resolution practice and the lead on the corporate compliance program practice as well. In 1994, at age 50, she became one of the firm’s first female partners.
“You would walk into rooms and be the only woman there much more often than not,” Freyer remarks about her ascent up the corporate ladder starting in the late 1970s and early '80s “It was a very macho culture, but Skadden was very open to people with different backgrounds, especially at that time.”
Then in the wake of Sept. 11th, 2001, Freyer watched from the 48th floor of Skadden’s downtown office building as ashes rose from the World Trade Center. She was overcome with a desire to help something positive grow out of the tragedy, she says. Surrounded by pictures hanging on her walls of the trip to Afghanistan nearly 40 years prior, Freyer knew where she wanted to start.
“It wasn’t a thought of: ‘Should we help?’ Or, ‘Will we help?’” she recalls. “There was no weighing. It was just: ‘How can we help?’ ”
A self-described problem solver, Freyer began with a needs assessment of Afghanistan and its community. The country required hospitals, schools, a stable banking system, and a dependable legal system, but Freyer wanted to delve into an issue that perhaps others were overlooking. Roughly 85% of Afghanis are farmers and nearly 50% of the country’s GDP comes from horticulture, said Freyer. But throughout the decade-long Soviet War in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, a vast majority of the country’s forest was destroyed.
Despite the importance of tree and plant growth to the Afghan economy, most large donors were focused on short-term solutions to drive growth, creating a potential hole in funding for Freyer to fill.
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“The concept of finding good root stock then planing trees that take three years to grow to yield fruit and income was too long of a timeline,” Freyer explains. “But we felt, and research showed, that incomes and jobs were the most important thing.”
In 2002, Freyer formed a non-profit called Global Partnership For Afghanistan to create farm business and alleviate poverty. She returned to Guldara the following year to meet with village leaders and craft a plan, but the lush landscape she remembered was not there to greet her. Instead, Freyer saw a village destroyed by land mines. There were few homes to speak of, and the school was just a tattered tent filled with children sitting on the dirt.
While still working as a partner at Skadden, Freyer managed to raise $150,000 by 2004 for GPFA’s first project in Guldara. The organization provided 50 fruit tree saplings for 60 farmers as well as the resources and training to ensure the crops would thrive. “I had two full-time jobs. So time was a big challenge,” she says.
As GPFA grew in size as well as impact, Freyer said she found herself wanting to spend more time running a non-profit as opposed to a law firm. Freyer was initially drawn to practicing law because of the unique difficulties that each case presented, but she realized Afghanistan was the “ultimate problem” that she wanted to spend the next part of her career solving. In 2009, Freyer retired from Skadden and officially made the leap into the non-profit world.
Freyer’s commitment to Afghanistan and its farming community paid off. Today, GPFA’s fundraising has grown to nearly $15 million. Freyer projects that the organization has facilitated the planting and cultivation of 9 million trees by 35,000 farmers. The income from the farm businesses is enough to support roughly 355,000 Afghans, she says.
“Philanthropists that are thinking of supporting activities should think about what is going to have the biggest impact and still be sustainable by the local community,” Freyer says. “You want to change lives for good immediately, not by handing things out but in a way that will last.”
Freyer is now working to give women farmers more ownership over the crops that they harvest and sell. Women are more than half the agricultural workforce in Afghanistan, but traditionally had no access to the markets to earn money directly for their labor, she said. Freyer is working to change that, and roughly a third of the farmers GPFA has assisted to date have been women.
She acknowledges that after more than 10 years of helping Afghan farmers, she is still not an expert in planting trees or growing bushes. Instead, Freyer finds that the skills she developed as a female problem-solver at her male-dominated law firm were far more important to her organization’s success.
“We all know the power of women working together,” Freyer said. “Maybe not consciously, but subconsciously, I feel that I modeled a sense of opportunities for women after my own personal possibilities.”
Words of wisdom
Advice for retirees considering a move from corporate to non-profit. “If you’re coming from a high power corporate environment, resources are rapidly available, and one of the challenges is that people think big. You think you have to do something huge to affect change when instead you might have a much greater impact if you do something smaller.”
What she wishes she knew before the switch. “How to manage around the non-profit donor-funding model of funding projects but not an organization's infrastructure.”
Biggest challenge. “Cash flow and funding sources is the same challenge in any business, but when you are donor-dependent and a lot of your funding has come from government sources, they don’t allow the funds to be committed to you at the time that you want to spend them.”
Biggest reward. “Seeing how relatively small investments and interventions can dramatically and sustainably improve people's lives if the people affected are active participants at every stage of the project's development and implementation.”
Next is a series of articles that looks at executives’ efforts to use their talents and skills to enrich or support the lives of others and upon retirement from professional life.