There is something unique to the qualities of people who gravitate to the nonprofit world. Whatever their cause, they are sustained by passion and commitment. When you casually ask: “how’s work?” and they get fired up with their reply, well, it still gives me a chill.
Location: San Francisco, California
Profession: Executive Director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), San Francisco and the Western Region.
Twitter Handle: @alonshalevsf
What was the first charitable gift you ever gave?:
There was always a blue and white Jewish National Fund box at home, but I remember the Anti-Apartheid Movement or Amnesty International, as gifts I gave (rather than with my parents).
What is your charity of choice?:
I’m biased (because I work there), but I am so inspired by the work of AJWS. I love that we do not go into developing countries and arrogantly tell them what they need (and I was born and bred in England, the most colonialist country in history!). Rather we find established grassroots organizations and ask how we can help.
Who inspires you to give?:
Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in the face of injustice, some are guilty, but all are responsible. I have a strong image of my grandfather, quite poor himself, giving away his change to less fortunate.
My grandparents were poor and lived on welfare. One of my earliest memories is of each parent leaving money ‘secretly’ for their own parents as if the other didn’t know about it. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an Orthodox Jew and went to shul every morning. He always gave his change away to people panhandling and this desire to be charitable had a profound effect on me.
What motivates you to give?:
My Jewish values – I am not inspired by prayer or study, but the Jewish values that we are compelled to do our part to create a better world. British Jews carry the knowledge that only 22 miles of ocean separated our community from the Holocaust. It might sound over dramatic, but I feel I have a debt to repay and a responsibility to ensure that human and civil rights are defended everywhere.
How do you give of your time?:
The San Francisco Food Bank is a favorite. You stand around doing menial work and talk with great people. I have become quite adept at judging pouring 8oz of white rice into plastic bags (the trick is to flick some of the grain off of the second scoop!).
My ‘usual’ station was always filling 8oz of white rice from a big sack into small bags that were then sealed and put into food boxes. It is a menial and mechanical job and freed me to talk with my fellow volunteers. Many are there for ideological reasons, while others were doing community service to pay off parking tickets. They just added to the richness of the conversations. I went once a month for a long time. Since changing jobs this has languished, but would make a good New Year’s resolution.
The flip experience is Project Homeless Connect which every few months brings together multiple social service agencies under one roof to help the homeless (medical, dental, call relatives, clothes, books, meals etc.). I volunteer as a guide, walking a homeless person to the different services s/he requires. We talk. I hear their story. My novel, Unwanted Heroes is based on many of these stories.
What advice do you have for others to consider giving?:
Research. Ask good questions. Check for meaningful and sustainable accomplishments.
What drew you to work in this role?:
When I was eight, I had a Free Nelson Mandela sticker on my pencil case. The teacher told me to remove it and I refused (I was a generally well-behaved boy). She said I could keep it if I went in front of the class and told them who Nelson Mandela was and why he should be freed. I did and I haven’t closed my mouth since!
Who inspires you to raise money?:
The grantees – those receiving the money we raise. These are people who come from marginalized populations, poverty, abusive backgrounds, and desire to effect change for themselves and their communities. I read a lot of reports and watch videos etc. I recently traveled to India with a group of donors and am simply in awe at their commitment to provide their children with the opportunities they themselves were denied.
What drew you to work in the nonprofit field?:
The desire to feel that there is meaning in my work beyond the need to put food on the table for my family. In addition, there is something unique to the qualities of people who gravitate to the nonprofit world. Whatever their cause, they are sustained by passion and commitment. When you casually ask: “how’s work?” and they get fired up with their reply, well, it still gives me a chill.
What advice do you have for others considering the field?:
You need to believe in the cause. Not only will the donor know when you are reciting lines, but it will grow stale for you too. This job is too important and stressful to just go through the motions. Besides, you can hit cruise control elsewhere and get paid better.
Think strategic and be creative in finding solutions. Being part of a supportive staff is critical to getting through the tough times and feeding off each other’s energy.