Julia Levy

Recognize the power of unrestricted giving and the greater opportunities it leverages for an organization. Trust the professionals — they are smart and experienced. Let them work their magic in partnership with you.

Location: New York, New York

Profession: Associate Director, UJA Federation of New York

Twitter Handle: @juliamlevy

What’s the first charitable gift you ever gave?

One of my earliest memories of donating was to the Atlanta Food Bank’s Project Isaiah which has existed for more than 20 years, giving 623,000 pounds of food to the Atlanta Food Bank.

In high school, I called the Atlanta Food Bank to learn more about the canned food drive. I learned that the fall was a time when typically donations were low. They needed to replenish supplies before winter. I signed up my school to participate. When I walked into the lobby to see the bins fill with food, I felt proud.

I think that was one of my earliest realizations that I could leverage the power of people to be philanthropic.

Who inspires you to give?:

My grandmother. She was a Depression-era baby. Despite all the economic hardships she went through, she still referred to herself and her siblings as the Five Lucky Ones because she saw the positive in the world.

Grandma Betty never stopped working. She had an ethic and a drive to her which ensured she preserve. Even on the day of her wedding, it was her turn to clean the bathroom in the apartment she shared with her siblings. She was scrubbing the floor and cleaning the toilet. Her sisters had to tell her to stop, reminding her it was time to get ready for her special day.

Having grown up without much food, Betty taught me to be thankful for what I had and to be less wasteful. I learned to savor that piece of chocolate and scoop of ice cream with her because there was an era when she never knew if she would be able to afford a treat the next time.

I always admired my Grandma’s talents for knitting — beautiful sweaters, scarves and hats she designed for family. I still have my collection of them. One day, I discovered a whole stash of tiny hats that Grandma had knitted. I learned she was making them for families less fortunate. But, she never talked about this project. It wasn’t in her nature to tell others about her charitable acts, she just did for others because she believed it was the right thing to do.

While she didn’t have much, she gave small amounts whenever she could, always thinking about the welfare of others before herself.

How do you give?:

My primary focus is on supporting education because it has the power to transform someone’s life, specifically what career opportunities are accessible to them. Education is the ultimate equalizer. I appreciate organizations that make investments in people’s lives through learning. I have also donated significant time, in particular to helping others with resume preparation and career advancement.

While my career path has limited my financial bandwidth to give as generously as I would like to, I recognize my strength to organize others to give back. The time I invest in this area has multiplying effects on philanthropy.

Professionally, I describe my impact on philanthropy as an orchestra conductor, recruiting talented smart people to come together to make meaning. I talk to people with significant financial capacity and I connect them with causes to support. Often, I hear from the donors I work with that volunteering or being a leader in our organization is five minutes of joy within a dull day. For me, everyday is filled with purpose.

Can you share a powerful volunteer experience?:

When I moved to New York, I organized a few friends to volunteer at a soup kitchen. It was a powerful afternoon. The soup kitchen took a school cafeteria and transformed it into a restaurant setting. The clients lined up to enter and as they sat down, we served them. As I offered jello, juice, bread and other food items, some of the clients said thank you, others avoided eye contact, and most were incredibly grateful for a meal at a table with conversation.

Then, I was put on bathroom duty to clean the toilets as the food service wrapped up. Until that moment, I never really thought about how someone without a home lacked access to a clean toilet. I don’t like to clean my own bathroom, but I took a deep breath and cleaned that public bathroom. It was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had volunteering. Then, I had an even more powerful moment on the subway home.

While sitting on the train, I looked up and recognized familiar faces. At first I couldn’t figure out how I knew them. I wanted to say hello, but they didn’t recognize me. As one of them read a book and the other looked down, I realized I had just served them a meal. They almost blended in with the commuters.

Then, it struck me: every day I have no idea who around me might be in need — people I pass on the subway or the street might be struggling, but I am unaware. I always think of these moments when I think about the why behind Why We Give.

What advice do you have for others to consider giving?:

It’s an incredible feeling to find a cause that you are passionate about and give your time, money and skills to it. In finding the right organization, begin by asking your friends or colleagues where they give. Then, do your research thoughtfully, ask questions, but most importantly give with your heart. You may join them or chart your philanthropic path.

I value time, but recognize that giving dollars is what’s needed most. Recognize the power of unrestricted giving and the greater opportunities it leverages for an organization. Trust the professionals — they are smart and experienced. Let them work their magic in partnership with you.

What advice do you have for those considering a career in the nonprofit field?:

Follow your passion. Identify that cause and the community you would like to be associated with as a professional. Nonprofit isn’t a fall back career, it’s a first choice career. I have worked with some of the brightest minds in my field and I actively encourage others to pursue making a difference with us.

Frequently, I talk to people who have been leading empty lives, working in career paths where they don’t find joy. You should wake up excited to tackle your work. Don’t wait too long for that feeling.

*Statistics are from the following sources: Giving USA 2014 Report; Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society 2012 Report; Independent Sector 2012 Report.


Julia Levy, Founder, has a decade of development experience, including working for a philanthropist, a small nonprofit and now a large nonprofit. She has raised significant dollars for numerous causes, from education to religion and from donors of all ages. Julia holds a Certificate in Fundraising from NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Julia has taught fundraising workshops, most recently at Brooklyn Brainery and coached development professionals.

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Why We Give tells stories of ordinary philanthropists, making a difference, dollar by dollar and hour by hour.  

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