My law school professor, Robert Ferguson, discussed his philosophy on charity when it came up during our law and literature course. He shared his practice that the change in his pockets belongs to whoever asks for it. That stuck with me, so I decided to adopt a similar policy. I collect all my change throughout the year in a canister for the hungry. I donate the change to a food bank once a year around Thanksgiving.
Location: New York, New York
What is your charity of choice?:
It’s so hard to pick just one! Over the last several years I’ve probably put more of my time and money into the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society than into any other charity. They help support patients suffering from blood cancers and fund critical research that brings us closer to curing all cancers. I’ve been particularly involved with their Team in Training (TNT) program and raced with them in triathlons across the country, served on leadership committees, founded corporate teams, and mentored new fundraisers and triathletes. I’ve never met a nicer group of people than the folks racing with TNT and they truly move me – especially my teammates who are current cancer patients or survivors. The strong team culture not only inspires us to raise more to fight cancer, but also helps us connect personally with survivors and their experiences.
Who inspires you to give?:
I find inspiration in so many places that it’s impossible to pin it all on one person. I can draw inspiration from John Muir to preserve the environment, or from Susan B. Anthony to pursue social equality even when broader social currents were against her. My strongest inspiration of all, however, comes from seeing the change that flows from my efforts. It is wonderful to watch a high school student that I coached present a flawless oral argument when a few months before she struggled so much with public speaking that she could barely stand up in front of the class, or to meet a cancer survivor who was cured by a drug that was discovered using research money raised by TNT’s race teams. When I see the impact of my work, it reminds me of why I got involved in the first place, and spurs me to redouble my efforts.
Sometimes I can point to a very specific inspiration for a charitable act. For example, my law school professor, Robert Ferguson, discussed his philosophy on charity when it came up during our law and literature course. He shared his practice that the change in his pockets belongs to whoever asks for it. That stuck with me, so I decided to adopt a similar policy. I collect all my change throughout the year in a canister for the hungry. I donate the change to a food bank once a year around Thanksgiving.
Who’s a philanthropic role model?
My parents and grandparents were the first people to set an example for me by doing good deeds for others and working to make the world a better place. My grandparents were not wealthy, but they gave anyway. I have this memory as a kid of my family sponsoring a family of new immigrants from Russia. My parents helped the couple find work and get their children enrolled in and acclimatized to the local school. They stayed in touch over the years, celebrating birthdays and holidays together, and offering advice and support as needed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it made a big difference. The family thrived, and both kids ended up attending Stanford, and going on to pursue professional degrees. Their lives would have been incredibly different if they hadn’t gotten out of Russia.
How do you contribute of your time – probono?
I have worked on a wide range of cases in a variety of practice areas. In each instance, the work can be surprisingly involved. For instance, there was a man living in a housing project whose mother died. She had been pressured by the NYC housing authority to exclude her son from living there after her death. I thought this would be a quick case, instead I took it on with friends and the litigation lasted more than five years.
During this experience, I realized that if the cards had been dealt a little differently in our lives, it could have been me in my client’s situation. There are good people who need a little help from those of us who have skills and resources to do so. I believe that in turn, the broader world will be positively impacted, because when you reach out, you break down racial, economic, and gender barriers.
How do you give of your time in other ways?:
I try to incorporate giving back into everything I do, and push myself with new challenges all of the time. For example, I was never a runner. It felt like a chore until Tony Ellis, my friend and former colleague, challenged me to run a marathon through the French wine country. He dropped out 3 months into our training, and I don’t speak French, and I was nervous about doing the race on my own. But this idea sparked something in me. Instead of Luberon, I got into the NYC marathon through the lottery – I felt so lucky because it’s really difficult to get in. That race led me to do the NYC triathlon with Team in Training, and since then I’ve been hooked on running, biking, and swimming for charities – from Lava Man in Hawaii to Vine Man in Napa. Years later, Tony actually went on to race for charity too, including competing in the NYC marathon.
In addition, I serve on the boards of the Health and Environmental Resource Center and the Black Coalition on AIDS in San Francisco, and I carve out several hundred hours each year from my legal practice for pro bono work. I coach high school moot court and mock trial teams at a public school in the Bronx, I advise non-profit organizations on corporate governance matters, and I represent indigent parties in court, usually in eviction or domestic violence cases.
What motivates you to give?:
There is a Jewish concept called “tikun olam” which translates to “repairing the world.” I think my fundamental motivation is the desire to live in a better world than the one we have now. One with more social justice, less wealth disparity and poverty, healthier and happier people, security for our natural treasures so future generations can experience awe at the waterfalls of Yosemite or a herd of elephants in the wild. I could go on and on. It can seem daunting to pursue so much change all at once, so I seek out causes where I feel I can make a measurable difference, individually or as part of group, either because of my proximity to a cause, or because I can leverage my professional skills. If we all devote even a small amount of time and money to tikun olam, the results are astounding. To take LLS as an example, the teams that I started have raised over $100,000, contributing to the more than $1 billion total raised to fight blood cancers. Harnessing the efforts of thousands of volunteers, each fundraising a few dollars at a time, led to a monumental impact on cancer research.
If you could start your own charity, what would it be?:
It’s hard to come up with a cause that doesn’t already have a dozen devoted charities. I think rather than start yet another charity, I’d rather combine some of the existing ones to reduce competition for resources and maximize impact. In fact, I’ve been working with the boards of HERC and the Black Coalition on AIDS to merge the organizations into a new entity called Rafiki Wellness to better serve the health and wellness needs of the disadvantaged communities of San Francisco.
What advice do you have for others to consider giving?:
You won’t regret it – just start with a little if you are hesitant and before you know it you’ll be hooked and happy to dedicate your time or money. Find a problem in the world that really bothers you and then give to the charity that seems best positioned to solve it. Do a little diligence on the charity first to make sure the money is actually going to the cause – there are tons of watchdog sites like charitywatch.org that can help.
How else do you contribute to philanthropy?:
I try to do my part as much as I can. I try to get friends and colleagues to join. It snowballs with all these people. I realized that Ashly Davis, one of my colleagues at Skadden, had grown up in the San Francisco Bayview Hunter’s Point neighborhood, the community that The Health and Environmental Resource Center serves, so I got her involved. Now it’s her turn to have an impact.
A special shout out to Kevin for his participation in National Muffin Day yesterday. Even with a blizzard approaching NYC, he took time to bake and #givemuffins.