It was an unusually cold Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia; in fact, it was snowing. We had just finished dinner — enough leftovers to feed a family for a month — when my mom interrupted the typical post-holiday dinner routine of packing each leftover item in its proper Tupperware container. Spontaneously, she instructed us to grab a bunch of Ziploc bags and some sheets of aluminum foil and said, “We’re going to pack all this food up, put on coats and gloves, and drive downtown to feed people sleeping on the streets.” It was already 8 p.m. and I was only 6 or 7 years old, so this was a welcome adventure.
I can remember driving through the snowy city streets. My mom was at the wheel, and my three siblings and I were in the back seat, ready at every red light to hop out of the minivan and hand people packaged food. I kept thinking, “These people have no shelter, not only on Thanksgiving, but on any night.”
One of the many reasons that night remains so memorable is because it was born and delivered 100 percent out of my mother’s n’div lev, generosity of the heart. To this day I can see my mother sitting at that dinner table, looking peaceful and content. We were by no means a wealthy family, but she seemed to be observing the abundance around her and wanted to share it.
For over 20 years — more than half of my life — I have worked in the nonprofit sector. I have worked in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and throughout the United States.
There are about 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States. But here is a fundamental challenge that most nonprofits faceeventually: Lay people, as well as professionals, generally enter the nonprofit world because they are passionate about an organization’s mission or they’re friends with the founder or they want to be generous and to give back to society. But, as the prominent Los Angeles-based philanthropist Wendy Chang writes, “they typically aren’t thinking in money terms.”
A few years ago, I launched Global Eye Entrepreneurs, an initiative that aims to provide male entrepreneurs of color opportunities to develop the leadership skills and resources to build thriving businesses. Early on, I attracted a dedicated and active advisory committee that contributed a great deal of time and a wide swath of skill sets (planning workshops, mentoring participants, creating marketing materials, etc.).
In the beginning, I did not ask members of the advisory committee to make a financial contribution. They agreed to sit on the committee because they believed in me — even before the organization had a mission statement. In fact, initially, Global Eye was meant to be a one-time workshop. However, the workshop was highly successful, and the participants asked for a 2.0 version. We wanted to support this community of male entrepreneurs of color, so we continued to produce programming, and an alumni network was formed. But I realized that if Global Eye was going to continue offering substantive programming, we had to grow financially. We needed more than the board’s initial generosity of time and wisdom.
As the leader of Global Eye, I waited a long time to ask committee members to personally contribute financially or help build an infrastructure of financial sustainability. I felt grateful for the generosity of time and wisdom that my board members offered. But I also knew that if we didn’t build a financially sustainable model, the years of growing the start-up might be wasted. I like to think of it this way: As children, we need different nutrients than we need as adults. The same is true for nonprofits. As the organization grows, it evolves, and what nonprofits need to survive will change depending on their lifecycle stage.
Wisdom and generosity come in many forms, and I learned to communicate that all contributions were dear to the organization. I needed a board comprised of people with valuable skill sets, expertise, wisdom, and now financial resources to ensure the nonprofit’s success. Finally, I realized I had to do what I would coach any of my participants to do: get past my own concerns and fears and do what was best for the future of Global Eye — have conversations about money with my board, including my friends and colleagues. One by one, I called members of the committee and told them that the advisory board members had to also make a meaningful financial gift to the organization. Responses varied from awkward pauses to asking about the size of the gift. Overall, the board members understood that the financial request augmented their other contributions, providing for a more sustainable organization. And while several of my calls were uncomfortable, making them grew my confidence in Global Eye. And that’s what happens when our actions correlate with our commitments. In fact, this is one of the most generous gifts we can give to ourselves.
As the head of the organization, I try to help people figure out how they can best serve the mission of the organization and contribute their generosity and wisdom. As well, I work to cultivate board members who are diverse, who bring a robust diversity of experiences, and who feel comfortable and are encouraged to speak their truths. All of this is essential to cultivating a spirit of generosity and long-term sustainability.
My first memorable experience of giving from the heart because I wanted to make the world better was the night I gave food to the homeless with my family. While I was too young to know what a nonprofit was, I was wise enough to notice that my mother’s act of n’div lev was something to remember. Feeding the homeless on that Thanksgiving evening was the beginning of living life with an open heart regardless of my circumstances.
This story "Get Real Talk: Generosity and Nonprofit Start-Ups" was written by Gamal J. Palmer.
Gamal J. Palmer is senior vice president of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles where he oversees myriad leadership programs as well as board and professional development. Palmer has a masters’ degree in acting from Yale Drama School, and leads workshops around the country on diversity and inclusion. He served as a 2014 Los Angeles Global Justice Fellow, and in 2018, he was an International Career Advancement (ICAP) Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He is currently a Schusterman Fellow. He appreciates the inspiration and guidance Brickson Diamond, Wendy Chang, Vic Gerami, and Rabbi Sarah Bassin offered for this essay.