Chronicle Series/Dressing the Part
From the issue dated May 16, 2002


A New Charity CEO Learns How to Dress the Part
By Yosef I. Abramowitz

A few weeks ago, my development director took me to Filene’s Basement so that I could buy my first suit in 15 years. “Do you have dress shoes?” he asked, after choosing my new, conservative, blue wool-silk combination.

“I actually do,” I responded, heading for the checkout line. “My Edgar shoes.”

The black leather shoes, nicknamed for one of my first philanthropic supporters, Edgar M. Bronfman, symbolize my first brush with compromise as I adjusted to dressing for a new role. After my initial meeting with the Seagram chief at his Park Avenue headquarters in 1987, Edgar’s foundation director took me aside, glanced disapprovingly at my canvas footwear, and stated in a hushed tone: “Here, you wear shoes.”

I bought the shoes, but I also stowed them in my backpack until the very last minute before an Edgar meeting to minimize the disruption to what has been my standard uniform in nonprofit life for almost two decades: sports jacket, button-down shirt, slightly funky tie, ancient jeans, and the ever-present sneakers. The wardrobe was about comfort and class, meant to convey a message of independent activism for a fast-paced next generation.

My unorthodox style had seemed an asset, especially in the early years. I had helped raise about $15-million for various organizations. But when I told a friend the other day that I have had to use the Edgar shoes a half-dozen times in the past four months, and only two of those times were with Edgar, she responded, “Boy, things must be tough.”

They are. Times are also different.

One change is that I am now a CEO. Not executive director or chairperson, or any of the other titles I’ve held during my 20 years of nonprofit work — including editor in chief, publisher, and the short-lived “chief vision officer” identifier I used while brainstorming creative uses for Internet publishing.

Donors have changed, too. Until recently, foundations and individuals were asking for project proposals, lots of them. Now everyone wants a business plan or at least a strategic plan that incorporates business-minded thinking. Increasingly, donors want to see a clear mission return on their investments the way they expect a financial return on their business investments.

And they want someone who dresses the part of CEO to sell it to them.

I’m game. Since I have the responsibility of raising the money and the burden of protecting key assets and jobs, I can’t let a dress code get in the way. If I am seen still as a young activist and not as a maturing CEO, my organization will not be able to raise the money we need to succeed. The goal is not just to survive, but to flourish. So I suspect my uniform will continue to evolve.

Adjusting to New Realities

While running any young enterprise — we just celebrated our fifth year — is a challenge, the past six months have been hell.

My organization, Jewish Family & Life, uses the Internet and print publications to promote Jewish values, ideals, and culture. Our mission is to use new media to spark and nurture a sense of Jewish identity. More than 250,000 people a month see our publications, and we indirectly reach many others.

I’m finding it hard to adjust to the reality that, after years of rapid growth by the group, with increases of 200 to 300 percent a year, we’ll be lucky to match the $3.3-million we raised and spent in 2001.

We were hit with the economic downturn and September 11; we’ve seen a redirecting of Jewish resources to Israel and an international resurgence in anti-Semitism. And we have the double whammy of being in the vulnerable fields of publishing and technology.

So I buy the new suit in preparation for my most important meeting of the year, a second audience with Michael Steinhardt, the legendary money manager who retired in 1995 to pursue philanthropy.

I arrive for the meeting sporting my Edgar shoes and a draft of our organization’s strategic plan. The plan calls for a reorganization of our nonprofit group into three divisions that will help us sign up roughly 400,000 people as readers of our Web sites and publications in the next two years — an ambitious goal that will take at least $4-million in new funds to fulfill.

Without the backing of Michael Steinhardt, who is regarded as one of the smartest and most strategic mega-donors, I know it will be difficult to rally other potential donors. Michael’s gift could make the difference between whether I get to concentrate on the charity’s vision and programs during the next two years, the fun stuff, or whether I remain consumed by fund raising.

Michael greets me warmly, although he looks tired. I have 45 minutes, and we start late. “Last time I introduced you to our model of community change targeting leaders, educators, parents, and children,” I begin, expecting him to challenge me as he did during our first meeting. But he’s in listening mode. “We wrestled with the question of whether an unaffiliated Jew is still technically unaffiliated if they spend three hours a week on one of our Web sites.”

He is still listening, but he has to take a call. “Money problems,” he says as he hangs up. “Yossi, I’m guessing you don’t have any of those.”

“Hey, I was able to buy this new suit,” I say defensively, trying to exude confidence. Uncharacteristically, he has no rebuttal, so I continue.

“Our end goal is to use technology and media as the infrastructure to create a new model of affiliation in the 21st century, a universal lifelong membership in the Jewish people.”

I pause, my heart beats loudly during the silence. That was supposed to be my $1-million line, but he doesn’t react immediately.

Finally, Michael asks what the goal of our meeting is.

“We are asking business leaders to read our draft strategic plan and give feedback,” I say, gearing up for my first one-on-one ask in over two years. “And I would be honored if you would consider making a strategic philanthropic investment in our organization.”

Michael reaches across the vast desk to take the 60-page document, asks about our other donors and board members, inquires what the president of his foundation thinks, and says he will get back to me with comments and an answer on a gift.

Walking me out, a smile breaks below his silver mustache as he says, “Are you sure that suit is new?” It didn’t pass the test. I hope the strategic plan does.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, a charity in Newton, Mass., that uses the Internet, magazines, and books to encourage Jews to make the religion’s values and culture a part of their daily lives. He can be reached at


Chronicle of Philanthropy, Writings


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