Making a Difference: Talking with Naomi Eisenberger of the Good People Fund


December 12, 2009- by Joan Brunwasser - OpEdNews

The Good People Fund was incorporated in January 2008 and began operating officially in April of that year. Prior to this, I had been very involved in Danny Siegel’s Ziv Tzedakah Fund for more than 16 years, serving the organization as Managing Director for more than ten of those years. When Danny decided to retire and opted to close the Fund I, and several Ziv supporters, felt that there was still a critical need for the type of giving opportunities and philosophy that that organization represented. Much like Ziv, the Good People Fund supports either individuals or very small organizations (many volunteer-run) that are engaged in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) in Israel and the United States. Although the primary focus is on directly relieving hunger, poverty and suffering, some of these small organizations also have creative ideas for systemic change but they are just getting off the ground and need seed funding. Because these small organizations have very low overhead, the dollars donated stretch very far and have maximum impact. I am the Fund’s only employee and my salary is paid by designated gifts, thus allowing donations to us to flow through to the people who need the help with very little diverted for administrative overhead.)

I think that before we can talk more about the Good People Fund, we need some background on Danny and how the Ziv Tzedakah Fund got started.

Ziv Tzedakah Fund began more than 35 years ago when Danny Siegel, a writer and poet, traveled to Israel. As is the custom, friends and family gave him tzedakah money to give away when he arrived in the Holy Land. When he arrived, he began to look for the “good people” who were working quietly on behalf of others. He met individuals like Myriam Mendilow, who took in many poor elderly immigrants and gave them a warm meal and a place to use their talents to produce crafts reflecting their backgrounds. Myriam’s work was called Lifeline for the Old or Yad L’Kashish. It can still be found in downtown Jerusalem today. He also met others like Hadassah Levi, who had rescued 40 Down Syndrome babies from local hospitals and was raising them in Maon LaTinok.

The tzedakah money he brought with him was distributed to people like Myriam and Hadassah and upon returning home to the States Danny wrote a short report to those who had given him money, explaining where he had donated it. That was Ziv’s beginning and eventually Danny incorporated and Ziv Tzedakah Fund became a legal entity that collected and distributed funds to small, grass-roots programs in both Israel and the United States. Common to all of them was the individual or small group, Danny referred to them as Mitzvah Heroes, who devoted themselves to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) in very quiet and simple ways. For many years, Danny worked on his own with no staff nor overhead.

Where and when did you come in?
I met Danny in 1991, when I was about to be installed as president of my synagogue here in NJ. My rabbi had offered me a few of Danny’s early books to read and I was captured by his philosophy and teachings about how we can all use our talents to make a difference. The rabbi and I decided to invite Danny to be our scholar-in-residence and after the weekend he spent with us, we formed our own social action committee within the synagogue and began to do our own good work. One of the things Danny did when he was with us was to challenge us to sell one of the many sifrei Torahs [Torah scrolls] we had and to use the proceeds for tzedakah work. Danny had offered that challenge to many congregations where he spoke but no one actually came through. Our board voted to sell not one, but two (we had an abundance) and, with that money, began an endowment which today still provides funds which are donated each year to several projects.

I guess that when Danny saw that I could convince a board to do this, he thought I might be interested in working for Ziv as a volunteer and asked me if I had a “few hours” a week I could devote to the organization. I was thrilled and from those “few hours,” I eventually became the organization’s volunteer administrator. The organization began to grow and, with a change in my circumstances, I eventually became Ziv’s part-time and then full-time Managing Director, with funds for my salary being donated by individuals specifically for that purpose.

I don’t think the readers have any idea of the scope of Ziv by the time Danny retired recently. In the early days,he collected random, small donations from friends and neighbors that he funneled to small, grassroots efforts, essentially run on a shoestring, by people finding ways to “do good.” Giving to Danny and Ziv was an alternative for those who disliked donating to big organizations with big overhead. By the time Ziv folded last year, the fund had become a major funder for many grass roots organizations, both in Israel and here in America. Ziv disbursed how much over the last 35 years?

$13,630,615.91

Yikes. That’s a goodly sum! And a hard act to follow. Let’s talk about the Good People Fund. Can you tell us about some of your more local efforts? Give our readers a sense of these little projects and what support from GPF can do.

When we began the Good People Fund, we wanted to continue to work with many of the same programs that Ziv was involved with but we also wanted to expand our scope and search for other new “good people” who were working quietly and effectively on behalf of others.

Some of the new programs we have started working with…

About 6 months ago, a friend told me about a woman named Randi Cairns who was the wife of a National Guardsman who had returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan as well as another part of the world. Guardsmen and their families have unique problems…they do not live on military bases and therefore do not have the support system regular army families have. While her husband was deployed, Randi raised their four children on her own and had to deal with many, many difficult situations. She once shared the story of how she was 8 months pregnant, had a broken leg and had to take her three other children with her while she shopped at the supermarket…that was one of her “lighter moments.” There were many other situations that were challenging and extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

Though her husband has returned, he can still be called to active duty and Randi, recalling her own difficulties, decided to begin Homefront Hearts, a non-profit that provides advocacy and resources to families of soldiers serving their country. When I first spoke to her, I asked her how we could help. She jokingly referred to her desk chair, which was being held together with one screw, and her printer, which only worked when she hit it in a certain way. Before she knew it, we had her at Staples buying a new chair and printer so she could do her good work with a little more comfort and less stress. Since that time, Randi has directed us to some very sad situations involving wounded soldiers and their families whose needs are not being met by other entities. No matter what one feels about the ongoing war in Iraq or the deployment of soldiers to Afghanistan, many have families with needs that are not being cared for.

For Randi and others, the GPF can provide not only monetary support but they know that we are available for mentoring, moral support, a shoulder to cry on when things get frustrating, practical advice — we do it all.

Recently, we provided funds for a small local social service agency, (run by volunteers) which had been overwhelmed with increased requests for help with utility bills and mortgage payments.

Again, on the local level, we discovered a small organization that was started by one woman who was hearing stories of residents who could not pay their electric bills or a father who had lost his job due to illness and was foregoing much needed medicine so that he could put food on his family’s table. The founder could not believe this was happening in a town known for its affluence, but upon investigation, learned that these stories and many others were true. She began her organization, Down the Block, and we have given her funds for some of the cases and have also spent time with her discussing strategy and growth. We are a unique resource for small programs, which so often were begun by a visionary with little non-profit or business knowledge — only a passion for changing what is wrong.

We know that many times we can make a tremendous difference in the lives of untold numbers of people and often it takes very little to make that happen. As we like to say, there is no such thing as a “small mitzvah”…we can take a small sum of money and make miracles happen with it.

These programs sound terrific and so much needed. Does someone have to be wealthy in order to help? And how do people find out about the Good People Fund and follow your work?

What is truly unique about the GPF is that we have developed the art of taking small sums of money and doing truly important and meaningful things with it. That is not to say that we don’t have or need donors with larger sums of money! The needs are huge and today, resources are so much more limited. We have $18 donors and $50,000 donors – each knows that funds we receive will transform lives in many different ways and do it in the most direct way possible. I like to use the following to best describe what we do – it is like taking the hand of the donor and placing it in the hand of the recipient with neither knowing the other’s identity.

Since we are a new organization, we are working very hard to get the word out about our work. We believe that we offer something that most other non-profits do not – a meaningful way to make a difference in the most direct way possible. Our website, www.goodpeoplefund.org, is a good way to learn more about what we do. To get an even clearer picture, there is a link on the homepage to what we call our “tzedakah diaries.” The diaries are short stories I share about our work and how we were able to use donations for a specific need. I came up with the idea to write them because so many people, when they ask about our work, are always taken with the stories and want to hear more. The stories are heart-warming and inspiring, for the most part, and produce a natural flow of endorphins when you hear them. (Which is why I do not look at what I do as “work”… It feels way too good to be work!) The best way people can help us is to spread the word of our work and visit our site to learn more.

Sounds great. For those of our readers unfamiliar with the terms, can you please flesh out what Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah are and how they are a critical part of the Good People Fund and your work?

Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew term which means “to repair the world.” We believe that each of us has, within us, the ability to heal or repair the world, using our own unique talents and abilities, in many ways, both big and small. Sometimes, we can do it with money and sometimes we can do it with our talents or skills. Think, perhaps, of a young man named Max Wallack who, at the age of 13, decided to collect puzzles that he then distributed to nursing homes. Max learned, in a deeply personal way, that puzzles can be very therapeutic for people with early Alzheimer’s. Now, only one year later, Max has collected thousands of puzzles, distributed them to nursing homes around his home and in other parts of the country, built an informative and attractive web site to tell his story, and used his exceptional intelligence to form a non-profit organization.

By his actions and using his talents and skills, he has encouraged others to do the same. Heaven knows, there are millions of ways in which we can repair the world…it does need fixing…and within each of us there is some spark, some talent to make it happen. The GPF looks for and assists people who are actively engaged in Tikkun Olam in both big and small ways.

Tzedakah is somewhat more difficult to define since it is so often misidentified as “charity.” Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root, tzedek, which means justice or righteousness. As Jews, we have an obligation to give tzedakah or funds in order to create a more just world where hungry people are fed, poor people are provided with what they need to live a good and decent life, the environment is treated with respect, sick people are healed, and so on. The GPF is a tzedakah fund and being a “fund”, as opposed to a foundation is very important. We work simply, money comes in and money goes out with a minimum of bureaucracy and a maximum of transparency and oversight.

Now–despite the fact that the GPF is founded on Jewish principles, we work with and support both Jewish programs and secular programs. Good People do not have religious boundaries.

I’m sure any and all donations are especially welcome during this holiday season. Anything you’d like to add, Naomi?

The GPF is proud of what we can accomplish operating the way that we do. We would be honored to act on behalf of additional donors who may now know about our work and would like their donations to be used with the maximum impact. Please visit us on the web at www.goodpeoplefund.org and feel free to be in touch if you have questions about how we operate and how your donation can make a real difference.

Thank you for sharing the story of the Good People Fund with us. Good luck with your work!

Read the orginal article at http://www.opednews.com/articles/Making-a-Difference–Talk-by-Joan-Brunwasser-091221-451.html

 

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