The Fairy GOODmother

by Jessica Hanewinckel | April 2011 | 3 Comments »

We live in an age when nonprofits are more ubiquitous than Starbucks coffee shops, and the larger ones inundate mailboxes everywhere with pleas for money in exchange for some personalized return address labels. Considering the sheer number of “mega charities” out there, it can be hard to determine which are run by good people doing truly good things who put donated funds to work with minimal overhead.

Naomi Eisenberger, executive director of the Good People Fund, has a knack for sniffing out those gems that often go undetected by the larger population of donors with money to give.

Eisenberger, frequently called a fairy godmother by the directors of the grantee charities she supports, incorporated the Good People Fund as a nonsectarian — but very Jewishly influenced — 501c3 in January 2008. It was her intent to discover and support small non-profits who are trying to do their small bit toward tikkun olam and tzedakah with few resources, to guide and mentor those grantees and to educate others about the process and power of helping others.

“We look for grassroots,” says the New Jersey resident. “Our focus is good people. There are many wonderful small programs out there, but what differentiates us is that each program is started by an individual or small group of people who are responding to a need they have come across. Something in their life has brought them to start what they’ve started.”

In fact, it was prior experience volunteering, and then working, with a similar boutique non-profit for about 16 years that inspired Eisenberger to establish the Good People Fund. When Danny Siegel, director of Ziv Tzedakah Fund, whose mission mirrored that of the Good People Fund, announced his retirement and the board decided to close, Eisenberger, a board member at Ziv, “blurted out” within 30 seconds that she was starting over, “because it was too important to end. I wasn’t ready to retire, and all the programs we supported were small. They were grassroots, and it was really a very big loss for many of them. It was also a loss for many of our donors, who had come to rely on us for the very distinct type of tzedakah work we did.”

Eisenberger immediately reached out to Ziv’s donors and grantees, taking many of them with her to the Good People Fund. When you understand the operating principles at work at the Good People Fund, their eagerness to make the transition is no surprise.

“I think when someone makes a gift to the Good People Fund, they can rest assured that only a tiny percentage goes for administration,” says Allen Katzoff, one of the organization’s seven volunteer board members. “Naomi is the only paid staff person, and even her salary is a designated grant. The money goes to end users, and many of the organizations we support are similar. Many are volunteer run, or they have very small staffs, and so they do the same thing, basically. It’s a flow-through to the end user, and the recipient gets a tremendous percentage of the money given. That’s the beauty of supporting small organizations.”

According to Katzoff, the Good People Fund supports two types of organizations. First are the small, mostly volunteer-run non-profits who are doing great work serving specific populations — the hungry, the poor, the sick. They they don’t really have ambitions to grow — they’re just doing the work that needs to be done. The second type of organization, Katzoff says, is more like small start-ups. They have very transformative ideas that could one day play a part in citizens’ everyday lives.

“Once they get big enough and they’re attracting larger gifts from others,” Katzoff says, “The Good People Fund then moves on to find other small organizations. We want to help them stand on their own two feet and move up to the next level.”

Part of that process is serving as a mentor and teacher to the directors of the grantee nonprofits — a job that falls to Eisenberger.

“I have a unique set of skills I’ve developed over 18 years of working with small non-profits,” says Eisenberger, who, prior to that, was also a high school U.S. history teacher, a mom, a plant doctor and an entrepreneur in needlepoint craftwork and men’s clothing. “They have unique problems and situations, so I spend a considerable amount of my time giving them concrete advice on how they should operate with efficiency and transparency….For most of the programs we work with, we develop a very strong personal relationship, and we’re there through the good times and the not so good times. Our wish is that every program we work with outgrow us, and that they grow to a certain point where they can flourish without our funds.”

Part of building that personal relationship means Eisenberger and her board members make sure they visit in person each of the organizations they support on a regular basis. In early March, she’d just returned from a trip to Israel to meet with the organizations the Good People Fund supports there.

“It’s very important to us that the funds we donate have an impact,” Eisenberger says. “We always contribute funds for specific needs, and we like to know those funds are making a considerable difference. We do a tremendous amount of due diligence. We demand a lot of transparency from the programs we work with.”

Adds Katzoff, “Many of these organizations’ [directors] are people who are interested in doing good work. Some of them are volunteering full time. These are amazing people, and it’s always humbling being in their presence when I meet them. But they don’t necessarily have business or even non-profit backgrounds, so they need help running their organization, they need advice, and Naomi has learned to be an amazing mentor to them. She helps them, gives them advice, refers them to all sorts of resources, or just brainstorms with them…On top of all that, the Good People Fund provides them with funding. In another industry, we might be called a turnkey operation.”

Eisenberger, who works out of what was once her son’s bedroom, devotes her schedule full-time to finding, mentoring and supporting the approximately 60 organizations the Good People Fund supports.

Of those non-profits, many are either started and run by Jews or focused on helping segments of the Jewish community. The organization is tied up in Jewish values. Its roots, for example, lie in Maimonides-inspired tzedakah. Through quiet assistance and donations, the final recipients are being given a hand up, so that the Good People Fund’s support will ultimately help its grantee charities, and those charities’ recipients, sustain themselves. Eisenberger herself is Jewish, as are many of her board members. Even if an organization is non-sectarian, chances are its founder is Jewish.

Missions of Good People Fund non-profits are as varied as the charities are plentiful, and for every donor, regardless of their passion, there is a charity with which Eisenberger can match their interests and direct their funds — whether the donor is a bar mitzvah boy donating $18 or a family foundation giving $100,000. In Israel, Beit Frankforter is a group of elderly women who make about 500 sandwiches for hungry school kids in Jerusalem; Birthday Angels is a mom/former party-planner who throws birthday parties for needy kids; and Yaakov Maimon Volunteers helps Israel’s newest citizens adjust to their new home. In the U.S., Volunteers in Psychotherapy is a benevolent psychotherapist who agrees to treat clients at a reduced rate in exchange for their volunteer work; Home Front Hearts is a military mom with an often-deployed husband and four young children who helps other military families that fall through the cracks; and AmpleHarvest.org is a backyard gardener who realized that an answer to America’s hunger can be found in the excess produce found in countless Americans’ backyard gardens.

Though all the organizations the Good People Fund supports are equally honest and noble in their works, Eisenberger says, two exemplify the kinds of deeds common among them.

Both Gary Oppenheimer and Randi Cairns (both Jewish) of AmpleHarvest.org and Home Front Hearts, respectively (both New Jersey-based non-profits), lived their charities’ missions in their own lives first. Oppenheimer, an avid gardener and proponent of environmental sustainability, devised an online system to connect gardeners nationwide who had excess produce to their local food banks, thereby getting fresh, healthy food into the hands of the hungry without costing the donor a dime.

Cairns, who knew the struggles of a military family when her own husband was deployed to Afghanistan, decided to put her non-profit background to use in creating her own organization to assist military families in the U.S. whose needs could not be met by military or other resources. (See sidebars for more information on both of these charities.)

Both Oppenheimer and Cairns work with few resources and modest or no salaries (and in Cairns’ case, with frequent pauses to shush her four screaming children as she helps beneficiaries over the phone), yet, with the help of the Good People Fund and a handful of other benefactors, have managed to succeed.

Contrary to countless other philanthropic endeavors, the Good People Fund has also thrived in the U.S.’s down economy. Though Eisenberger says she has no idea how they’ve managed to become incorporated and grow at the height of the recession, according to Katzoff, the answers are simple.

“It hasn’t affected us, I think because our donors are looking to get the greatest bang for their buck, and they’re looking for a really efficient way to make donations,” he says. “Also, the needs we address are so great right now, and people are recognizing that. There’s a greater awareness [of things like hunger and poverty], and the people who have money understand that in these times, especially, they have to give.”

For more information on the kind of work the Good People Fund is making possible, visit www.goodpeoplefund.org or call (973) 761-0580.

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/COLUMN: Feature

A Bounty for Sharing

Organization: AmpleHarvest.org

Founder and director: Gary Oppenheimer, 58

Created: March 2009, incorporated April 2010

Ah-ha moment: “I realized the combined problem of both hunger in the country and the challenge of too many gardeners growing excess food, which was going to waste.”

Mission: To enable the more than 40 million people who grow food in home gardens to be able to find a neighborhood food pantry where they can donate excess garden produce (which Oppenheimer estimates could be billions of pounds), using an easy search on AmpleHarvest.org.

How the Good People Fund helped: Funding early and ongoing incidentals and start-up costs to get the non-profit off the ground, offering guidance and mentorship. Has funded a free AmpleHarvest.org iPhone app and is funding one for the Android, currently in development, among other projects. “I can’t imagine Naomi touching anything that doesn’t touch the gold. That’s how she operates. This is not an impersonal foundation. It’s more like you’re being adopted by somebody and they’re going to give you college money, but you still have a home to go back to.”

Proud moment: Becoming a CNN Hero in April 2010.

Newest additions: A “gleaning” component on the Web site, in which home gardeners can search for a local gleaning organization, who will harvest the gardener’s excess produce for them free of charge so they can donate it. Also, gardeners will be able to print from the Web site an information sheet about their fruit or vegetable to include with their donation, so recipients know just what they’ve received.

Current standing: About 3,400 food pantries nationwide have registered with AmpleHarvest.org’s network. That’s about one-tenth of all U.S. food pantries. Oppenheimer’s goal is 10,000 pantries, or about one in three, in the network within three years.

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Heroes Back Home

Organization: Home Front Hearts

Founder and director: Randi Cairns, mom to four, wife to a soldier

Incorporated: late 2008

Ah-ha moment: “My husband was deployed to Afghanistan. Here I was with my military family and not getting what we needed. I figured if I was struggling as someone who is pretty comfortable [finding support and resources], then that was probably the case for the typical military family, and so it became a matter of how to use what I’d learned [in my professional career] to make access and information available to other families.”

Mission: To serve military families nationwide in need of extra support with resources, direct interaction, case management and volunteer projects. Also to educate and engage communities about the needs of military families from every branch of service.

How the Good People Fund helped: Funded start-up items and provided direct support to military families. Funded a pay-it-forward program for wounded warrior spouses who earn income by working for the organization to help others like themselves. “Part of what is special about the Good People Fund is that so much goes on behind the scenes. These magical things happen for the families I work with, and they never know where it came from. I think in a world where people are very big on ‘I want you to know what I did,’ it is such a fabulous way to operate.”

Standout feature: “We don’t ever say no…It’s not that we just deliver services, but that we do it as people who are living the same life. I’m not guessing what your family needs or pretending to understand. I’m living this very same life and trying to care for these families the same way I would want someone to care for mine.”

Current standing: During the holidays last year, they provided $25,000 worth of support, gifts and necessities to families in seven states. Ultimately, Cairns would like to see a Home Front Hearts physical presence and paid staff in all 50 states, though its resources via phone and Internet are already national in scope.

They still receive referrals for Gulf War military families and Vietnam veterans. As far as Operation Enduring Freedom vets, Cairns says, “There’s still a lot we don’t know. This is one percent of our country, and one percent of our country’s families, fighting for more than a decade. I would be very happy to be put out of business, but where there is this need, this is my larger family, and this is where I’ll be, doing my part.”

3 Comments to “The Fairy GOODmother”

  1. Jane Jacobs says:

    It is heartening to see that the Good People Fund continue to effect such important change on so many levels, coupled with a genuine understanding of, and desire for partnership with, the grassroots. Thank you for this wonderful article, which is testament to the incredible spirit and determination of the truly inspirational Naomi Eisenberger and her board.

  2. Your article succeeds in capturing the essence of the wonder of Naomi Eisenberger!! As someone who has had the privilege of learning from Naomi’s wisdom and mentoring, and being the appreciative recipient of her beneficence, I can only say that she is unique in what she does and how graciously she does it. Working with so many worthy and important causes, she still manages to keep her empathy, concern and passion, helping those of us struggling in the field feel truly appreciated and cared about. What a blessing Naomi is for those of us she supports, and the people that we can then support!! Thank you for sharing her special brand of “tikkun olam” and “tzedakah” with your readers!!

    Libby Reichman
    Founder and Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Israel

  3. Most of us who began our non profit work did so out of a passion. We saw a problem and know how to fix it.
    But every endeavor needs to be run properly. The Good People at the GPF have always shadowed our dreams with intellegent advise, open ears and hearts and backing for precise needs that needed to be met. I can’t imagine how our organization could have developed and survived without the inspired advise and willingness to help when the chips were down. Naomi Eisenberger doesn’t just talk the talk. She and her board are more than willing, they are fully capable of understanding the problems and finding solutions to keep our organizations sustainable.
    Small organizations don’t have the visibility of major non profits and the GPF get our message out for us to people who want their giving to make a difference in the lives of the little people who need our help.
    The care, advise and sponsorship when needed have always been there and as a tiny organization with great ambitions we are forever endebted to Naomi and her board for helping us flesh out dreams for a better world.

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