Working for change through service

By Todd Cohen

As a child actor in TV commercials for brands like Coast soap, Sanka and Chef Boyardee, Jim Pitofsky dreamed he might become a professional actor and singer.

But it was dinner-table talk with his parents and older brothers about current events that set the stage for a career serving others.

Now, after a series of jobs promoting service, volunteerism and social enterprise, Pitofsky has taken on a new challenge as executive director of Hands On Bay Area, a San Francisco nonprofit that runs volunteer projects benefiting more than 300 local nonprofits.

While his parents did not expressly emphasize an ethic of service, he says, “they raised me to be a decent person and care about the world.”

So in 1985, when student recruiters knocked on his freshman door at Stanford University, Pitofsky volunteered for Special Olympics and later to help organize migrant farmworkers and work with inner-city children.

“I became addicted to service,” he says.

He also designed his own major in communications with an emphasis on law.

Concluding that the law “seemed like the means to social change,” and wanting to get hands-on legal experience before going to law school, he worked at Skadden Arps, the big New York City law firm, where he did pro bono work under Ron Tabak, a leading civil rights lawyer and death-penalty opponent.

“I got to see the change that the law could effect, and the role I can play in it,” he says.

Pitofsky then went to Georgetown University Law Center, where he was selected as one of only a few public-interest-law scholars.

In that program, he worked with mentors William Brennan, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Peter Edelman, who had been a top aide to the late Robert Kennedy and the husband of Marion Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

He also co-directed Georgetown Outreach, a community law clinic.

After graduating, he received a fellowship from the Echoing Green Foundation in New York City to found IDEALS, a service-learning organization.

IDEALS was adopted by the National Association of Partners in Education, a group working throughout the U.S. and abroad, training thousands of people on how to integrate service-learning in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Jim Pitofsky

Job: executive director, Hands On Bay Area, San Francisco

Born: April 23, 1967, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Education: B.A., communication, Stanford University; J.D., Georgetown University Law Center

Career: founder, IDEALS; director of leadership development and government relations, National Association of Partners in Education; vice president and acting president, Echoing Green Foundation; president, National and Community Service Coalition; founder, SeaChange; partner, Social Enterprise Alliance; deputy director, National Youth Leadership Council.

Family: Single

Hobbies: Tennis, singing, music, movies, rapping, hip-hop dancing, travel, hiking

Favorite movie: Forrest Gump

Currently reading: The newspaper every day

Heroes: Parents, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Van Jones, Val Joseph, Jimmy Canton, Sean Robins, Amy Biehl and her parents.

Little known fact: Great uncle was Ed Sullivan

Pitofsky was the association’s director of leadership development and government relations, and at the same time served as the elected president of the National and Community Service Coalition, a leading voice for the national service movement.

In that role, he worked the White House and members of Congress in pushing for legislation that resulted in the Corporation for National and Community Service.

He then served as vice president and acting president at the Echoing Green Foundation, which provides seed grants to social entrepreneurs to create social-change organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

After he voiced concerns about what he saw as elitism in the distribution of philanthropic capital, he says, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation asked him to start an organization to create more equitable access to capital for social entrepreneurs.

That group, SeaChange, was developing a web portal to screen grant-seeking social entrepreneurs and match them with donors.

But the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place two weeks before the scheduled launch of the portal.

So on the advice of its board chair, David Eisner, who is now CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, SeaChange shifted gears.

Plans for the portal were scrapped, and Pitofsky instead worked with 9/11 philanthropic funds to “help them find the organizations that are below their radar.”

His work helped some social-change organizations secure at least $4 million combined.

“It was the most difficult time in my professional life,” he says. “From things not coming to full fruition, I learned more from that than from any other experienced I had.”

SeaChange later was merged into the National Gathering for Social Entrepreneurs, now the Social Enterprise Alliance, and Pitofsky served as a partner until 2004, when he joined the National Youth Leadership Council in St. Paul, Minn., as deputy director.

Now, at Hands On Bay Area, Pitofsky aims to continue his work promoting volunteerism and connecting corporations with community causes.

“I am excited to be going back to working locally,” he says. “Then I am working regularly with low-income communities, and communities of color, to help identify needs and match volunteers and companies to directly address those needs.”

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