Why Nonprofits Matter

September 28, 2015

Take a minute from whatever mundane management task you're doing. Forget about the donor who won't return your calls or the board member suggesting that Lady Gaga would be a great celebrity to have at your event. Maybe you are having a bad day.

Set that all aside for just a few minutes.

I'd like to tell you a story that I guarantee will remind you why you work in the nonprofit sector.

It's not the easiest story you will ever hear.

I met Judy Kottick more than 20 years ago when our daughters were in a toddler playgroup together. Judy's daughter Ella was kind and full of life. A joy. Apple right near the tree.

Ella grew into a remarkable dancer and artist and graduated from Macalester College in 2011. She planned to pursue a doctorate in psychology, aspiring to provide mental health services to underserved populations.

In January 2013, while crossing a Brooklyn intersection known to be among the most dangerous in the city, Ella was hit by a bus. She never had a chance.

Her mom and dad, Judy and Ken, broke into a million pieces, unsure how they could go on.

It was a sleepless year for Ken and Judy. Judy often found herself at her computer in the middle of the night. She wasn't entirely sure what she was looking for -- maybe there was someone who might understand her pain.

One night, she found HP and Amy Tam Liao. Their 3-year-old daughter Allison had just been killed on October 13 that same year while crossing the street with her grandmother.

She emailed them and they responded in less than a day.

Through them, Judy met Amy Cohen. Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein's 12-year-old son Sammy had been struck by a van on his own block just five days before HP and Amy lost Allison.

Three couples. Kindred spirits. Unimaginable grief.


Amy and Gary were members of Transportation Alternatives, a NYC-based nonprofit whose mission is to "reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile." The organization works to promote bicycling, walking, and public transit as a better alternative to driving a car.

These three couples began to find other grieving parents; grieving parents found them. All bound together by the unimaginable and determined to build legacies in their children's memories.

Soon there was a small army.

On the first anniversary of Ella's crash, this army of mourners, along with Transportation Alternatives, organized a vigil calling for safe streets at her Brooklyn intersection.

The turnout was huge. Ken and Judy were stunned.

That day they learned their first lesson about community organizing: if you get a press person to cover a vigil (essentially an outdoor press conference), politicians appear. The more press, the more politicians. The combination can lead to action.


A month later, the army had a name. Families for Safe Streets was born as an initiative of Transportation Alternatives and its goal was clear and specific -- fight to lower the NYC speed limit.

They would soon need a new goal.

These grieving activists, including Judy and Ken, got some media training and went to Albany to tell their tragic stories to their elected officials. Imagine telling the same awful story over and over, holding up graphic pictures. They did what needed to be done.

Just three months later the speed limit in NYC was dropped from 30 to 25 mph. Warp speed.


After this huge win, Families for Safe Streets is now focusing on enforcement. This time it's David vs. Goliath. Families for Safe Streets (David) is taking on the bus drivers' union and the Taxi and Limousine Commissions (Goliaths). This will be a much tougher fight. The unions will fight back.

Get this. It's assumed that bus drivers will have a certain number of "knock downs" (their words) each year. This is considered normal and acceptable. Unbelievable.

Makes you want to donate to Families for Safe Streets, doesn't it? You can learn more here.


Ken and Judy are made of special stuff. In their shoes, I'm not sure I would have the kind of fortitude they have and I consider myself an activist. But something happening to one of my three children? And then participating on weekly steering committee calls, reminded every single day of the tragedy? I'm not sure I could bear it.

Some days this work feels like the best thing Judy could possibly do. On other days, it's just a different kind of torture.

I asked Ken what it was like to be involved in a nonprofit for the first time in such a big way. Ken took his time answering and his response has stayed with me.

When it all happened, it all felt so random. Something insane, impossible and unimaginable. Being a part of Families for Safe Streets and this group of the most impressive and passionate people has helped me to reframe my daughter's death in a way that helps me to make more sense of it. It's been reframed for me as a problem to be solved. 24,000 crashes and 100 fatalities in NYC year to date. I see that our work can save lives.


There are lessons for all of us who work in nonprofits in the story of Ella and Sammy and their parents and the growing number of families like theirs banding together as part of FSS.

You are needed. Badly. You may be in the business of advocating for the homeless, caring for sick kids with cancer, or standing in a courtroom fighting for immigrants about to be deported. You may be delivering meals to seriously ill patients or teaching in a school for autistic kids. These people are counting on you. Sure it's a lot of responsibility. But even more so, it's a privilege.

You make things happen. You have an expertise in your field that you share with those who need it. Re-read what Ken said. TA helped Ken make a shift in his point of view. He is motivated to solve a problem. While his grief remains unimaginable, an organization that was there for him is sharing its expertise to enable him to play a role in solving a problem. That's a gift.

You raise awareness about societal problems. You provide an opportunity to folks like Ken and Judy to turn their grief into action. You advocate like hell, inspired by your clients to change the system. You organize vigils and press conferences, you write op-eds. You ensure that the story of each family, each client reverberates - that the larger point is made - and you call people to action.

You offer hope. When the truck arrives to deliver a nutritious meal to a seriously ill patient, you're delivering hope - "maybe I can beat this thing." A homeless gay teen finds a bed at a shelter and the next day meets with someone dedicated to getting that teen a part time job? That's hope. A hospital researching the cure for pediatric cancers is offering hope. That's what nonprofit work is about.

You lift us all up. Surrounded by passionate, dedicated people for whom the work feels like a vocation? It's inspiring to be in your company. It's a privilege to know you.

Before you head back to the mundane work it felt like you were doing, remember something important: Every single thing you do, even the mundane and the frustrating, is a means to an end.

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