On a recent 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with guest Maury Litwack (ML), managing director at the Orthodox Union and founder of Teach Coalition.
YS: How critical is it for someone to be passionate and to be involved with something that they really believe in?
ML: When Benjamin Franklin was in France and trying to convince the French to join the American cause, he heard that Voltaire, the great French philosopher, may be interested in meeting with him. But he was warned by people that Voltaire shook a lot; he had a lot of energy. And they told him that it was either because Voltaire was in such an enlightened state of mind that Benjamin Franklin would have to be careful, or it was because he was drinking over 20 cups of coffee a day. They didn’t know. So, I think with passion, you need a little coffee and then you also need to now your “why.” I always use the example of a lottery ticket. If you had a lottery ticket and it paid you that Powerball $500 million, would you still do what you’re doing now? If the answer is no, then you are missing the passion. You can’t manufacture that passion.
YS: What led you to the epiphany that resulted in you founding Teach Coalition?
ML: I think there are two ideas that drive me. One is the assumption that there is a mediocrity out there. The other is the idea that there are people who are smarter or better than you that have already tried and failed, and if they couldn’t do it, how could I? I read all about the Wright brothers, and it was so motivating. Because the Wright brothers at the time, I think, spent $1,000, all in. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian and the government were investing in a project where they spent 5-10 times that amount of money. And the Wright brothers were told by people, “You’re never going to be successful. You guys are just some bicycle repairmen in Ohio. “And meanwhile, the Smithsonian is out there. They’re hustling. They’re working. They have a huge team. The Wright brothers are working on it in their spare time. The Smithsonian team is more educated, better financed, more of a team. But the Wright brothers were first inflight.
What’s the difference between those two? I think the difference is the passion. And I also think it was the Write brothers ignoring the noise, ignoring the apathy, ignoring all those things, and just going forward.
YS: How does one go about championing their cause with donors and elected officials?
ML: It’s all about relationships. If you have something that you’re trying to advocate for, you need a relationship with elected official. Similarly, if you want to raise money, you need a relationship with a donor. Both are about having relationships where there is a give-and-take trust built, like any other relationship that you’re going to have in life. When it comes to elected officials, it’s kind of like a Triple-A ballgame. In Rockland County, there is a team called the Boulders, which is in a separate baseball league. When I went to a game with my kids, every single player waited, signed autographs, took pictures, and everything. My kids were excited. I was excited. It was incredible. Now similarly, when you go to your local city council, local state senator, or local assembly member, you have very high odds that you can reach them. They may even pick up the phone themselves. But do people do that? No. More often than not, they wait until someone’s in the major leagues and wins a Golden Glove. They wait until they’re a congressman, a senator, or the speaker, before they do those types of things. Richard Nixon failed in his presidential election against Kennedy. He failed against Governor Jerry Brown in 1962. He quit politics. But he won re-election six years later. So, from 1962-1968, anybody could have gotten a hold of Richard Nixon, who would become president. You have opportunities to build relationships with elected officials, you just have to do it in an early way.
Obviously, when it comes to philanthropist, that’s a different calculation you have to make. You’re not going to look at the average person on the street and be able to tell if they’re going to make a billion dollars. But what you can do is. Listen to what they’re saying to you and understand what they’re talking about.
Carnegie was once meeting with a university because their campus had just burnt down. Carnegie told them he wasn’t interested in rebuilding their campus or anything like that. And the head of the university said to Carnegie, “Sure, you make steel mills, which allow for you to construct things. I produce incredible college students. They come out of my own steel mills, which are my campuses.” Carnegie heard him and gave a matching pledge to help rebuild the university. That’s listening. That’s relationships and understanding. Whether it’s elected officials or philanthropists, it’s about building relationships and about connecting with them.
YS: Perhaps you could share some of your experiences in fundraising?
ML: I once went to meet a donor about a particular cause. I explained what we were talking about, asked questions, and eventually, asked the donor for money. And he told me no. H e wasn’t interested, didn’t care about what I was doing. But because I showed up, he was willing to give me a contribution. And I turned that contribution down. The reason why is because of advice I‘d received , which was if the person isn’t actually interested in giving to your cause, and he’s doing so because he feels pressured by you or the situation, that’s not money that the person necessarily wants to give. So, I advised the person that there were three other causes I knew he was interested in that he could give instead. To this day, that person is not only involved in my charity, but a host of other things as well. I share that story, because whether you’re involved in fundraising or sales, that story is about truth. It’s about credibility and the passion we have we have when we’re credible in our profession.
On another occasion, someone took me in to see a donor, and midway through my pitch, the donor closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. But the person who took me into the meeting told me that this might happen and that this is just the way the person thinks about things. I was a little fazed, but because of peer-to-peer relationships and understanding who you’re talking to, I made it through the pitch. Thirty seconds go by in silence until he opens his eyes and offers me substantial gift. The reason why is A, because of the peer-to-peer relationship with the person who brought me into the meeting; B, I was properly prepped on how the donor thinks about things; and C, I had done my work to go in there and actually make the requests.
I like to tell these stories because I think they highlight the need to have integrity. There’s integrity in understanding who you’re talking to. With the first person, his eyes were open, but his heart was closed. The second person’s eyes were closed, but his heart was open.
YS: How important is it for a nonprofit to run like a business?
ML: It’s extremely important. One of the great educators in fundraising is a guy named Jerold Panas, who’s written very insightful books. And he writes about the need for board members to give donations to their board, because it’s similar to a stock market company, or a publicly traded company, looking at how much insider buying occurs. For example, if Jeff Bezos buys a lot of Amazon, you’ll say, “What does he know that I don’t?” Elon Muck recently announced he is noy selling any more Tesla shares for the next two years. That’s a confidence boost for the investors. So, I think what Panas is saying is also very important from the perspective of running your nonprofit like a business. As much as donors are investing money with their heart, you owe them a balance sheet. You owe them transparency and accountability like a business.
YS: Have there been meetings with politicians or donors that had not gone well that you managed to turn around?
ML: One of the things that I’ll never forget is after a big budget fight, there was an elected official who called me complaining about something. I could have just said, “Yes, I apologize.” But this elected official was wrong, and he wasn’t helpful to what we were doing. So, I got into it with him. I gave as good as he gave to me, and he hung up the phone on me. I was a little nervous about it. But someone said to me, “At the end of the day, the elected officials who represent us are elected to represent us.” That elected official still had a constituency which cared about our work. And after a few months, I got call. He was back. But he was actually more helpful the second time around, and even more helpful the third time around. And one of the things that I’ve never shied away from since then is that when an elected official is advocating for your business, your cause, or anything, I believe that you should publicly and loudly thank them and help them. But if they are obstructionists, or they’re claiming that they’re helping you when they’re not, you need to equally call that out and say it’s unacceptable. I believe it was Reagan who said something along the lines of, “Just because I’m not with you 100% of the time doesn’t mean I’m not your friend.” There was a year where I was told, “You’re not getting invited to Governor Christie’s Chanukah party and you’re not getting invited to Mayor de Blasio’s Chanukah party.” But the bills that I was advocating for passed. The work I’d done passed. At the end of the day, is your job mission driven? When you’re dealing with these elected officials, is your job for them to understand that you’re representing a cause that needs a passage? Or is your job to just get a picture with them, so you can put it on your wall and tell your grandchildren how you didn’t pass legislation or make a difference necessarily, but you got a picture with a famous politician?
YS: Passion is so powerful for fundraising and getting more people involved in your cause? ML: I’m reminded of Albert Einstein. He once traveled to Asia, not to just give lessons on physics, but also because he wanted to fundraise money for Hebrew University. But the problem was that he spoke German. The language gap was unbelievable, but he still raised money. Now why did Albert Einstein raise money in Asia, while speaking German, for the Hebrew University in Israel? How is that possible? Because the passion came forward. Because he lived a life in Europe where he was denied tenure and professorships because he was Jewish. And his kids were denied things. He bottled that up, talked about it, and the passion came through. And I just think that you don’t have to be Einstein to have passion. You simply have to be you. But remember who you are and why you’re involved in the work you’re doing.
Sign-up for our monthly emails!
We promise your inbox won’t regret this! Sign-up for engaging and informative business content to help your business scale and thrive!