institutional grantmaking

If opportunity knocks, answer that call to service

None of us know what we can discover about ourselves until we take a hard look. This self-examination certainly applies to me.

As a longtime donor and trustee of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation), I was already well aware of the meaningful – and often life-changing – work its funding makes possible. Not until recently, though, while reflecting on my four years as chair of The Foundation’s Board of Trustees, did I realize that one of the lives most positively impacted has been my own.

My path to volunteerism and the lay leadership of this respected nonprofit came somewhat late, following three decades in investment management. Twenty years ago, my wife and I established a charitable fund at the foundation, motivated by our desire to give back. I was subsequently recruited to serve on its investment committee, and later nominated as a trustee, before becoming chair in 2017. Being chair has been an awesome responsibility—particularly over this past year—and as a result, I have grown in ways I could have never imagined.  

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that now, more than ever, nonprofits of all size need committed volunteer leadership – particularly at board levels. 

First, communities do not thrive and grow on their own. Those with the time to invest and requisite skills to contribute must step up, especially in today’s challenging times when so many nonprofits are struggling to adapt and survive.  Each of us has a tremendous capacity within ourselves, more than we can often comprehend. And it’s often amazing how much we can discover about ourselves in the process – as I certainly did – from getting involved in the community.

Secondly, volunteering offers an opportunity to put yourself out there and grow beyond your comfort zone. My own path is certainly proof of this. What I recognize now is how continuously expanding our breadth of knowledge, life experiences and challenges brings fullness to our lives. “Step up and do it” may be a cliché, but it’s entirely appropriate here. Even if you doubt whether you’re good enough to do it – and I certainly had moments like those early on – press ahead regardless. 

Full disclosure: Upon becoming The Foundation’s chair, I was initially a bit uncomfortable, realizing how much I had to learn, but ultimately grew each step of the way. In short, if I could do it, so can you – and you will be immeasurably gratified in the process, too.  In these reflective times, we unconsciously discover the things that bring not only personal gratification but also benefit the institutions we’re involved in. 

This underscores my final point: Don’t discount your talents. Most of us have a wide range of skill sets to offer nonprofits. Some of these qualifications are obvious, such as my background in wealth management being a complementary fit for The Foundation’s Investment Committee.  Other attributes, however, may be latent but ultimately prove equally if not more valuable.

My final year as Board chair was consumed by the pandemic; it’s almost impossible to recall anything pre-COVID. This unprecedented global disaster forced The Foundation to adapt as an organization and take urgent steps to continue to meet vast emerging needs. In my professional life, I had been through capital markets downturns including stock and bond market crashes in 1987 and 1994 respectively, the dot-com meltdown, and the 2008 financial crisis.  From being tested by those prior crises, I had an underlying optimism that served me well. I was confident in the strength and resilience of The Foundation along with the human capacity to innovate, change, and bounce back from adversity.

Before COVID, I had regular, periodic interactions with Foundation President and CEO Marvin Schotland, whose steady-handed leadership has helped the organization grow from $90 million to $1.4 billion in charitable assets over the past three decades.  No stranger to navigating adverse circumstances himself, Marvin and I spoke daily throughout the pandemic, thrusting me even further into The Foundation’s operations. 

I closely monitored developments and provided counsel – as did my fellow trustees – as Foundation staff pivoted to work remotely without missing a beat, all while committing the entirety of its institutional grantmaking last year – more than $8 million – to pandemic relief. Our grants team did a deep dive, conducting research with hundreds of nonprofits and other funders throughout Los Angeles, to identify pressing needs and deploy monies to support critical issues.  

You would think it’s easy to give away money but believe me when I say it’s not, especially when you want to do it prudently. It requires diligence, hard work, and expertise. I have no doubt that my hidden talents and prior background through market downturns unknowingly provided me with experience and confidence in these circumstances, and the ability to help guide The Foundation through these turbulent times. 

Muhammad Ali said that service to others is the rent we pay for our rooms here on Earth. Harken the words of the Greatest of All Time. Push yourself and step outside your comfort zone. The impact on others can be profound but the life you change may be your own.

William R. Feiler was chair of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles from 2017 until 2021. He is a private investor who co-founded the wealth management firm Bel Air Investment Advisors following 14 years with Goldman Sachs.