Spotlight on Jill Mendelson: A Nonprofit Woman With Whom to Reckon

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

To interview Jill Mendelson of UJA-Federation of New York is to understand why she’s enjoyed a 33-year run of leadership there: she has a vision, and she means to actualize it. She is the kind of person who will hate having a spotlight on her. But living as we do in a time desperate for sincere public service and honest character, we, as fundraisers, can benefit from her views of our “high-profit” sector, its challenges and opportunities, what’s she’s learned over these many years, the accomplishments she’s most proud of, and what continues to inspire her.

Jill heads UJA’s esteemed capacity-building department, which awards close to $2 million annually for organizational development initiatives through grants and awards to UJA’s core partner nonprofits. The department also runs UJA’s skills-based volunteer program, called the Management Assistance Program (MAP).

While distributing $2 million is nothing to sneeze at, Jill is most proud of and inspired by the 200+ professional volunteers who donate their time and skills to provide practical expertise to UJA network agencies. The pro-bono consultants work on time-limited projects with defined goals to help an agency achieve its mission; projects include website optimization for a Jewish community center, restructuring a finance department of two merged CBOs, helping a social services agency with an HR plan, leadership coaching for a newly appointed executive director, and facilitating a strategic planning process for an organization that helps seniors. This service is called “skilled-based volunteering,” and Jill is proud as can be when talking about it. And rightly she should be: the volunteers include management consultants, HR professionals, technologists, marketing specialists, lawyers—altogether a full gamut of talent.


Jill thinks that such volunteerism is more important than ever: “Volunteerism,” she said, “is crucial to fundraising, and, thankfully, fundraisers are more versatile than ever before to engage them. Nonprofits need passionate supporters who can talk about the organization. This authenticity makes a real difference in friend-raising and fundraising.”

Jill’s thinking is supported by data: According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, 62.8 million people volunteered last year, giving 7.8 billion hours, worth an estimated $184 billion. Wow.

In New York state alone, 19% of residents volunteer (3,137,688 people) with an average of 39.1% of all volunteers giving 556 million hours of service, worth $14.6 billion. Further, 44.5% of those volunteers also make donations of $25 or more to charity.

Hope for the Future

When asked about her hope for the future of our sector, Jill tells the story of Selfhelp Community Services, a UJA core partner, which she sees as standing out as a beacon of the possibilities that lay ahead for all nonprofits. You see, Selfhelp created a Chinese Advisory Council to better address the unique needs of Chinese elders living in New York City. The Council held its first annual banquet last fall and raised a substantial sum for Selfhelp, a highly regarded organization known for its work with Nazi victims. They reached out of their comfort zone.

More of that kind of inclusivity and action to collaborate and build unity is the future Jill foresees for our sector and city. Specifically, Jill calls us to work collaboratively with other communities, to go out of our way to meet them, and to coordinate programs with whoever our neighbors may be. “It is more and more challenging to raise funds,” she told me, “and the more we can work together and leverage scarce resources, the better we will be.”


Jill is most concerned about the undercapitalization of our sector: “Without enough capacity funding proactivity is sacrificed,” she observed. And she’s also concerned about our sector’s ability to keep up with technology infrastructure. Further, she says that you have to be a good negotiator these days and that government has to better respect its relationship with nonprofits. Jill bunches these concerns, and turns the corner on them, when she says, “We don’t want nonprofits to just keep their heads above water. We have to strive for a higher benchmark.”

Dear reader, how will you apply what Jill’s learned to your own career? [I for one reached out to my local community center and offered my skills.] Please let us know in the comment section of our blog.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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