JF&CS News Spring 2018
When Benson Shapiro was six years old, he witnessed an act of philanthropy that has stayed with him for more than seven decades. Benson (or "Ben" as he prefers to be called) grew up in working class Saugus, Massachusetts. His father was the secretary of their small, local synagogue, which had just sustained severe roof damage due to a hurricane. It would cost $200 to repair the roof – quite a sum of money in 1947. There was lots of "pulling of hair" and "gnashing of teeth," according to Ben, as to whether the small congregation could raise that much money.
Ben's father called upon members of the congregation for donations to fix the roof. One day, a man named Sam Yanofksy came to Ben's house. Ben recalls seeing Sam reach into his wallet and pull out two $100 bills and say, "I think this will take care of it." Ben had never seen that much money before. The image of Sam Yanofsky reaching into his wallet has stuck with him since that day. "It was the first time I realized that a single person could have an impact on an institution that was important to many people," says Ben. I understood that one person could make a difference and if you believe that, then I think that you have to make a difference."
Ben is now the Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing Emeritus at The Harvard Business School, where he taught full-time for 27 years. The author of 14 books and 19 Harvard Business Review articles, Ben brought that lesson in philanthropy with him into his adulthood. He and his wife, Norma, have been married for almost 54 years. Together, they believe in giving back.
"We both feel that we were exceedingly lucky where and when we were born. Together, we owe it to the world to repay some of that," Ben explains. A political activist, Norma was the legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts for more than 20 years.
Ben became active as a donor and then a fundraiser for Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). In 1974, he met Bernie Olshansky, then CJP's Executive Director, which began a consultantship that has remained to this day. "I've worked as a pro bono strategy marketing consultant for CJP," adds Ben. "I became aware of who [CJP's] constituent agencies were. I don't remember when we started to give to JF&CS, but it was a long time ago and it started out quite modestly.
"Our first contact with JF&CS as a client was actually when we were adopting our children in 1971, although the adoption finally took place through the State Division of Child Guardianship," says Ben. He notes that JF&CS had been very helpful in sorting things out.
In recent years, Ben was introduced to JF&CS Services for Older Adults when he and Norma were interested in learning about elder housing. "We're not getting any younger and at some time we think we will need support and, if we're lucky, we will move into independent housing," Ben explains.
"We met with Karen [Wasserman, Director of JF&CS Your Elder Experts], and she helped us understand the entire process as well as the landscape. We are planners and although we do not expect to move into independent housing for another five to ten years if we're lucky, it was incredibly useful," says Ben. "After that, we increased our donation to JF&CS, even though we paid for this service, because we thought we got much more value than what we paid for." Ben and Norma have included JF&CS in their estate plans, as well.
Ben has gotten to know JF&CS CEO Rimma Zelfand well. "JF&CS is a wonderful organization. In many ways, the organization represents how a community should work, both at the local level and at the broader level. It makes life function better for a lot of people. It improves life for everybody, both the recipient and the donors and everyone else. You are creating an enormous amount of good across religious and socio-economic class boundaries."
In addition to JF&CS, Ben and Norma support other charities, as well. "We tend to support what we consider as complicated stories that find it hard to garner support," Ben notes. "We are very committed to civil liberties and civil rights. So the ACLU is important to us, as is University of Michigan, because we appreciate programs that deal with issues that are broadly important – like Michigan's Interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative.
"It's also nice to have in that portfolio some organizations like JF&CS that are direct caregivers, particularly in the local community, and particularly when we can take advantage of it, as well."
Asked whether he has any advice on philanthropic giving, Ben says, "People of means have a responsibility to make sure that other people have opportunity and are taken care of to some degree. This is most powerfully done through hardworking, private non-profits. I'm very impressed with what I've seen at JF&CS. It serves a lot of different constituencies in lots of very efficient and effective ways and I love to see that."
Ben currently maintains an office in Concord, where he says he is now about one-third retired, one-third active in marketing and business consulting, and one-third active in pro bono non-profit consulting. He and Norma live in Concord, as well. In his free time, he enjoys gardening, model railroads, and he has also attended blacksmith school, and steam locomotive firing and driving school. Ben and Norma have three children and five grandchildren.