Like many young people, I found my first non-profit job out of college on Idealist.org – an organization that “connects people, organizations, and resources” online to help build a better world. On the morning of my first day I distinctly remember having a realization of my 21st-century privilege. “How on earth did people do this without the internet?” I wondered.
Idealist.org founder, Ami Dar, had that very same question. On a backpacking trip in Chile in the mid 1980s, Dar first had the idea of creating a global network to help interested people plug their energy into the organizations and initiatives that needed them. Several years later he was introduced to the internet and its remarkable ability to connect people – and Idealist has not looked back since. Dar took the time to speak with Repair the World about his own inspiration for social justice work, what Idealist might have been like if the internet never came along, and why now is the perfect time to follow your dreams and change the world.
Idealist has grown exponentially since you first launched it in 1996 (read about the organization’s history here). What has surprised you most along the way?
I have been surprised at how much longer things take than I might want them to. The whole idea that Rome was not built in a day applies. As human beings we take our time to sign on to new ideas, even when they completely make sense – so I have learned patience. You just keep doing what you have to do to give people incentives and slowly build a movement.
What has been the most inspiring thing?
That the world is full of people who want to do good and who believe that doing more is possible. The idea that I can in some small way help these people to do more is what keeps me going. Sometimes I read stories about the inspiring things people are doing and say, “this is why I get up in the morning.”
Your family’s move from Israel to Mexico when you were 8 had a profound impact on your desire to help the world. Tell me more about that.
For whatever reason, I was always a social justice freak from a young age. I remember being 7 or 8 in Mexico and reading the newspaper every day – it was a big broadsheet that I could hardly open, but I read it from cover to cover. In Mexico everything got magnified because it is a place where social injustices and inequalities jump out at you. People are living in the streets, there are abandoned dogs walking around. As a kid I was struck by the poverty around me.
My parents were also influential. My father worked for the UN at the time and my mother was a bible teacher – she taught the Hebrew bible to adults at a community center. She was not a religious woman, but the whole moral/ethical piece and the idea of social justice from the Jewish perspective was important to her. Without being preachy, she tried to live her life as the best person she could be and she was always willing to explain to me why something was morally right or wrong. It was an inspiration.
What was your background with service prior to founding Idealist?
Back in Israel I went into the army, then in the mid 1980s I went traveling to South America. At that point I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I began to meet more and more people who wanted to help the world but did not know how to connect to opportunities. There were so many resources in the world and so many people who wanted to use them, but it was not always obvious how to connect the dots. I was only 24 at the time, but I became obsessed with how to solve this problem.
I went back to Israel, got a job as a waiter and worked at a software company. And a few years later the internet came along, and all of a sudden there was no barrier to entry for someone who wanted to do something with his idea. A person did not have to have money or resources to get the idea out there. In 1993 or 1994 a friend hooked me up to the internet and I said, “Oh my God – this was created for me.” It was what I had been waiting for for years.
Do you ever think about what Idealist might have evolved into if the Internet hadn’t come along?
Absolutely. My original idea was that every community should have a physical center where people knew they could walk in and find information about volunteering and working with local non-profits. Just like you know to get groceries at a grocery store and coffee at a coffee shop, these centers would be the go-to place for information.
The majority of people who interact with Idealist do so as job or internship seekers, but the organization is so much more than that. Can you talk a bit about some of your other services and initiatives?
Ironically, we never intended to be a job site – that was pretty much an accident. We meant to be a place for non-profits to list jobs, but also events, activities and volunteer opportunities. But users started to express more and more interest in the job aspect, so we started to focus on that.
In addition to our online work, we used to host job fairs and now we host regular graduate school fairs to help people who want to grow in fields like social work and public interest law, and want to use their graduate degrees to make the world a better place.
For a lot of idealistic young people today, the current job market can feel a bit soul crushing. Do you have any advice on how to make the most of today’s non-profit environment?
It is true that it is not an easy time, and it is hard to give this type of advice generally – but overall I would say if you can’t find a job right now, maybe its time to go to Guatemala and learn Spanish. Go somewhere that you can live on a tenth of what you have here, travel in other countries and volunteer abroad somewhere. In other words, if you are not finding something right here and now, it wouldn’t be so terrible to do something entirely different. Now is the time – just go and do it.