Changemaking Through Philanthropy: Leveraging Philanthropy As A Force For Social Change

Interview with Jay and Shira Ruderman

Ruderman Family Foundation

What This Interview Is About

As opposed to simply funding grantees’ initiatives, a proactive foundation takes its ideas to the community that it is trying to change for the better. Then, success has been achieved when that entire community’s values have changed.

Foundations and philanthropists do not need to be afraid of making bold public statements or even of instigating controversy.

Foundations and philanthropists that are seeking to become changemakers are best served focusing on a relatively narrow cause and making a deep impact in that space — and becoming the expert in that arena — rather than “being everything for everyone” and spreading their work among numerous causes.

Jay and Shira Ruderman

Jay and Shira Ruderman

Jay Ruderman has focused his life’s work on seeking social justice by advocating for people with disabilities worldwide. As President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, his ambitious approach has led the foundation to become a national and international leader in inclusion and disability rights advocacy. Jay’s emphasis on philanthropy has been instrumental in the foundation creating programs around the world, raising awareness on social media and the creation of the foundation’s often cited white papers. He has never shied away from controversy, consistently challenging Hollywood and those in power to push issues forward. Jay has previously worked as an Assistant District Attorney. He served on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Funders Network and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Shira Ruderman, Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, is a professional philanthropist and social activist. She serves as a board member of various organizations and associations in Israel and the United States and is currently serving as Chairwoman of the Fulbright Foundation. She works to generate momentum for an approach to philanthropy which believes in strategic giving, involvement and social entrepreneurship.

For more information about the Ruderman Foundation, go to


Read the Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. This is Hugh Ballou back for another really good session of The Nonprofit Exchange. I got the best job. I get to interview great people with a great story who have great passions for creating good. Today, it’s about philanthropy, but it’s expanded in an area I think you’ll be very interested in. The guests today are Jay and Shira Ruderman from Boston, Massachusetts. Tell folks a little bit about who you are, why you’re doing this, and about your foundation.

Jay Ruderman: Shira and I come from two very different backgrounds. I’m a Bostonian. I grew up here, went to college and law school in the area. Became an assistant district attorney. I was very interested in politics and really wanted in the beginning of my life to give back through politics. Along the way, I became jaded about politics, seeing as it’s mostly about raising money.

Philanthropy is not something most people say, “Okay, I’m going to start a career in philanthropy.” It happens along the way. I had done many different things in my life. My dad decided to start a foundation. I have always been involved in the social sphere. He asked me to jump in and get involved. Initially, I thought of philanthropy as passive, just giving to causes. Over the years, we have developed a very activist form of philanthropy and advocacy. That’s my background. Maybe Shira would like to talk about where she is from.

Shira Ruderman: I was born in Israel. I met Jay. We got married and moved to the States. Prior to that, my background is in management and strategy. I love public policy. I was always involved and engaged with public policy and running for offices. Like Jay described, our different backgrounds brought us together to appreciate and understand the power in change that philanthropy brings to our society. From believing in public policy and understanding family values, we were able to bring this to the foundations world and literally create from scratch the view, vision, and implementation that the Ruderman Family Foundation has today.

Hugh: Love it. The foundation. Did you start this, or was this the one that your dad started?

Jay: My dad started the idea of a foundation, but it was on paper and what I would call a checkbook foundation. It was a fund of money. People would come to him, and he would write checks. It wasn’t until Shira got involved that it became professionalized. I came in several years later. Now we are an organization with offices in Boston, New York, and Israel. We really operate on a global scale. We have been working as an organized foundation for approximately 20 years. A lot has gone in in that period of time.

Hugh: Amazing. Rather than just focusing on fundraising, the Ruderman Family Foundation is actively devoting its existence to problem-solving, advocacy, social justice, and other things. Tell us a little bit about what that means and why it’s important.

Shira: First, I think it’s important: We do not do fundraising. We are an independent family that had dedicated means to the public goods under a foundation structure. We do not do fundraising. We actively create social change strategy based on our passions, values, and abilities to make change in certain areas.

The areas that we chose to work on include people with disabilities for the last 18 years; mental health in the last six years; strengthening relationships among American Jews in the state of Israel; and strategic philanthropy. In those specific areas, we decided what is the change that we want to see in the upcoming years? How can we best manifest that by concentrating?

Our strategy so far and the method has few elements. One is traditional grants, which we approached organizations we want to work with. We decided what the change we want to do with them is, and create a partnership. We run our own internal programs. Most unique about us is we do a lot of advocacy and raising awareness, which means we create content, white papers, research, surveys. We do campaigns on social media and in traditional media. We targeted issues that we want the public to be aware of and create engaging opportunities through pledges, petitions, campaigns, and celebrities and influencers. We heavily think constantly of how we can change perception and decrease stigma in the case of inclusion and mental health. By that, we choose every time the best ways and platforms to get engaged. Do you want to add something?

Jay: The foundation is an ever-evolving organization. We really started out in Boston focused on the Jewish community. Shira is from Israel. I lived in Israel. We raised a family there. We married our two concepts, which was investing in disability inclusion. Another issue that Shira mentioned was educating Israelis about the American Jewish community. 80% of the Jewish population is split between the United States and Israel, yet they don’t really understand one another. When we can find an area where there is a need but a vacuum in leadership, that is where we jump in. That is where we have had a lot of success. Since then, the foundation has evolved into supporting innovative programs in different communities but also in advocacy. We are very outspoken in the media. By doing that, we amplify what we are trying to accomplish.

Hugh: Love it. When we talk about diversity or inclusion, you mentioned disabilities. That is one in four people in our population. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that.

Jay: The statistics are one in four people has some form of disability. They are generally the poorest people in our society and the most segregated in our society. I don’t want to go through an oral history lesson, but not going back all that far, people with disabilities were segregated, institutionalized. It’s only recently in the past few decades where people with disabilities, especially after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, are more included in society. Yet the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is about 70%, which is way off the national average. A lot of that comes from stigma.

We’ve spent a lot of time trying to break down stigma and addressing that in different ways. We put out white papers that deal with different aspects of society that we really feel can get people to think differently. Finally, we stumbled into getting involved in Hollywood. First as a critic, and now as a partner in changing the way disability is seen on the small screen and the big screen. We feel that through cultural change, you can really change the way people view other people and how they act toward other people.

Hugh: Philanthropists are in fact change-makers, right?

Shira: Absolutely. I think philanthropy is an absolute power and partner to make change in society. Most times, we think of philanthropy as those that represent the funds. What we are trying to bring to the conversation of philanthropy is show that you can represent funds and also have a goal and expertise as a professional and help the sectors you work with to reach the change that is needed because one of the gifts that philanthropy can bring is the power of money. Money is not enough to make a change. You need the policymakers, the public to believe in it, the professionals to be able to execute it. Therefore, it’s important to understand that the changemaker we advocate for in the name of philanthropy cannot just be done by funding it. It’s by getting involved, bringing people together, creating a trusted field, creating a holistic approach, a theory of change so people are committed and motivated to be part of the change and not just responding to the dollar sign.

Hugh: Very well stated. We’re changemakers, but what you’re describing for me is a transformative approach, transforming our thinking. I have worked with lots of sizes of nonprofits and social entrepreneurs for almost 33 years. There is a lot of interest in doing good things. As a musical conductor, my skillset is connecting strategy, which is words on paper or dots, and integrating it into performance.

How do you help people? There is an education piece to that I believe. When people don’t do something or object to something, it’s a lack of knowledge primarily. People think they want to do something, even write goals, but we don’t have measurable impact. Talk about the education and creating measurable results, the impact.

Jay: First of all, I think that Shira and I as leaders of the foundation play different roles. My role is I would say the vision of how society can change and the pushpoints that we need to go after in terms of really having systematic change in society. Shira is much more focused on the strategy and the plan to get us there. Often, I will have a goal, saying, “I really want to change conversation in Hollywood.” Then I will turn to her and go, “How do we do that?” I think we complement each other.

There is a lot of talk in our society about laws, passing laws that will change lives. I don’t want to discount anyone who goes into public service or any legislative or executive branch because I think they do really change lives. But if you don’t change attitudes, then I don’t care what law you pass, the law won’t be successful. People won’t understand that. There are inherent stigmas.

The Issue that we chose, which was disability rights, there were inherent stigmas. People thought that people with disabilities were not as qualified to work. They couldn’t live on their own. They couldn’t be part of their community. That is a long-term process through different programs of choosing societal attitudes. We are doing that in mental health. There are many areas in which we are looking at the communities and trying to change the way. We work with religious communities. For decades, they looked at disability a certain way, and we have seen a transformative way in which people with disabilities are now included in religious life. That is just one example.

Shira: To add to that, first of all, we need to understand that education is a process. It unfortunately cannot be done in one action. It’s not one size fits all. It depends on who you’re educating: age, location, profession, background. In other words, you develop a plan that has to answer all or help you to concentrate on what you can make a change in. Even in education or policy change or developing new services, which we do all and beyond, we have to identify our limitations and our added value.

More importantly, it’s your partners. If any nonprofit, if you represent philanthropists like us, or a nonprofit that is doing the service and the work on the ground, you have to understand that no one can do anything alone. The issues are too big. The impact is too small if we do not work together. I think that realization made us from the beginning understand that we want to reach impact versus our successes. It’s important to understand. If you want to reach your success as a nonprofit, you are not thinking about the partnerships. You are thinking about, “I’m doing very well. No one should change what I do. I know how to do it the best. If you believe in me, you’re going to come with me.” That is not the best approach in my mind for a social changemaker. We say, “You do what you do great, and I want you to do what you do great. But I am going to bring 10, 15, 20 other people who do what they do great. Together, in a holistic, systematic way, instead of reaching a million people, we are going to reach 10 million people, and that’s the goal.”

To educate has a few layers. You have to educate in our business of mental health, inclusion professionals, self-advocates, the parents, the schools. Therefore, you bring different language, data, techniques to each one of them. But at the same time, you have to bring it all together. They have to see each other, come across each other. It’s a complementary experience. At the end, you see the magnitude of the impact.

We did the inclusion for 18 years. We started 20 years ago but concentrated work 18 years ago. We said disability was part of diversity before diversity became a key word of what we know today. Today, when people speak about diversity, to them, it makes sense. Of course, disability is part of it. But we can show you data and services from 18 years ago that disability was not included whatsoever. It’s important because people now feel like they own it, they are part of it, they understand it. This is the power of education. You lose your credit and success, but you gain everyone’s engagement.  

Hugh: That is brilliant. There are a number of critical points there. Good leadership, focus on results, the synergy of who are we. In the South, we say, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” We have our own grammar and our own words. We are better together.

You notice the name of our organization is SynerVision: the synergy of the common vision. You just highlighted we are in such high level of sync. Everything you talked about is the work we do. We do the capacity-building for leaders, boards, structures, and strategies. I am a conductor. Our strategy is that piece of paper. We have to have the road map to get where we’re going.

All of that stuff leads me to ask: You were in government. Government has a role. There is a huge role that our tax-exempt communities—religious communities, community charities, foundations, membership organizations, chambers—play in the kind of work you’re talking about. Talk more about how you inspire people, how you are a catalyst for this change, how you provide tools for people to do this stuff. I think there are more people who want to do it than have the understanding of how to do it.

Jay: I would say a large part of the economy in the United States revolves around the nonprofit community. It’s a significant sect of the work force in the United States. I don’t think the United States would look as good as it does now with all of our problems if people were not dedicated to working in nonprofit and religious communities.

Hugh: It used to be the third largest employer in America.

Jay: It did.

Hugh: I think it still is.

Jay: Yet it’s not talked about because they are not as large as a Fortune 500 company or the attention that elected office gets. They are on the ground. They are really creating the change. They are helping people in difficult situations, especially people in the religious community dealing one-on-one with problems people are facing that are important in people’s lives.

I have to say the community is very important. But what we’ve done is for example, in the issue of disability, we have looked at different communities. We have issued white papers. We deal with the press a lot. For example, probably the most successful white paper we did was a white paper that the takeaway was more police and firefighters die by suicide than in the line of duty. That is a shocking statistic. Unfortunately, since we released that paper several years ago, almost every week, there is a police officer or firefighter somewhere in the United States who takes their own life.

What we are trying to do is to talk to the police departments and fire departments, saying, “You have to deal with the mental health of the people working for you, and not look at it as a weakness.” What happens when someone comes forward with a mental health issue in a very stressful environment like a police force is their gun and badge is taken away, and they are put on leave. There is a lot of stress not to come forward. In this white paper, we say, “You have a real issue here. Deal with the mental health of the people working for you and protecting us.” It has had an impact. We see our research coming up and being introduced into Senate legislation in the United States and being cited by attorneys general and media all the time. That is just one example.

But what we are trying to do is get people to think differently about a large sector of our society. I think we’re going to get to this. This is why eventually we fell into Hollywood. Even though we’re in Boston and Israel with no connections to Hollywood whatsoever, we found our way in there and had tremendous success in changing the discussion there.

Hugh: When people say, “Oh, I can’t make a difference. I’m just a little nonprofit,” what do you say to them?

Jay: It takes time and persistence. I would say to anyone, including my children: You don’t have to be the most talented or the smartest. If you are persistent, and work and work and work, you’re going to have results. You may not see results in the first month, the first year, the first five years, but you will see results. Society rewards persistence. If you stay on message, and you’re persistent, there will be a lot of setbacks, but there will also be a lot of victories. You have to savor the victories and understand how to connect with people and how to get through.

Our societies are changing all the time. Social media, which can be a terrible influence on our society, can also be a positive influence on our society. You have to learn how to use different pressure points. Historically, we have worked with the media. I think it’s because of my background in politics and understanding what is going to catch on in the media, we have gotten issues covered across the United States and the world.

Shira: I would add to that to say that there are some other values that need to be in place. The persistence is the skill and the focus. It’s a way of working. We also learned that you have to be humble, and you have to develop the listening skill, not less than the speaking skill. It’s important. In the nonprofits, like in business, when you speak about nonprofit, philanthropy is nonprofit, but it’s power, and a lot of powerful people. It’s a lot of ego and money. It’s not small ideas that you can solve by shaking hands. Therefore, you have to understand that at times, in order to get your goal done, you have to minimize yourself once in a while. You have to take the bigger ideas and principles and put them in the center.

You also have to understand—and it’s a personal preference, some people can disagree with me—I would say patience is another skill that is needed. You cannot flip things so quickly. I know sometimes it feels like we can because with technology and social media today, everything feels very fast. But we already learned, and COVID proved it, the fact that it’s fast doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean it’s deep. It doesn’t mean it’s changing. It just means that people are reacting. Under the surface, there is much more that needs to get done. If we want to run marathons, and social change is a marathon, you have to be patient and focused and humble. But at the same time, as Jay said, you have to be focused and persistent to be successful.

Jay: I want to follow up on one thing that Shira said. Humility is a big part of it. In my life, in every career I’ve had, the biggest issue that I’ve come across as a negative force has been ego. It’s very easy to get caught up in ego. If you’re humble, and if you understand that you are serving a cause, it’s not about you, but it’s about the cause that you’re serving, you won’t be as nervous to get up and speak and talk about what’s going on. You’re serving a higher cause. These causes take time. Celebrity comes and goes. It’s those of us who are persistent and work throughout our lives to create change, we may not get the accolades all the time, but we will see that we have changed society.

Hugh: That’s a lot of things people can take down for really good notes. Sticking with it. There are so many people. The famous story out of Napoleon Hill’s work of the guy who had the gold mine and sold it because he wasn’t getting anywhere. The person who bought it dug three feet and hit the motherlode. We want to give up, but we got to stay with it. People say, “I tried that, but it didn’t work.” You know, I was going to get fit. I worked out one day last year, and it didn’t work either. There is a commitment needed.

You’ve mentioned mental health. Do you want to give more clarity? You have also undertaken the mission to end the stigma associated with mental health. That’s an addition to the disability piece. You have expanded that work during COVID. Do you want to talk about that?

Jay: When COVID first hit, and we all remember because it was January 2020 when it hit, the first thing that we thought about were those people on the front lines: nurses, doctors, firemen, police officers, EMTs. We said we want to invest in them, in our community. We want to support their mental health because they are in such a difficult position, and they are serving all of us. Mental health is important. Mental health has often been seen as a weakness. We have been out front saying, “We have to be open about our mental health and talk about it and work with different organizations.” We also work with celebrities who have talked about mental health. I believe in allyship and making the synergies. We have worked with Michael Phelps, the famous Olympian. We have worked with Taraji P. Henson, who is an actress, and many others who champion mental health. We say, “Let’s do this together. Let’s find a way to get the message out there.”

Shira: But we also have a lot of services on the ground. Our target audience in mental health when it comes to the services and work other than raising awareness is young adults, high school and college ages. Around that age, we’ve developed quite a few services that can be scaled pretty much immediately across the country. Like a program in a high school that as of now is running in 400 high schools in the United States in six states, we constantly think of how we can get a service that is not being given in a scale that can be on the ground and can be multiplied by other people quickly. That is the idea: developing things that are expensive and complex can be problematic. We are trying to target the services that we choose to be scalable.

We developed a guide for universities and colleges, the first guide ever on campuses that targeted students on one hand and the faculty on the other. It can be a complementary effort on the university side. The #1 issues on campuses today are the mental health stresses that students are facing. We thought what can be done right now tomorrow that can give a support to the student and the university so kids don’t drop due to the mental health? It’s a leave of absence policy. This is our target audience.

We have many programs taking place on the ground. We are hoping that we are going to reduce the stigma with campaigns and celebrities and partnerships, but we also will scale services because the need is so great out there. It needs technology to accelerate the magnitude of it but also the amplification of how many people today need support. The professionals are not enough. There are not enough professionals to answer the need.

In short, I can say mental health for us is right now focused on young adults in high school and college. We are trying to bring raising awareness and services together. Hopefully, we will contribute our share in reducing the stigma and bringing some ease to the young adult community.

Hugh: That’s huge. You are so articulate and convincing that I can’t think that anyone who hears this doesn’t want to say yes to whatever you’re saying. Nothing against you, Jay, but she is so out there with the passion.

Jay: She’s very passionate.

Hugh: I got it. I’m smarter than I look. In your notes for me, you said more recently the foundation is focused on empowering advocates to effect social change on their own. Can you talk more about that?

Jay: We have been involved for decades on the issue of disability rights. Along the way, there is a saying in the disability community, “Nothing about us without us.” I think society has changed. If you are going to be an advocate for disability, you should be an identified person with a disability.

We began to organize a group called Link 20, which are advocates with and without disabilities that advocate for disability rights. We funded them and brought the process along. They had some tremendous successes. They were able to contact Major League Baseball and change the historic term “the disabled list” to “the injured list.” They said someone who pulls a hamstring playing baseball is not permanently disabled, they are injured. They were able to talk to the U.S. Olympic Committee and say they were paying Paralympians much less than Olympians, and they were able to get parity in pay for medals. They had some tremendous accomplishments. But that is the future. If we can start off an advocacy group that can then grow and become their own self-advocates, and we have provided them with tools and courses at MIT, that is the future.

You always have to have your thumb on the pulse of what is happening in society. I realized this was something that was happening. We got behind it very early. This is going to be the future of disability rights.

Hugh: Awesome. Your website is What will people find when they go there?

Shira: They will find many things. Our vision and mission, partnerships, white papers, research, campaigns, services. Everything we do, we try to share and make it useful. We are putting together an archive so every 400 programs we in the last 15 years produced and have either books and booklets and videos, everything can be useful, accessible to everyone in the field. We’d like to save people the time and money so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They will see everything our foundation worked on or supported or partnered or initiated in the different fields we work in: mental health, inclusion, strengthening the relationship with American Jews and Israel, strategic philanthropy.

We also give an opportunity for people to give us feedback, to give us ideas, to recommend. We give awards every year. We ask people to let us know who they think deserves these awards. Someone who can be interviewed on Jay’s podcast. We are trying to be good listeners and engaging. We hope our website shows this and that people will find it useful for anything they do.

Jay: I will mention that there is a podcast I do once every two weeks. It features an activist in all different forms of activism. Some are famous like Fran Drescher or Tony Goldwyn, Geena Davis. Some are not as famous but doing impactful things in society. I think activism is the way to go. We are trying to celebrate that through our podcast.

Hugh: Hey, this is a podcast. We have famous people. We even have Jay and Shira Ruderman on our podcast. Thank you for your time today. You have put a lot of information into a half-hour interview. That is just incredible. Jay and Shira, what thought do you want to leave people with today?

Jay: I would say just stay encouraged. This is your life’s work. Believe in it. As Shira said, stay humble. Work hard. Be persistent. You’re needed. You might not hear it enough, but you’re needed. I commend you for what you’re doing.

Shira: I would say, to your question, if someone wakes you up in the morning and asks, “Can I be the one to make a change?” my answer to that is, “Of course.” Big ideas start with good people. Therefore, if you wake up in the morning and want to know if you can make the change, you can just start it. Instead of talking about it and thinking, just take an action and start. If you’re good and believe in it and are passionate, people will believe in it and join you. That’s what I want to leave behind as my message: Do not give up on your dreams. Try to do good in the world. It’s worth it. I hope to be part of it.  

Hugh: Shira, thank you. Jay, thank you. This was powerful.

Shira: Thank you for having us. We enjoyed it.

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