But it was truly after her daughters had grown and left for college when Jean found herself with substantially more time to devote to charitable causes. She served as a diplomatic outreach for the American Jewish committee in her early 30s. Then there is the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services–an organization with an annual budget of $250 million, serving 60,000 families–with which she has been involved since 1992.
Since then Jean Shafiroff has served as volunteer, board member, chairwoman, honoree, underwriter and hostess of events for various not-for-profit organizations including the Southampton Hospital whose Annual Summer Gala she chaired in 2010, 2011 and 2013 raising $1.7 million, $2 million and $1.75 million respectively.
Other organizations in which Jean has been involved include The Couture Council, which supports the museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, The Lighthouse International Advisory Board, The French Heritage Society, Southampton Bath and Tennis Club Charitable Foundation and Southampton Animal Shelter. She has been a multiple recipient of various awards for her charitable work.
Jean is also proud to be working with the New York Women’s Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower women out of poverty. It is one of the top three women’s funds in the world. Among services the foundation offers are educational and mentoring services for girls, anti-violence campaigns, health and well-being programs for women, and equal-pay-for-equal-work campaigns.
A 2013 trip to Cambodia, followed by trips to Colombia, Jordan, China and Haiti further fueled Jean Shafiroff’s passion for philanthropy. In a visit to Angkor Wat, she connected with the Cambodia Child’s Dream Organization, which brought her to an orphanage in another part of Siem Reap where she found orphans sleeping “in one huge mattress in a single tented facility”–and that was considered “fairly well funded.”
“They sold crafts made by ‘children,’ some of them are (already) 18 years old. Most of them don’t speak English, not even the teachers speak English that well.” Jean describes, “Children were seated at wooden desk/benches. They wore flip-flops in and outside school. They were wearing the same uniforms day after day.”
She also describes seeing people living in attached homes that were raised high because of flooding. There is a speck of irony here, since women walked far, balancing laundry or containers of water on top of their heads, because clean water wasn’t readily available.
These observations left a powerful impression with Jean. She fully appreciated that basic things like food, clean water and rudimentary healthcare that are easily taken for granted by many living in industrialized countries such as the U.S., are not as easily available to people living in countries ravaged by poverty and war.
$250. That’s the cost to construct a water well that services five families in Cambodia. And it’s still hard to come by.
“When you see such differences in how people live, it makes you question: Why was I lucky enough to be born in the U.S. and not in Cambodia or Africa or even (more poverty stricken place in the U.S. like) Appalachia?” Jean surmises, “With all the God-given gifts that I have, I feel compelled to take action. The meaning of life becomes clear. It really is to do something, to make things better.”
According to Jean, there are several reasons to get involved in philanthropic work. In New York City alone, a bastion of trade and commerce and home to some of the world’s richest, a staggering 30% of children still live in poverty.
In her new book, Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life By What You Give, Shafiroff details the many ways people can become involved in charitable work. Some people get involved because they are looking to honor a memory of a loved one. Some people get involved because of their passions. “For example, art collectors may support art museums. People who are passionate about animals may support animal shelters or organizations that are against cruel treatment of animals. And then there are those (frequently large) donors who may choose to provide funding for institutions that interest them, like a school or a hospital; while others join organizations simply because their friends are there. And all that’s fine.”
Jean believes that there is a much greater potential for future philanthropists. “Sometimes people are just not approached or they just don’t know how to begin. We have to show them how giving to others is fulfilling themselves, that giving is getting.” She gives the example of empty nesters and baby boomers who use volunteer work initially to fill their time, but who eventually find that doing so adds meaning to their lives. To illustrate, she speaks of a friend (whom she couldn’t identify by name for privacy purposes), a 50-something successful senior partner in a law firm, who found philanthropy so fulfilling that he gave up his day job and made philanthropy his full time preoccupation!
But Jean cautions that not all not-for-profits are created equal. Before joining a cause, she advises doing thorough due diligence. Understand what the organization is about, find out about who makes up the organization, how it is run and where the money goes. While it is extremely rare she explains, “Sometimes monies are raised. Then it is misappropriated and it goes abroad. When I hear about these things, it’s very disappointing. Those who were looking to help become victims, they are discouraged. They become suspicious about other charities and organizations. That’s why we have to be careful.”
She laments, “It’s hard enough to ask people for money. Not everyone is polite. Some people are rude back. And it’s very difficult to understand why anyone would be rude to a volunteer, someone who is helping their fellow! Or why some very wealthy people just don’t want to give!”