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Charity Executive Sees Nonprofits as Nation’s Social Conscience


Allan Luks, longtime social justice advocate, promotes nonprofit agency strength through a new Fordham program.
Photo by Janet Sassi

In his famous 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy called upon his fellow citizens to “ask what you can do for your country” to fight tyranny, poverty, disease and war.

Allan Luks, then a young college student, heard the president loud and clear.

Kennedy’s famous call to service inspired Luks to join the Peace Corps after finishing law school at Georgetown. After working with the poor in Venezuela, Luks returned to New York City and continued to serve the poor as a community action lawyer in East Harlem.

“Obviously, Kennedy’s message hit something in me,” Luks said. “There was a collaborative social voice, a voice of society, speaking to us in the ’60s and the ’70s, saying, ‘Do it.’ And I learned how good it feels to get involved.”

Four decades later, after holding executive director positions in major nonprofit organizations, writing four books and advocating for the successful adoption of three laws, Luks has arrived at Fordham with another mission: to oversee the first academic nonprofit leadership training program initiated by two separate schools.

The Center for Nonprofit Leaders, launched last April, is a collaboration between the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) and the Graduate School of Business Administration (GBA).

It consists of three consecutive Saturdays designed to give skills and knowledge to nonprofit executives or those who aspire to that role, especially at smaller agencies that make up the foundation of the nonprofit movement. The center’s second cohort began in October. At 58 participants, it has nearly doubled in size since its spring launch.

“I believe that the nation’s million nonprofit agencies represent the public’s conscience,” said Luks, the center’s director. “That’s not a phrase you hear that much today, but the nonprofit agencies are the ones that are supposed to stand up in their various fields and say to the public, ‘This is what needs to be done in the name of creating a better society for all of us.’”

But far too many nonprofits find themselves with less time to spend on issues of social justice, as they worry more about how to stay afloat in a recession.

“The center teaches them the skills to meet these challenges and to have the ability to stand up in their fields and serve as advocates for change.”

Luks explained that about 75 percent of the 1 million nonprofit agencies have budgets under $500,000, and almost half have budgets under $100,000. A small agency may have six people on staff, so how do they manage?

“Small-agency CEOs can’t afford specialists,” Luks said. “Someone needs to wear the budget, planning, fundraising and public relations hats at the same time. But these agencies haven’t had the ability to hire such a generalist. Our new Fordham center trains and supports people to be these generalists.”

A key aspect of the program is the yearlong assignment of a professional CEO mentor to each participant, providing a source to which a leader can go for any type of advice. In the spring, mentors included Philip Coltoff, former executive director of the Children’s Aid Society; Kenneth Knuckles, president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; Danny Kronenfeld, former CEO of Henry Street Settlement; and Plinio Ayala, CEO of Per Scholas.

“We also give center participants a lifelong guarantee that they can call us anytime at Fordham,” Luks said. “We—I or faculty—will be there to support and advise them.”

To Luks, volunteerism is more than merely a way to heal society’s ills. Volunteering, he explains, can help a person live longer—and he has the research to prove it.

His book, The Healing Power of Doing Good (Fawcett, 1992), which describes a study of 3,000 people, introduced the term “helper’s high” and documented that regular volunteering with personal contact, at an average of two hours a week, can make an individual 10 times more likely to be in good health.

These health benefits, Luks said, appear after a person starts to volunteer and hinge on the “personal contact” aspect of volunteer work—that is, focusing on helping another person.

“This focus cuts off messages of stress and also releases endorphins, similar to jogging or the relaxation exercise used in hospitals to reduce patient pain,” he said.

Luks’ findings were mirrored in a report released in 2007 by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which concluded that “those whovolunteer have lower mortality rates.”

“That’s a powerful finding, and it’s amazing to me that this research is not acted upon more,” Luks said.

While personal contact volunteering has not gone down since the recession began, Luks said, neither has it increased.

Since every nonprofit agency needs volunteers to help it on its mission, Luks also sees his role in the classroom as an advocate to spread these volunteering and health studies. He will be teaching a course on social policy advocacy at GSS.

The center recently brought Fred Scaglione, founder and editor of New York Nonprofit Press, to Fordham to discuss the need for nonprofits to strengthen the nation’s social service safety net.

“We are trying to create a lot of voices of public conscience by strengthening nonprofit leaders and their organizations,” Luks said. “Society is terribly divided, politicized. The apolitical nonprofit world has the ability, in the many hundreds of thousands, to call for change in a non-politicized way. That voice is really needed now.”

Just like the call Luks once heard from President Kennedy.

– Janet Sassi


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