I never intended to start a nonprofit. But when, as a new mom, I found myself at home with my first child, facing stress from a lack of paid maternity leave, I realized I had to do something.
I have many friends all over the world whose postpartum experiences were very different (i.e. better) than what we experience here in the U.S. But I didn’t realize just how much better until I was postpartum myself. When my daughter was born in 2016, the pressures and logistical impossibility of being a working mother felt SO real.
How was I gonna nurse this thing and change its diapers if I had to be at some building at a specific time of the day for several hours? Or how could I pass off this tiny human for whom I am completely responsible for to some stranger who is probably just going to sit in my house and watch Netflix all day? And how, days after giving birth, was I supposed to drag this baby — screaming all the way — into the mobile death machine we call a car and drive my C-section recovering, sleep-deprived crazy self to a doctor’s office, full of sick people, so they can keep me waiting for half an hour just to weigh it and tell me it’s fine?! It’s not fine. Where is the care? Where are the resources? Why doesn’t America value building a family?
I had previously worked in the nonprofit sector, so in order to make life with a newborn work I quit my teaching job — you can keep your six weeks of unpaid leave, thank you— and secured some freelance grant writing. This enabled me to work from home and help keep my growing family financially afloat, but I couldn’t get the glaring injustice of so little access to paid leave off my mind.
Maybe, I thought, I could put my fundraising experience to use. I thought about it for the better part of a year, until one day I Googled “maternity leave foundation”— assuming someone had beaten me to the punch — and I didn’t find any results. What I did find were multiple videos of women attempting to crowdfund their own maternity leaves on the internet… I know! It made me so angry. I do not believe women should have to choose between having a family and supporting one. And if no one else was going to do something about it, I was.
I began by researching the issue. Were things really as bad as they seemed? The answer, sadly, is yes. First off, there’s the ridiculous fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee any form of paid leave. In fact, it’s almost the only country, period, without a paid leave policy. It’s like Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and us.
And then I started reading the statistics. Brace yourselves. In 2012, nearly one in four mothers went back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. And if that doesn’t sound dramatic enough, in 2013, 33 percent of new mothers took zero formal maternity leave. That’s right, NONE. They popped out a baby, cobbled together a few sick days, and headed right back into the office like nothing happened.
Perhaps you’re thinking: Surely it has gotten better! Well, in the 2016 National Study of Employers, only 6 percent of all employers with 50 or more employees offered full pay during maternity leave. As of 2018, only 17 percent of all civilian workers had access to paid family leave, and in 2019, UNICEF ranked the U.S. last — yep, dead last — in family-friendly policies.
You’ve probably heard of The Family and Medical Leave Act. Well, let me tell you why FMLA is a four-letter acronym: The policy only offers 12 weeks of UNPAID leave, and if you work part-time, have been at your job for less than a year, or your company employs less than 50 people, you get bupkes. Zilch. Zero.
These dismal statistics were more than enough to fire me up. And so, in early 2018, I decided to create the Family Fund. It’s a nonprofit that allows working Jewish women in Chicagoland to apply for a cash grant if they are expecting a child and will not be receiving paid time off. I believe it is the first venture of its kind. To be clear, I think that everyone deserves paid parental leave. But successful fundraising requires focus, so I decided to start with my own Jewish community.
I was contemplating how to start spreading the word — and how best to raise funds — when a beautiful piece of what we Jews call hashgacha pratit, or “divine providence” dropped in my lap. I had participated in a Jewish women’s variety show for the two previous years — when I’m not raising humans or working, I like to dance, sing, and act. It’s a for women, by women kinda thing, with original pieces based on a common theme that changes each year.
The two women who started the show said they were too busy to direct the 2018 production and asked me, along with another very talented lady, if I would do it. The proceeds had previously benefited a nonprofit and so, the lightbulb went off in my head: The performance will serve as the official launch of the Family Fund. It was an amazing platform because I was able to sell ads in our program, attract sponsors who would want access to that boss-lady audience, and announce our kickoff campaign to a theater full of Jewish girls, mamas, and bubbes.
After announcing the initiative at the show and raising a little over $2,600 through a crowdfunding campaign, I took another year to fundraise. I focused on attracting monthly donors so that I would know exactly how much was coming in each month, and I started with my friends. Who else would be more empathetic to working Jewish mothers than working Jewish mothers?
Chicago is known for being a very generous community, and there’s a trend of seeking out the wealthy families and asking them to support the Jewish causes. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I wanted this to be a movement — nay, a revolution! I wanted us to build it up from the ground, for ourselves and one another. My goal was to bring in over $500 each month before opening up the application process — sustainability is paramount in my mind. With that quantity of monthly donations, combined with other events and campaigns throughout the year, we could afford two $500 grants each month. I was able to attract 26 very loyal monthly donors — some of them only give $5 a month, but they give, and it all adds up! We crossed that $500 monthly threshold, and it gave me the confidence to send that first check. We’ve been making it rain for two Jewish mamas a month in Chi Town since July!
So much of this experience has been new for me, but the most important ingredient for fundraising success is having someone who is committed and passionate about the cause. I hope that Chicago is just the beginning –– my goal was always to create a replicable model. But I also hope that no branches of The Family Fund have to exist forever. When I started it, only four states had paid leave policies. Now eight awesome states (plus Washington, D.C.) have paid leave policies! But some states (ahem, Illinois) are broke, so I’m not sitting around waiting for them to start one. A federal paid leave policy does seem imminent for the first time in history, but change is slow.
In the meantime, I hustle everyday to ensure that we can increase the amount of each gift and the number of families served. I would be happy to assist other individuals filled with the proper ratio of righteous indignation and fundraising know-how.
Image by Willie B. Thomas via Getty Images