Business: Business and Society, Nonprofit Resources
Idealist is a project of Action Without Borders, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 with offices in the United States and Argentina. Idealist is an interactive site where people and organizations can exchange resources and ideas, locate opportunities and supporters, and take steps toward building a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives.
We would like to live in a world where:
- All people can lead free and dignified lives.
- Every person who wants to help another has the ability to do so.
- No opportunities for action or collaboration are missed or wasted.
Action Without Borders connects people, organizations, and resources to help build a world where all people can live free and dignified lives.
AWB is independent of any government, political ideology, or religious creed. Our work is guided by the common desire of our members and supporters to find practical solutions to social and environmental problems, in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect.
How We Got Here
Action Without Borders is a nonprofit organization founded in New York City in 1995. Our mission is to connect people, organizations, and resources to help build a world where all people can lead free and dignified lives. We work toward our mission in a variety of ways that have evolved over the years, but our core focus has always been on providing a meeting point for individuals and organizations that seek to improve their communities, whether through promoting volunteerism and nonprofit careers, or by facilitating connections between people that can lead to personal and collective action.
AWB 1.0 The Early Years (1995-1999)
In our early years, our organization was called the Contact Center Network and we focused on trying to set up a network of contact centers. The concept behind the contact centers was to create a place that would serve as a physical meeting space in each community, where people could post messages and connect with neighbors who might share interests and ideas for local action.
Alongside our efforts to promote the contact center concept, we also watched the take-off of the World Wide Web with great interest. The web—just beginning to enter mainstream consciousness—seemed to offer a different way to facilitate the connections central to our organization's mission. Our staff spent the summer of 1995 researching and developing a simple HTML website with 2,500 links to the websites of other nonprofit organizations, and in September 1995 we launched Contact.org. By year's end, the site had been revamped to include staff-written resource centers, categories for organizations' areas of focus, and a searchable database of nonprofit websites.
The press and the public responded enthusiastically to Contact.org. Soon our staff was giving presentations at cafés, colleges, and community centers about how nonprofits and their workers could use the internet to enhance their work and reach. This was during an era when less than a third of the attendees at such events had an email address, and for many people, learning that so many nonprofits already had websites was quite an eye-opener. By 1996, noting the internet's steadily rising popularity, we decided to concentrate our efforts on developing a more powerful version of Contact.org.
Idealist.org in 1997
A few months later, in August, Contact.org was relaunched as Idealist.org, with improved search and database capabilities and more capacity to handle a growing number of web visitors. Idealist worked by letting nonprofits create a free organizational profile on the site listing their contact information and details about their programs. Organizations could also post openings for jobs, volunteer positions, and other activities. Individuals, in turn, could search the site and learn of new opportunities in their area, or find organizations with shared interests that they may not have known about before.
While it may have been a bit idealistic, Idealist.org was also designed to be quite literally an "idea list" for people looking to get involved in their communities. To streamline the distribution of information on Idealist, we added a listserv so individuals could sign up to be notified of the latest listings. And in May 1997, reflecting our new focus and expanding reach, we changed our organization's name to Action Without Borders.
To further enhance Idealist's utility, we also continued to develop online resource centers on topics related to the nonprofit sector. The first of these was the Nonprofit Career Center<, a large resource featuring interviews with nonprofit professionals from a broad range of focus areas, advice about working in the sector, and other information both on our site and out on the web.
We based the development of these resource centers on our staff's experience and our growing contacts with professionals in the nonprofit sector. During 1997, we had bought our organization's first-ever plane ticket, to send a staff member to Kansas City, MO for the annual Independent Sector conference. Extensive travel quickly became an important aspect of our operations, as we carried out an increasing range of on-the-ground activities and meetings in conjunction with our online work.
Our director, Ami Dar
Throughout the late 1990s, organizations continued signing up on Idealist, and by the start of 1999 over 20,000 people were receiving our daily email alerts. To help support our work, in 1999 we decided to begin charging U.S.-based organizations $40 for job postings on Idealist (up until then, all listings had been free). It was a tense moment for us, but the first paid job listings appeared a few hours after the change took effect and more soon followed, giving us a revenue stream that has enabled us to enhance our programs and offerings while keeping the vast majority of our services free of charge. While it was never our intention to become known as a nonprofit jobs site, the response to Idealist's job listings helped illustrate the relative absence of nonprofit-specific online services existing at the time. Similarly, the use of Idealist by underresourced nonprofit organizations, many of which had no other way to obtain a web presence or reach a wider audience, also confirmed the great need for nonprofit-oriented web services.
In the summer of 1999, the Stern Family Fund invited our Founder and Executive Director, Ami Dar<, to apply for its Public Interest Pioneer Grant. A year later, when the Fund awarded Ami its $100,000 grant in June 2000, our budget was doubled overnight. It was the beginning of what we like to call AWB 2.0.
AWB 2.0 Expanding Our Programs (2000-2005)
2000 was a turning point for Action Without Borders. That year, the NonProfit Times recognized Ami as one of its "NPT Power and Influence Top 50" for the first of five subsequent times, and with the injection of new funds from the Stern Family Fund and our job posting service, we were able to undertake enhancements on our website as well as launch a new on-the-ground program to help fulfill our mission in an innovative way. On the web, both the public face and the back-end of Idealist were completely overhauled in 2000, giving the site an up-to-date look as well as more powerful administrative capacity.
One of our nonprofit career fairs
On the ground, we partnered with the University of Chicago in November 2000 to offer the first of our Idealist Nonprofit Career Fairs<. Over 40 organizations and 400 individuals joined us for several hours of face-to-face interactions. Pleased with the results of the Chicago event, we decided to develop the nonprofit career fairs into a full-fledged program, leveraging our links with organizations and nonprofit-oriented people to create unique networking events hosted at partner universities around the United States. By late 2006, 100 fairs had taken place in more than 30 cities, connecting over 4,700 organizations and 57,000 individuals.
In 2001, we continued expanding our fields of activity. In a new round of design enhancements on Idealist, we introduced My Idealist, a system that allowed individuals to personally customize the content of the daily email alerts they receive from Idealist; five years later My Idealist was closing in on 400,000 subscribers. We launched a new resource center about volunteering and community engagement for young people, called Kids & Teens<. We debuted a Spanish-language version of our website, Idealistas.org<, and began laying the groundwork for our programs in the important arena of nonprofit capacity-building by organizing and conducting focus groups with nonprofit HR professionals in seven U.S. cities.
Idealist.org in 2001
In 2002 we received the Webby Award for best website in the Community category and Forbes called Idealist one of its "Favorite Sites of 2002." Program-wise, we ran our first Idealist Career Day—a customizable day-long workshop allowing students to explore the range of career choices in the social sector—at Manhattanville College. We also began discussions with the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, a nonprofit organization with a long history of promoting student activism and civic engagement, about deepening our collaboration. And the Surdna Foundation awarded us the first of three grants to support the expansion of our Idealist Nonprofit Career Fairs. For years, we had operated with a slim staff of about four full-timers and some dedicated freelancers and volunteers, but from 2002 onward we were able to begin hiring more full-time staff to run our growing array of programs, which included the launch of a French-language version of our site, Idealiste.org<, in 2003.
Based on our past focus groups with nonprofit human resource professionals and a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, in 2003 we organized the first-ever national conference on nonprofit human resources in the United States. Held in June in Philadelphia, PA, "Putting People at the Center" was followed by a second conference in Portland, OR a year later. These two events formed the basis of our nonprofit human resources support programs, of which the Nonprofit Human Resources Web Center< (unveiled in 2006) is a major outcome. To complement these efforts, at the start of 2003, we added the Idealist Consultant and Vendor Directory to our website. This resource serves as a central place for nonprofits to seek expert assistance on their projects from consultants dedicated to working with nonprofit organizations.
Marking C.O.O.L. and Idealist's merger, 2004
In July 2003, we merged with the Campus Outreach Opportunity League and took on the task of continuing its enormous annual student activism conference, now called the Idealist Campus Conference<. This event, which first took place in 1985 at Harvard University, assembles student leaders, college faculty members, and nonprofit organizations from around the United States to trade ideas, experience, and contacts in order to build networks for sustained civic engagement and community service.
The 20th anniversary conference took place at the University of Pennsylvania in March 2004, and our campus conferences at University of California–Berkeley in 2005 and Vanderbilt University in 2006 have continued to bring together large numbers of students, faculty, and nonprofits for mutually rewarding summits. The Idealist Campus Conference is the flagship event of our work with universities in the United States, but our programs run much deeper on campuses, encouraging students and faculty to engage with social service through trainings, talks, and other outreach. For instance, Idealist's Institute for Public Service Careers<, begun in 2004 in partnership with New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, trains university career services staff around the United States on how to encourage their students to explore futures in public and social service.
In 2004, we added significant depth, reach, and capacity to our work through two strategic partnerships. The first of these occurred when two Argentine MBAs, Juan Cruz Mones Cazon< and Matías Laurenz<, approached us about the possibility of a partnership to help increase the impact of their volunteer-run organization, Res Non Verba<, and its volunteerism website, DaUnaMano.org. One of our long-standing staff members, Lorene Straka<, went to Buenos Aires to meet with Juan Cruz and Matías, and following a series of conversations, all agreed the organizational fit was a good one.
From top left: Rosario, Matías, Juan Cruz, and Lorene in Buenos Aires
By early 2004, we had merged operations with Res Non Verba, and the new office in Buenos Aires took on full responsibility for running our Spanish-language website, Idealistas.org. As our staff in Argentina grew, we were able to commence new on-the-ground programs there, including work on corporate social responsibility, trainings for nonprofits and volunteers, and the production of a magazine promoting volunteerism and community action. By 2006, our team in Buenos Aires was heading our web development and our programmatic outreach, while also supporting many of our users. The diverse group of locals and expatriates who make up our Buenos Aires team have helped internationalize our programs and work in countless ways.
The second partnership involved the adoption of The Nonprofit FAQ< and the hiring of its longtime editor, Put Barber<, in November 2004 to continue managing and growing this important online resource. The Nonprofit FAQ is an ever-expanding compendium of common questions and detailed answers on a range of nonprofit issues. It was launched in the early 1990s by several contributors (including Put) in the Seattle area, and became a leading source of nonprofit information over the course of the next decade. (Click here< for more background on The Nonprofit FAQ.) The Nonprofit FAQ’s addition to Idealist greatly expanded the content and scope of our online resource centers.
Also in November 2004, we debuted a program that our Associate Director, Russ Finkelstein<, had long been ruminating: Idealist Graduate Degrees for the Public Good Fairs<. These events, which take place at universities around the United States, allow students, mid-career professionals, and other members of the public to interact with representatives from a wide variety of graduate education programs focused on the public good—from education, conflict resolution, and international affairs to social work, nonprofit management, and socially responsible business. The fairs also feature panel discussions about the application process, financial concerns, and the always tricky issue of when—and what—to study in graduate school.
Our growth in staff and activities continued unabated in 2005. We opened a new office in Portland, OR to serve as a base for our development of nonprofit partnerships as well as our human resources, nonprofit career, and graduate education programs. We also began a concerted effort to reach more nonprofit organizations from all over the world and tell them about our online services. As a result of this outreach, Idealist.org, Idealistas.org, and Idealiste.org all had increased activity and usage. In preparation for a new phase in our organization’s history, we spent much of 2005 and 2006 growing our staff (to over 50 employees), expanding our internal capacity, and completely overhauling our websites.
AWB 3.0 Looking Ahead (2009 and Beyond)
In November 2006, we relaunched Idealist.org and its sister sites with a significantly expanded set of features and capabilities. Looking at the use of the web to foment social networking and interpersonal connections over distances great and small, we incorporated capacities for the many individuals and institutions that had never quite fit onto our previous sites to be able to list themselves, find potential collaborators, communicate, and organize through Idealist.
Our staff, March 2006
Now in our second decade, the ideas and changes we are implementing represent an exciting new stage in our organization's activities, as well as a renewed focus on our long-standing goal of helping people to take action on issues that inspire them, whether in their own communities or across borders. In the days and years ahead, Action Without Borders will continue to create new spaces, methods, and opportunities for all people to imagine, connect, and act for a better world.