Passion To Serve
Many people dream of doing great things when they’re young, but many also end up throwing their dreams away as they grow up and “get real,” being hammered by the negativity of life and concluding that there’s nothing that they can do to bring about change. So, what helped Ami keep that dream to his adult years?
The answer is simple. Instead of being discouraged from pursuing his dream by the obstacles and problems of the world, Ami turned these things into fuel for the fire burning within him to help others. When asked in an interview about what keeps him passionate in his work, Ami simply answered:
1. “I have three obsessions that fuel Idealist[.org]. I’m obsessed with these three problems. First, the world is full of unrealized good intentions. You have lots and lots of people who want to help, who want to do something, but don’t know how. In the non-profit world, there’s no mechanism to help you.”
2. “The second obsession is that the world we live in is divided in so many different ways. The problems that we face are all connected, but we are divided by nationality, by religion, by tribe, by company, by association.”
3. “The third one is that the world is full of great ideas that don’t travel and don’t scale.”
Foresight of the internet’s vast potential
What sets Ami apart from all others and makes him truly extraordinary is the foresight he possesses. Since the first time he saw the internet, Ami had a glimpse of the vast potential that it offered to help non-profit organizations reach out to people and generate support:
“It took us a while to get to the point where we are now, where we felt that the Web had gotten to the place, and where we, as an organization, had gotten to the place, where we could come out and really invite people all over the world to imagine a world in which every possible connection between any two people, or any two organizations that want to work on something together, is possible. Any two organizations, any person in an organization, should be able to connect. If eBay has done it for products, we should be able to do it for good things. And to also stress that it's not just online, but offline as well. That we could all be working together better than now.”
Ami Dar was born in Israel in the early 1960s to Jewish parents who were active in charitable work. Ami’s parents played significant roles in his growing desire to help others, as they were both inspirations and role models for him to follow. Ami’s parents not only taught him the principles and values of their religion, but also instilled in him an unbiased love for people of all cultures and races, and the value of making positive changes in the lives of others.
Travelling With His Parents
During Ami’s childhood, he went with his parents to Peru for their volunteer work, and then to Mexico, where he spent the rest of his childhood years. Travelling around the world greatly developed Ami’s outlook on life, as well as his views of other people.
Early Desire To Spark Change
Even at a young age, Ami showed the potential to become a philanthropist through his inquisitive nature, and his concern grew for the quantity of resources the world has and how well those resources can be used to address the problems the world faces on social, economic and environmental scales. He described this in an interview many years later:
“When I was young, or younger, and trying to decide what to do with my life, I got really into this idea of how can we do more with all the resources that we have in the world. I was a precocious child in many ways – a news junkie by the time I was 10 – and ever since I can remember, I was obsessed with a sense that with all the resources we have now, we – all of us – should be able to do much more about all of our of social and environmental problems.”
As he and his parents were still Israeli citizens working on foreign soil, they would occasionally go back to Israel to fulfill their religious duties and catch up with family and friends. Eventually, Ami returned to Israel to study; as a student, he showed remarkable intelligence, something that earned him praise from his teachers. He also developed leadership skills while studying, and was active with various charitable activities in his school.
An Enlightening Experience From The Battlefield
When he was eighteen years old, Ami, like every other Jew, was called to serve in the Israeli Army, where he was assigned as a paratrooper and sent to fight on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. Most of the time, Ami watched enemy soldiers on the other side of the border through barbed wires, only to find them doing the same, with both sides hesitating to pull the trigger on each other.
As Ami spent time in the bunkers looking at the Arabs (Israel’s enemies) day after day, he came to realize that although most (if not all) Jews saw Arabs as enemies, it was not impossible to find people on the other side of the border (yes, even soldiers) that were also “good” people by their standards. And, just as there were “good guys” in the Israeli Army, ones who would go out of their way to help one another, there were also bad guys who looked for every way to do harm, and the same thing existed in the opposing army. Ami thought, “what if the good guys on both sides joined arms and dealt with the bad guys on both sides? Wouldn’t that be a better option?”
Believing it would be better for people to unite and fight the common enemies of mankind – poverty, disease and injustice – Ami was inspired to do something about the dream he had as a child and find a way to fulfill it. So, Ami spent more time working with charitable organizations in his country and, with an unbiased demeanour, reached out to anyone who needed help.
Early Philanthropic Endeavors
After graduating from college, Ami went to South America on one of his mission trips, trying to figure out how he could affect the world in a big way. When he was young, his mother always talked to him about being a lawyer, but after travelling so much, meeting so many people and seeing so many problems in spite of available resources, Ami considered the career of a lawyer too small for him to make an impact on the world:
“I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. My Jewish mother would say, ‘Go be a lawyer,’ but I didn’t want to be a lawyer. When I was traveling, I met lots of people who wanted to get involved, wanted to do something. I had the feeling that there was so much good out there, and no outlet for it.”
Technology As A Means Of Propagating Philanthropy
Ami had been going from place to place to reach out to those in need, all while looking for something bigger to do. Then, while on a mission trip to Chile in 1985, Ami began to consider the then-increasing developments in technology, particularly in communications, and how he could use that technology to help non-profit organizations gain more supporters:
“One day, I was by myself, hiking in the south of Chile, and I had an epiphany – I stopped in my tracks. An image came to me of a room somewhere with lots of PCs and fax machines. People could say what they needed or what they had to offer, and this place would connect them. I thought, okay, this would be a good thing to do with my life – connecting all these people who want to do good and building something with them. I knew what I was going to do — I’ve never had a doubt again. That was the initial flash. But I was just 24, I knew nothing and no one, had no money and no contacts, and the invention of the Web was still several years away.”
That experience sparked something inside of him. For the first time in his life, he was sure of what he really wanted to do: use technology to connect people from all over the world to numerous charitable organizations – not only to raise awareness of the problems, but also generate support for the organizations fighting these problems.
Struggles And Obstacles
In spite of his newfound passion, Ami had a huge obstacle: how was he going to do it? For a man who was working with a non-profit organization with no background in technology – and only a thousand dollars to his name – this dream seemed impossible to accomplish. In spite of these factors, Ami never gave up and continued looking for ways to begin.
So, in that same year, Ami returned to Israel and took several jobs to support himself while studying more about technology and communications. He spent much time immersing himself, but, during the late 1980s, Ami found little improvement as his money began to dwindle.
In an interview, Ami described his life when he returned to Israel to pursue his dream:
“At some level, I had no support. I was working by myself and thinking by myself. My parents were worried— they loved me, but they thought I was completely out of my mind. By the time I was 31, I had essentially done nothing with my life, achieved nothing. I came here to New York in 1992 with my life savings of $2,000, thinking this would be a good place to start an organization.”
The Internet: Ami’s window of opportunity
It was in the early 1990s when the answer came to Ami as clear as day. While working for a friend who ran a small software marketing company in 1992, Ami was introduced to the internet, which was in its infancy at the time. Upon learning how the internet worked and what it was designed to be, Ami came to an “a-ha” moment and realized the internet was going to solve his problems of how to connect people with non-profit organizations, thereby fulfilling the desire he had been carrying all those years:
“I went back to Israel, worked as a waiter, a translator, and a marketing manager for a software company that a friend had started, all the while continuing to think that there had to be a way of solving that big problem of doing more with everything we have... And so for many years I'd try to write about this, think about this. And then in the early 90's I saw the Web for the first time. A friend came home and showed me the Web and that led to Idealist being created, as a way of beginning to do this, as a way of beginning to find a place where resources and ideas and people could meet and do more.”
It was as if a light bulb had turned on. For the first time, Ami saw a chance to create something that would impact the world in a great way. So, from that moment on, Ami worked tirelessly to learn all the skills he needed to fulfill his dream through the internet. With the help and support of his family and friends, Ami started his own project and programmed a website to enable people to connect with charitable organizations:
“The original idea included people working face-to-face and people working online. One way of sort of summarizing this, is the thing that I think has been there from the beginning is: Is there any way in which all of the idealists in the world could be working together? I mean very specifically, because idealist can mean different things, people who want a better community, a better world, defined I think in a way that is familiar to most of us, a better positive world. And how can we all work together better?”
The Contact Center Network And “Contact.org”
For the next two to three years, Ami spent a great deal of time researching numerous non-profit organizations around the world. In 1994, he founded the “Contact Center Network,” an organization which focused on connecting people from around the world to share their interests and ideas for addressing the problems in their communities. The following year, Ami and his team launched “contact.org,” a website which contained more than 2,500 links to the websites of non-profit organizations and was accessible from over one-hundred countries worldwide.
Ami’s “contact.org” was launched alongside business websites such as “Yahoo!,” “eBay” and “Craigslist.” Originally, Ami and his team had great aspirations for the site, but were also prepared to accept that they may not fare as well as the other sites because “contact.org,” to put it simply, was a non-profit website. Little did Ami know, however, how much this simple and engaging website would impact the non-profit industry. It was soon after the launch of “contact.org” when it began receiving numerous visitors and became one of the most successful sites on the internet.
“Idealist.org” And Action “Without Borders”
The success of “contact.org” was remarkable for Ami and his team, and through it they saw a greater opportunity to reach out to people. And so, for the next two years, Ami and his team worked on improving the site and finding better ways to raise awareness. In 1996, Ami re-named “contact.org” to “idealist.org,” which came from his idea of “having an idea list for idealists.” The following year, Ami renamed the Contact Center Network to “Action Without Borders,” and saw the organization begin operating on a global scale.
When “Action Without Borders” and “idealist.org” began, Ami and his team had to accept that they would not have as wide a scope of support as they may have wanted, as they had very little funding. However, as more people came to know of “idealist.org,” “Action Without Borders” also began acquiring funds – first from small grants awarded by the foundations of AT&T, HP and Markle. Then, in 2000, the charitable foundation “Stern Family Fund” awarded AWB with a grant of one-hundred thousand dollars. From that moment on, AWB and “idealist.org” exploded internationally, and began to support themselves by charging small amounts for organizations to post on their site.
Ami related this in an interview:
“Initially, funding was horrific. In 2000, things started taking off. There was a small foundation called the Stern Family Fund, in D.C. They awarded one grant annually for $100,000, and they called to encourage us to apply. We did and got it. There are few things now that would make me as happy as that phone call, because it doubled our budget. We’re still mostly self-funded, because organizations pay $60 to post on our site. Grants are only about 10% of our funding.”
Walking The Path To Success: The Growth Of “Idealist.org”
From then on, things continued to move forward. Throughout the 2000s, Ami and his team at “idealist.org” experienced tremendous success, gaining an increasing number of visitors and organizations involved. By the mid-2000s, “idealist.org” had grown so much that Ami was named by the Non-Profit Times, an international charitable publication, as one of the “50 Most Influential People in the Non-profit sector” for four consecutive years, from 2002 to 2005. In 2005, Ami was conferred an Ashoka fellowship in recognition of his success with “idealist.org” and “Action Without Borders.”
According to Ami, one of the things that have greatly contributed to the site’s success is the fact that people really want to help another, and just need a guide to direct them to where they can truly contribute. In an interview, Ami described how many of the visitors of “idealist.org” had their first encounters with the organizations they now support:
“I think in most of the meetings people just connected for the first time. In some cases people are launching projects right there. They want to go and do something in a community. In many cases the success really is people meeting, realizing they are not alone, realizing that they are not isolated, realizing that in their town or city there are many, many more people like them, waiting to do good stuff together.”
Breaking The One-Million Mark
In 2009, “idealist.org” surpassed one-million registered users, making it one of the world’s most successful non-profit websites. Ami has set a tremendous example by actively supporting numerous causes featured on the site, including the “Better World Campaign,” in which Ami visited the people of South Africa and South America:
“I'm amazed by people's willingness and generosity to invite strangers into their homes. People are meeting everywhere. It’s summer now in South America and South Africa, so people are meeting in parks, in beaches. People are meeting in coffee shops, restaurants, wherever, but also in homes. That, to me, is the most amazing thing of all. When people just say, ‘Here's my address. Just come to my house.’ It just blows me away that people are definitely willing to trust each other to that extent. I think it's wonderful, but every time I see it, I think, 'Oh, my God. People are amazing.'”
Work Is Not Finished: Ami’s Future Plans
Since its inception, “idealist.org” has enjoyed tremendous success. However, Ami does not want to stop just yet. Looking at the future, Ami wants to dream bigger, help more people, and reach a point when non-profit organizations and other institutions are no longer needed because there are no more problems to be solved. He may have a far-out dream, but that’s what being an “idealist” means:
“When people ask me, ‘How do you motivate yourself, how do you keep going,’ I’ve never felt that I have a choice. I’ve never in a million years imagined working for a different organization. This isn’t a job, it’s not a workplace. It’s what I do.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Action Without Borders
- Contact Center Network
- Non-Profit Career Center
- Campus Outreach Opportunity League
- Res Non Verba
- Imagine Another World Campaign
- Better World Campaign
- Numerous other projects and programs featured on “idealist.org”
Awards and Achievements
- 2000: Named the “Public Interest Pioneer” by the Stern Family Fund
- 2002 – 2005 (all four years): Included in the “50 Most Influential People in the Non-Profit Sector” by the Non-Profit Times
- 2002: Received the “Webby Award for Best Website” in the Community category (Idealist.org)
- 2002: Included in the “Favorite Sites of 2002” by Forbes Magazine (Idealist.org)
- 2004: Conferred Fellowship by the Ashoka Foundation
- 2005: Named a “Philanthropy Innovator” by TIME Magazine
- 2006: Received the “Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship Award” from the Center of Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship
Idealist (A Brief History of Idealist)
Ashoka (Ami Dar)
Netsquared.org (Imagine a Better World: An Interview with Ami Dar of Idealist)
Dowser.org (Dowser Interview with Ami Dar of Idealist)
Forbes (Inside Look: The Story Behind Idealist.org)