Since he was 8 years old, Ami Dar wanted to change the world. Last week, he might have.
On March 11, in an online presentation attended by over 10,000 people from 88 countries, Dar launched an online and on-the-ground network that could affect the way social action takes place around the globe.
“All over the world, there are people who right now would like to do something for the world, to act for some cause or another, but they don’t know how to start,” Dar told The Jewish Week. “We want to help them in every way possible: online and offline, through our website and through a network of volunteers operating in every neighborhood in the world.”
Dar, 53, is the founder of Idealist.org, one of the largest websites dedicated to facilitating volunteer and nonprofit work. Founded in 1995, Idealist currently hosts more than 90,000 nonprofit organizations that use the site to share their events, programs — and most commonly, job opportunities — with over a million viewers a month. It has become known as “The Monster.com of the nonprofit world,” a compliment Dar privately admits annoys him.
“That’s great, but I wouldn’t’t have devoted my life to create a jobs site. I want to change the world,” he says.
Dar grew up shuttling between Israel, where he was born, and Mexico, where his father spent years on work assignments. In Israel, Dar was a middle-class boy surrounded by others more or less like him. In Mexico, he was a rich boy surrounded by dirt-poor, hungry children.
Perhaps if he had grown up knowing only one of these realities, Dar’s sense of what is possible would have been different. As it was, he knew that change could happen. “I kept asking, ‘Why is it that we live like this and they live like that?’” he said in last week’s presentation.
There’s one moment he remembers in particular: he was 8, sitting in the back of his dad’s car as they drove home through Mexico City. It was nighttime and it was raining, but at by every intersection children stood begging. When the car stopped at a traffic light, a child emerged from the dark and pressed his hands to Dar’s window. “He must have been about my age … his face was maybe one inch away from my face. I could see he wanted me to help him, but I didn’t know how.”
That was when Dar started to ask himself the question that would drive his life ever since: How can I help?
“With all the stuff we already have in the world, how can we do more about the problems we see all around us?” he asked his audience. “With all the technology, resources, organizations and good will — ‘Is this really all we can do?’”
Growing up, Dar realized the answer to this simple question was complicated. While everyone he spoke to agreed that more could, and should, be done to improve the world, people had different ideas of what that actually meant. And even if they shared the same goal, how could they work together if they didn’t know of each other’s existence?
“Imagine a building, anywhere in the world, facing an empty lot,” Dar asked the audience. “And imagine that on the second floor, a person is standing by his window and thinking how nice it would be to plant a garden there.” Another person, three stories up, has the same idea. Had the two known of each other, they might have taken action together; alone, they don’t.
Two blocks down, say, there’s a nonprofit specializing in community gardens. Had organizers there known that two people nearby were thinking about planting a garden, they would have been delighted to help — but how could they know? Down the road is a school, looking for a nice project the kids could volunteer for. Across from it is a hardware store that would have gladly provided the tools. Somewhere out there is a government office giving out grants for exactly these kinds of initiatives. Had they all known of each other, if somebody could have made the connection, the garden would have been blossoming by now.
This allegorical building has changed during the 30 years Dar has been obsessing over it. Today its has Internet, its tenants are on Facebook and LinkedIn and Whatsapp and whatnot. But the person on the second floor still doesn’t know about the person three stories up. This, says Dar, has been driving him crazy his entire life.
In the 1980, after his army service, Dar went backpacking through South America. Along the way he came across many young, idealistic travelers, all yearning to “do something for the world.” Then he’d pass through poor villages, where broken fences and collapsed wells were crying out for someone to help fix them, and he would groan with frustration.
“In every settlement I came across there was always a church, a police station, a post office,” Dar recalls. “Why wasn’t there a place, like a little supermarket of people and organizations that want to help, where people could come to the desk and say: ‘Hello, I would like to help! What can I do?’ Why shouldn’t there be an institute like that in every village and every city in the world?”
Dar pictured this supermarket starting out as an office in Tel Aviv, with a fax machine and a printer and him on the phone, connecting causes, resources and people. But the idea took its first viable form in New York, nearly a decade later, with the invention of the World Wide Web. (Before he started Idealist, Dar worked as the New York branch manager for an Israeli computer company called Aladdin.)
Since 1995, Idealist.org has become a social action powerhouse, generating improvements across the globe. But there is only so much a website can do: to connect all the dots, to really make things actually happen, you need a real person.
“We discovered that a human facilitator, a connector, was key to almost any social action,” Dar explains. “If someone doesn’t actually knock on your door or invite you to act, and connect you to others with the same goal, nothing will happen.”
“We are here today to create a global movement, a network, that would make it easier for people everywhere to move from intention to action; that will connect people, organizations and resources in every possible way; that will find good ideas wherever they are, and spread them as far as they could go,” Dar declared in last week’s presentation. How? By inviting people from all over the world to sign-up as connectors. He calls the effort The Idealist Network.
On the day of the presentation, more than 1,300 connectors joined the network. Grouped into teams according to location, a month from now they will be meeting face-to-face. A year from now, Dar believes, they will be facilitating social action, in any and all forms, everywhere. “The vision is that in every neighborhood in the world there will be a group of connectors, and everyone knows that that’s where they go to make ideas happen.” It’s almost the same vision he had as a 24-year-old backpacker, only this time the technology and resources to support it actually exist.
Idealist.org transformed Dar’s image from “delusional dreamer who talks too fast” (he actually needs a staff member to raise a “Slow Down” sign in public speeches) to “successful entrepreneur.” Without those credentials, he notes, most people would have an even harder time accepting his grandiose scheme as a reality. Then again, where most people see an empty lot, Dar sees a garden.
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her column appears monthly.