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Rebranding the Jefferson Awards Foundation

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Sam Beard and Hillary Schafer

The spirit to serve can be contagious. When harnessed by strong leadership and a savvy organization, it has the power to reshape lives and communities. 

That is both the message and profile of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, whose international reach springs from a modest headquarters in Wilmington. In annual ceremonies since 1973, the awards have recognized the prominent and the unsung for their contributions to public life, but the foundation’s focus now is more on action than celebration. Its primary mission is to engage young people to build their own projects. “We’ve had a rebranding,” says executive director Hillary Schafer. “It’s about changing lives in a profound way, and we’re ready for scale.”

The nonprofit world has adopted a business mentality, and Schafer is the perfect candidate to lead today’s Jefferson Awards. Armed with an MBA from Columbia, she worked on Wall Street for more than a decade, heading institutional equity sales for global giants UBS and Citigroup. Beyond the corridors of big money, she has extensive hands-on experience in community service. And her father, longtime Wilmington resident Sam Beard, invented the Jefferson Awards.

“He built a culture of service to inspire people,” Schafer says. “He always wanted to do good—it’s in his DNA.”

She shares more than just genetics with him. Tall and energetic, Schafer strides into her father’s office and introduces a visitor. Businesslike but with unmistakable warmth.

Elsewhere in the compact offices, a small portrait of Thomas Jefferson hangs on the wall. “He believed in an informed and involved citizenry,” says Schafer. Large, unopened cardboard boxes cramp the hallway. “We’re growing the business.”

Within three years, the foundation seeks to nearly double its operating budget of $2.8 million (funded by foundations, corporations and individuals), hire full-time communications and development directors, expand its several youth programs by as much as tenfold and add eight major cities to its current presence in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Florida and a half-dozen big cities including Chicago and San Francisco. For Delaware, the goals are to boost opportunities for lower-income schools downstate, add to the total of 31 participating high schools and recruit two staffers to join Wilmington native Michele Fidance, who has been running the show solo for seven years.  

There already is muscle behind the Jeffersons. An 11-member Board of Governors includes Wilmington-based LabWare founder Vance Kershner and other high-level business leaders. The 70-member Board of Selectors, which picks each year’s numerous award-winners, consists of luminaries from diverse fields the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky find common ground when it comes to assessing good deeds. 

Scores of radio and television stations nationwide broadcast the Jefferson message and promote local volunteer projects. More than 20 companies and colleges honor employees for Jefferson-like activities; Delaware’s two Jefferson corporate “champions” are AstraZeneca and Christiana Care, while the University of Delaware is a full partner in the motivation and training of high school youth for community service. At this month’s annual leadership conference hosted by the university, UD students will train some 200 Delaware high school students in public speaking, ethical thinking and other leadership skills.

In Delaware alone this past year, 149 youth-generated projects under the auspices of the Jefferson Awards attracted 44,000 volunteers, who contributed 221,000 work hours that affected 804,000 lives, according to foundation figures. “We want to give voice to the best kids’ service projects in the world,” says Schafer. 

One such project involves the planet’s most fundamental compound: water. When Sussex Technical High School senior Emma Rider was 10, she joined her church group for a trip to Kentucky, where the Louisville-based nonprofit WaterStep changed her life. “I was the youngest [on the trip] and just tagged along,” says Emma, now 17. “I got interested in the world water crisis and learned that a child was dying every 10 seconds from unsafe water.”

She also learned that the company’s fundraising efforts included collecting new and used shoes for sale and recycling them, and decided to try that strategy back home. Since then, she has mobilized a small army of helpers to collect 80,000 pairs of shoes, good for three water purification systems in Kenya, where she visited two years ago.

This year, Emma’s personal journey went viral. As a participating Jefferson school, Sussex Tech nominates students for service recognition monthly. Fidance invited Emma to enter Jefferson’s “Lead360” (as in 360 degrees) contest, which challenges young people to broaden their local service projects. From 5,000 contestants, the Jefferson selectors culled 27 finalists (first, second and third in each of nine categories), a number subsequently reduced to five by online voting.

Finally, during awards night in Washington, D.C., in June, Emma Rider and her “Quenching Souls” project took the gold. “It took a while for it to register when they called my name,” she says.

On the national level, the ranks of Jefferson honorees have been filled with household names such as Oprah Winfrey, Paul Newman, Colin Powell and Ted Kennedy. The roster includes five Supreme Court justices, seven secretaries of state, astronauts, athletes, entertainers and economists. These individuals were recognized for the public impact of their work, which typically exceeded their normal duties.

That tradition continues. Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, wounded by a gunshot to the head in 2011 and now a strong voice for gun control, was among those honored in June. Lesser-known winners earned recognition for their work in the fields of cancer research, community medicine and public education.

They all had dedicated countless hours of their own time to their projects.   

As a concept, volunteerism is as American as inalienable rights. Its leading exponent in Colonial times was the irrepressible Benjamin Franklin, whose thinking and activism launched fire departments and public libraries in this country. Jefferson Awards founder Sam Beard qualifies as a modern-day Franklin. “It was always in my nature to fight for the underdog,” he says. “I knew I wanted to work in public service right out of college.”

College was Yale University, from which Beard graduated in 1961. Public service may have been his calling, but at first, he didn’t know exactly where to report. Drawn to political circles, the native New Yorker worked on Mayor Robert Wagner’s staff and was a friend of future Congressman Allard Lowenstein, a civil rights activist who had been a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention and was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Beard’s name eventually came to the attention of then-New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who enlisted him in 1965 to join the effort to rebuild the riot-scarred neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. 

After that heady experience, Beard began thinking big. In 1969, he proposed an initiative to create jobs in low-income communities through improved financing for small businesses—his National Development Council was sanctioned by President Richard Nixon and expanded during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

“Eventually, every bank in America put aside 100 million [dollars] for the inner cities with government guarantees,” says Beard. “We changed the whole thing in the name of the president of the United States.”

There were more changes to come. During his work with Kennedy, Beard had become acquainted with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Sometime in 1971, she asked me what new programs I was thinking about,” Beard recalls. “I said, ‘I think there should be a Nobel Prize for service. If you agree to chair it, I’ll set it up.’”

The next day, Onassis called with a thumbs up. Ohio Sen. Robert Taft Jr., whose brother had worked with Beard at the NDC, soon joined the marquee, and the Jefferson Awards were born the following year. 

Beard has been immersed in the foundation and other public-spirited pursuits ever since. He moved to Wilmington in 1980 after then-Mayor Bill McLaughlin sought his planning expertise and convinced him to help lead the city’s renaissance. In the 1990s, Beard devised a remedy for the anticipated future cash shortfall in Social Security; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush supported his thinking, but reform was elusive.

In 2005, he turned his energies full time to running the Jefferson Awards. “Now we need to institutionalize,” he says. “And God sent me Hillary.”

She grew up in Manhattan, planted saplings in Bear when she was a youngster and volunteered in soup kitchens and halfway houses during her years at Middlebury College in Vermont. Since last October, Schafer has been at the helm of the Jefferson Awards. “When I quit Wall Street, I didn’t know what to do—I thought I would stay in finance,” she says. “Then [Hurricane] Sandy hit in New York, and I couldn’t stand it that there were kids with no sign of warmth or safety.”

That feeling prompted action. She served meals and provided clothing right in her home to people displaced by the storm. She surveyed the nonprofit landscape and, when the Jefferson board asked her to sign on as executive director, the fit and timing seemed just right. “We want to run this as a world-class business,” says Schafer.

To shine a spotlight on all the future Emma Riders. Visit www.jeffersonawards.org.