Eszter Kutas Of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To…

Posted on

Eszter Kutas Of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

Assemble a good board. While the CEO or executive director might run a nonprofit’s day-to-day activities, the board is critical to steering the organizational ship and — ideally — providing support. The best board is well-rounded: Some board members will have subject matter expertise on your mission, some will be movers and shakers whose networks can further your mission and others will be able to make the financial commitments (or connections) to help you meet your fundraising goals.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eszter Kutas.

An accomplished nonprofit professional and lawyer, Eszter is Executive Director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. Eszter became PHRF’s Executive Director after serving as the project lead and acting director for two years through her employer Fairmount Ventures, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit and public sectors in Philadelphia.

A native of Budapest, Hungary, Eszter is the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors. Her commitment to Holocaust remembrance is both personal and professional; as staff attorney at The Claims Conference, Eszter oversaw the administration of a $1.2-billion fund established by a consortium of Swiss Banks and supported the assessment of more than 80,000 Holocaust restitution claims across international borders.

Eszter earned her J.D. at the University of Eotvos Lorand in Hungary and her LL.M. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I was born and raised in Hungary before the Iron Curtain fell. All four of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and my early childhood was defined largely by their experiences as survivors and by the communism that was still alive in Hungary. When I was still young, I heard about the oppression of my grandparents, their families, and other Hungarian Jews and that played a significant role in my professional trajectory.

I became a lawyer before I left Hungary, but I came to the U.S. to get another law degree at Penn. Once I decided to stay here long term, I got my first job at the Claims Conference, where I was hired as an attorney to help oversee a $1.2-billion Swiss bank settlement to Holocaust survivors. Although I was an attorney at the Claims Conference, I quickly realized how much more fulfilling life is when you’re working in the nonprofit world. It’s been nearly two decades now, and I haven’t left the nonprofit sector.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?

Prior to running the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, my most recent job was at a consulting firm specializing in serving nonprofits, where I worked with organizations across the nonprofit world — from hunger relief to early childhood education — on projects including executive searches, program development, fundraising, and much more.

One nonprofit organization that came to us was a group of individuals who were looking to redevelop and redesign the park around country’s oldest public Holocaust memorial, which is located in the heart of Philadelphia. With my background at the Claims Conference and my family history, this was obviously a cause that spoke to me. At the time, the organization had no full-time employees, and I oversaw essentially all of its operations, including fundraising, construction and program development.

The redeveloped plaza — now renamed the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza — opened in the fall of 2018, and the board wanted to bring on full-time professionals to manage the Plaza, run programming and handle other operational matters. When they offered me the position, it was hard to turn down. Besides my family history and my intimate knowledge of the organization, I was very concerned about the growth of antisemitism and other forms of racism. I knew that we could play a role in mending the social fabric, so I formally joined as executive director in early 2019.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Part of my perspective on this is shaped by my own experiences.

When I went to law school in Hungary, I encountered Holocaust distortion. My classmates were all educated people, and no-one denied that the Holocaust happened. At the same time, I saw that no-one acknowledged the (significant!) role that Hungary played in the Nazi occupation that led to the death of 400,000 Hungarian Jews. Understandably, I knew more about the Holocaust than my classmates, and the more we spoke, the more they understood Hungary’s responsibility. My classmates’ lack of proper knowledge about this piece of our country’s history and their changed perspective after our discussions opened my eyes to education as an essential tool to fighting bigotry. And that — using education as a tool to fight bigotry — is the purpose of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.

As mentioned, a few years ago we completed the expansion of our physical plaza, which now features artifacts from the Holocaust and educational materials contrasting democratic values and ideals from America with the dangerous philosophies embodied by the Nazis and other totalitarians. With construction complete, our focus has turned to programming and developing events and learning tools for teachers, students and the broader public.

Our educational programming all flows from the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is not the sole focus. We firmly believe that by telling stories of the Holocaust, we can teach universal lessons about humanity in an intersectional approach. For example, by studying, comparing and contrasting hateful ideologies from Nazism to Jim Crow, we can build empathy across communities.

One thing we feel strongly about is our interdisciplinary approach. Whereas Holocaust studies is usually included within history or social studies curricula, we focus a considerable part of our programming on art, literature, and even sports. Ultimately, different students respond to different subjects and teaching methods. Our lessons are important, so we make every effort to convey them through various mediums, so we can reach more students.

Just a few years since the Plaza opened, we’ve trained more than 780 public and private school teachers, so we know we’re making a real impact on children in the Philadelphia community.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

We’ve heard from many teachers who benefitted from our training courses.

Even with a lesson plan or a physical space to visit (like the Plaza), conversations about antisemitism and other forms of racism are difficult to navigate, and while teachers feel these conversations are important, they are sometimes wary to bring them up. In our group trainings, we go through some of the didactic methods that can be used to teach this particular content — from the appropriate tone to visual helpers to how to address tricky questions that students may ask.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

One, people need to be vocal about Holocaust education. Some states don’t mandate Holocaust education at all, and even the ones that do don’t always allocate enough time and resources. It’s not surprising, but studies show that students with better Holocaust education and access to museums are more likely to mature into empathetic citizens who understand the dangers of bigotry. If we want our students to fit into that category, politicians and other community leaders should advocate strongly for comprehensive education on the Holocaust and other topics relating to racism.

Two, do a good job of addressing hateful behavior. There will inevitably be instances when people do or say inappropriate things. The last thing you want to do is ignore this activity and give bigotry a pass, but you also want to take a measured approach. The fact is that we all have different backgrounds, and what one person might perceive as a dog whistle or a racially insensitive remark is sometimes said as a result of improper education.

If hurtful comments are made, society should respond swiftly. But the goal should typically be to start a conversation — not to end one. Within the last few years, there have been numerous examples of public figures who made hurtful racist and antisemitic remarks online or on social media. When a community issues a critique without an invitation to discuss what made the comments so hurtful, we all miss out on an important opportunity to educate our general public.

Three, build bridges across communities. Antisemitism doesn’t happen in a vacuum; very often, it’s the same hateful people who hate Jews, Blacks, Asians and other minorities. In any instance where we face a common enemy — whether that is climate change or anything else — it makes sense for different communities to band together to address societal concerns. Racism is no different.

As an organization, we’ve created events to foster better ties with other communities in Philadelphia, and this should be a priority for politicians and the broader society.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Depending on what sort of company or nonprofit is at hand, there are a range of different skillsets that might be important, but the hallmark of a good leader across the board is functional empathy. From leading your staff to coordinating with external stakeholders, the ability to read people, understand how they are feeling and put them at ease is part and parcel of being a leader.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

One, assemble a good board. While the CEO or executive director might run a nonprofit’s day-to-day activities, the board is critical to steering the organizational ship and — ideally — providing support. The best board is well-rounded: Some board members will have subject matter expertise on your mission, some will be movers and shakers whose networks can further your mission and others will be able to make the financial commitments (or connections) to help you meet your fundraising goals.

Two, define your mission. It’s not enough to have a general sense of your organizational purpose — it’s important to come up with a well-defined mission statement that is neither too broad nor too narrow. It’s surprisingly common for organizations to experience “mission drift” when their reason for existence is not clear. Ultimately, all your organization’s initiatives and programming should flow from your mission, so a lack of clarity can be confusing for all of your stakeholders.

Three, do research on peer organizations. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofits, so — without research — it would be easy to seek out a niche that is already filled. Seeing what other organizations are doing (and what they are not doing) can also help you define your own organization’s mission, ensuring you’re addressing societal needs that are not being met. In addition to avoiding overlap, research will also have other benefits: there might be organizations you can partner with, they might have executives who can mentor you and you might be able to come up with programming ideas based on what they’re doing.

Four, make an honest fundraising assessment. Figure out what your costs are and what opportunities you will have for fundraising initiatives with different sorts of donors — private individuals, large philanthropic trusts, corporations, etc. Essentially, before you jumpstart your organization, gain some level of assurance that it will be viable in the long term.

Five, build your network. You will lean on your donors for financial support, but you also need people to lean on for broader support. For starters, determine if there are community members or other organizations that are passionate about your cause and can serve as a sounding board for you. Some of those community partners could be essential in helping you refine your programming, establish your communications plan, and countless other things you never realized were necessary to help get your nonprofit off the ground.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Deborah Lipstadt is one of the most prominent Holocaust scholars. She gained a great deal of fame when she won a lawsuit against Holocaust denier David Irving. Irving had sued her for libel, and the dramatic events that followed were made into the movie “Denial.” Deborah was recently confirmed as the country’s special envoy on combating antisemitism, and she’s the sort of thought leader that our public needs right now to combat rising antisemitism.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

At the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Elie Wiesel had a poignant quote. He said “this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.”

In life, complex problems require complex solutions. When you look at something like the Holocaust — which emerged from such an intense level of hate and included such an immense level of violence — we will never have all the answers. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the question of how it happened. Instead, we should acknowledge the question, study the history, and do our best to improve society so that similar atrocities will never happen again.

How can our readers follow you online?

We’d love for readers to visit our website and follow us on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

Eszter Kutas Of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.