Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Doug Ismail of the California Masonic Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World
Celebrate small victories as well as big ones. The road to success is paved with all kinds of experiences — both successes and failures. Be sure to appreciate them all. Celebrate making a difference for one person as much as you do for an entire school. It will also help keep you going when times get tough.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug Ismail, President of the California Masonic Foundation.
Doug leads the California Masonic Foundation in engaging individuals and lodges in all aspects of charitable giving. Doug has worked in fundraising for more than 30 years, leading organizations and offering independent consulting. His nonprofit-sector career has focused on the arts, health care philanthropy, social services, and education. He works to celebrate, recognize, and promote philanthropy as a tool to make the fraternity recognized and relevant, while providing opportunities for brethren to experience the joy of selfless giving. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classical studies from Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio and a master’s degree in higher educational administration from Ohio State University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a small Ohio college town where my father was a professor and my mother the registrar. A learning disability had always forced me to be more social — as reading and writing were a challenge. The simple way to describe dyslexia is the inability to read and write as well as you think and talk. That was me. As it turned out, my earliest role models were often the college’s fundraisers — many of whom also happened to be friends of my parents. I suppose you might say that a non-profit career in fundraising was inevitable.
Before long I was raising money calling alumni, doing well — and my path was clear! After a two-year stint at graduate school, where again I gravitated to fundraising, I landed my first job — as director of development at a public radio station in Cleveland. I loved the challenge, energy and excitement of raising money. As I matured in my career, I also saw firsthand how my work could affect peoples’ lives. I’ve worked in nearly every non-profit sector since. That was nearly 40 years ago.
Upon reflection, I do see a one major influence that kept me thinking about a non-profit career. We owe so much to our parents — and I am no different. I lost my father when I was 24, making my mother a widow at just 46. She had spent much of her adult life raising my brother and me, before working random administrative jobs to stay busy. Despite her predicament, she was determined to find a way to make a difference in the world.
By age 50, she had received a Masters of Divinity from Yale, begun volunteering by leading several outreach and support sessions for young adults, led women’s counselling sessions at a local prison, taught college level journal writing classes and even found time to play the piano at a local senior center. Her joy came from serving others. She was respected for her integrity as well as her steady kindness. Her example was inspiring. I still remember the day she said to me, “You should get into development work.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I am a Freemason. In my role I lead the fundraising and charitable work for our statewide organization. We have 40,000 members, and raise between $8–10 million per year. In 2009, we created a partnership with the San Francisco Giants’ charitable arm — the Giants Community Fund. Their summer programs are aimed at ensuring kids from all backgrounds have access to a fun, enriching summer experience that helps them with academics, life skills and more. For many years we have been making sure every child who participates in these programs has a mitt of their own. Now, years later, we have provided more than $1,000,000 in support — more than 50,000 baseball mitts for kids! I have even been recognized as “That Mason-mitt guy” by people who have heard about our partnership in the local paper or on TV. Once, I walked into a sports bar in San Francisco where they were playing a delayed telecast of the game — and saw my face on six large screen TVs. A few people even looked at me, then back to the screen…. That was certainly an interesting moment!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have a lot to draw from here! I have been raising and giving away money for California Freemasonry for more than 20 years. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned working for an organization as large and far-reaching as the Freemasons is that as you can never make too many assumptions. Once, at the very beginning of my career with the Masons, I ran into a small group of women in our building — who appeared to be on a sightseeing tour. As I approached them to ask if they needed anything and to explain that I would be happy to tell them more about the piece of art they were observing, I was surprised to find them talking in great deal about some the masonic symbols contained within the mural in our main lobby. As it turned out, they were members of an all-female masonic lodge from Europe, and they knew far more about these symbols than I did. At that time, I had never met a female Freemason. My lodge and those around me were all male, so I was the one who got the lesson that day — that we are a varied and diverse group, all committed to the same goal of improving ourselves and the communities we live in.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Philanthropists like McKenzie Scott have been getting a lot of well-deserved attention for their innovative and unique approach to charity. I like to think that many of those principles apply to our work as Masons as well. Because we strive to be charitable — and don’t actually have a product or direct service of our own, we depend on partnerships and collaborative efforts to get our work accomplished. Like this new breed of philanthropists, we carefully choose partners with shared values and then focus on areas where we know we can make a profound difference in peoples’ lives. Literacy for elementary school kids is one example. We’ve invested millions in public education in California and partnered with a family engagement literacy program called Raising a Reader with the express goal of getting high quality books in nearly 1,000 of California’s lowest performing classrooms. We focus on those schools in the bottom quartile — in schools and districts where PTAs struggle to raise funds for “extra” programs for literacy — and as a direct result of our efforts, we’ve seen significant improvements in student test scores and extracurricular reading. In a very niche way, we are making a big difference in an area we value.
We also have scholarship programs that focus on those kids who may not be academic highflyers — but who possess the character and grit to achieve. They are often C+ students working afterschool jobs to support the family. They are often first in their families to go to college and have other significant challenges in their lives that have made greater success in high school more difficult. They are talented, intelligent students with the work ethic you need to succeed in college, but their circumstances have unfortunately gotten in the way of academic success, and so they’ll often be overlooked traditional scholarship programs. That’s where we come in. Not only do we help provide financial support to these students, we also partner with several college success programs to ensure that they are supported through their journeys. More often than not, our scholarship is usually the only one these students will receive. I know that the first time I saw both a student and a parent both cry when they were informed that they had receive an award, I knew we were on the right path.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Several years ago, in the early days of our scholarship program, a young woman applied for and received an Investment in Success scholarship. She was a first-generation Latina student from a single parent household in the San Diego area. Her grades were modest, as she was also working through most of high school to help support her family. Even then, she possessed maturity beyond her years. She shared that she never considered college as an option because she needed to work — and besides, her mother could never afford to send her.
When she was told she was selected as a scholarship recipient, she burst into tears. She even asked when she would have to start paying it back — not understanding that this was our investment in her future, because we believed in her. Her success in life would be our reward.
Like many young people in her demographic, her transition was not an easy one. Our program acknowledges this, so we are very flexible in our rules. Some will take five or six years to graduate, for example. We’re okay with that.
She eventually received her bachelor’s degree, and has since begun her MBA, paid for by her employer — the bank she now manages. She has shared with us that while the financial support was helpful, nothing we did had a greater impact than telling her we believed in her.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Support working parents of our youngest students in their efforts to instill a love of reading at an early age. Reading to kids is so important for vocabulary development and brain power, but with so many parents coming home exhausted from working multiple jobs, reading time is often replaced by television and screen time. If all parents had the training and knowledge to support their kids’ literacy development and help them develop good habits early, we would see huge gains in our educational system. That said, I would like to see greater emphasis placed on helping parents nuture their children’s reading habits. If every child had the opportunnity to read 30–50 books each year by age five, the gains in literacy would be immeasurable. Families that read together also develop closer ties to educational success for their children — and contribute to better life outcomes. I think that this is a huge opportunity to affect change in our system.
I would also love to see more scholarship organizations focus on college access and success for young people who don’t fit that typical “scholarship” mold. There is a lot of money out there for high achievers from low-income families, and universities and colleges with significant endowments often prioritize these high performer. However, I’d love to see more support given to the “middle-performers” who have proven their ability to overcome significant obstacles in their lives. That’s exactly why the Masons of California seek out a different type of student, and “invest in their success.” It may be a higher risk program — but the rewards are worth it.
The summer experience has also left many kids behind. Kids from urban areas of our state who can’t afford camps and summer programs need more options. Summer school — with classrooms and books — just isn’t attractive to these kids, which is why I love the idea that sports can be used as a tool for learning. If I had been told that I had to go to summer school, I would have run away as far as I could! However, what if I got to play baseball, for example, and learn about health, education, teamwork, sportsmanship and anti-bullying? What if I had a trained adult there to cheer me on? I could make new friends, play outside and not fall too far behind my classmates who were able to afford a summer experience of their own. This is precisely what the San Francisco Giants’ Junior Giants summer program offers, and why we decided to support the program through Masons4Mitts. I would love to see more options for really fun and engaging physical activities like this during summer.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
There are so many ways to think about leadership. I think about it often myself. One way to consider leadership is the measure of your character — particularly how you act in times of stress. As a leader, we are often placed in stressful situations where all eyes are upon us. In Freemasonry, maintaining harmony through thick and thin is a primary and important role of a leader. We know that for us to work well together, particularly in times of stress, we must be in harmony. Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” I agree with this. When leaders have the power to do good–or make peoples’ lives better–they carry both a burden and a curse. Making true progress, and doing the most good, usually happens when leaders see their role as an opportunity to accomplish a greater good, rather than a personal goal.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Relationships matter. Stay in touch with those you meet over the years whose work you admire. Keep your mentors close — even after you aren’t directly connected. People who have known you through your entire professional journey are a gift. They will help with perspective and keep you grounded.
- Knowledge is power. Read about your work. Understand the issues and know your industry. Be a person who knows the details and sees how things get done. Question conclusions you can’t easily verify, and find ways to succeed without belittling others. Be humble and listen to others.
- Don’t get too far from the people you serve. Our work just seems to get busier all the time, removing us from the day-to-day good we do. It’s too easy to lose perspective, and so for me, it’s getting re-connected to the real, day-to-day impact we’re making on people. It usually takes just one visit to a scholarship award ceremony, a classroom or a ball field to see the happiness in people’s eyes. To see that you’re really making a difference to someone.
- Celebrate small victories as well as big ones. The road to success is paved with all kinds of experiences — both successes and failures. Be sure to appreciate them all. Celebrate making a difference for one person as much as you do for an entire school. It will also help keep you going when times get tough.
- Enjoy the ride. It will go by very quickly. I’ve been raising funds for 39 years — and I am wondering where all that time went.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve been watching high school seniors struggle with decisions about college for years. We need to be sure kids know that college isn’t the only path to success in life. To do this, we need to expand young people’s understanding and awareness of career and technical educational opportunities and destigmatize what was formally known as “vocational” training.
For many young people from under-resourced communities, an education in the trades can be the ticket to a solid, lucrative career and, most importantly, an escape from poverty. The blossoming of career and technical education options for students is largely unknown by those who influence young people today. Parents, counselors, relatives are usually pushing for college. I hope for a future where all students have a clear understanding of their options, be it college or a trade, that they find a spot that brings them joy and that they pass this lesson on to the next generation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A dear friend once told me that, “Our greatest strengths are often our weaknesses in reverse.” As a gregarious, outspoken person, I saw the value in finding peace through solitary hobbies and making time for myself. Finding balance here is key. I know what my preferences are, but I also want to be sure that I cultivate my weaknesses, as understanding them will undoubtedly help me connect with my best self.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ve always been fascinated by successful coaches in professional sports. The skillset required to bring out the best from professional athletes seems incredibly complex. I consider this type of leadership to be as complex and gratifying as any I can imagine. Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors coach, has found a way to do that, while also standing for social issues that are important to him and to his team. I admire him a great deal.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Doug Ismail of the California Masonic Foundation Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.