Dowser Interview: Ami Dar of Idealist
Ami Dar’s career as a social entrepreneur began with an epiphany, $1,000, and a childhood dream to change the world. Years later, he would act on that dream when he founded Idealist, a pioneering web-based portal that serves as a one-stop shop for social-change job, volunteer, and event opportunities, as well as a forum for collaboration among changemakers. Dar told Dowser about Idealist’s origins, the power of a properly-channeled obsession, and why we need more “hero rats.”
Dowser: When did your mission to change the world start?
Dar: When I was 6 or 7, I was a totally precocious social justice freak. I was always complaining and asking, ‘Why?’ I somehow wanted to make the world a better place.
And you have with Idealist, which now receives over 50,000 visitors daily. What drove you to create it?
I have three obsessions that fuel Idealist. 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. If you look at the commercial world, you have credit cards, banks, and stores… it’s all set up so your intention can easily turn into action. But in the nonprofit world, there’s no mechanism to help you.
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. How do you connect around those divisions?
The third one is that the world is full of great ideas that don’t travel and don’t scale. A favorite example of mine is HeroRAT.
HeroRAT? This is gonna be good.
It’s from an Ashoka fellow named Bart Weetjens living in Mozambique. As a kid in Holland, he loved rats and learned everything about them. Mozambique has a huge landmine problem, and he saw people trying to find landmines by smell.
You mean by training dogs to sniff them out?
Yes. This guy remembered from his youth that rats have a great sense of smell, so he created this insane project to train little rats to be mine sweepers. The beauty is that they’re cheap and they’re so light that even if they step on a mine, they won’t blow it up. It’s such an obviously great idea, so why has no one in a place like Cambodia heard about it? Everyone knows about iPhones, so why doesn’t everyone know about this new way of finding mines? Why don’t ideas scale?
So when did these obsessions of yours begin?
Twenty-four years ago I woke up one morning with the thought, ‘How do we build a global network that will make it easier for people to get involved and for ideas to flow across barriers—whatever they are?’
Where were you at the time?
I was born in Israel, and I grew up in Peru and Mexico. After three years in compulsory military service in Israel, I went backpacking in South America for over two years.
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.
Did you have the ‘Aha!’ moment?
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. But the question was ‘how?’ I was 24, I had a thousand bucks. I didn’t know anyone, or anything.
What did you do?
I went home to Israel for a few years. I had to get a job, so I was a waiter and a translator and worked for my friend’s software company. I never went to college. But I was obsessing about this thing, and writing outlines about how to change the world.
Then the Web came along, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been waiting for this for eight years.’ And with the Internet, one person with no money can actually do stuff. So I went and began building what would become Idealist.
Today, Idealist serves over 84,000 nonprofits and 500,000 individual members worldwide. What kind of support did you have in Idealist’s early phase?
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.
What year did you launch Idealist?
1995, the same year as Yahoo!, eBay, and Craigslist.
Who was your first funder?
Don’t get me started on funding! Funding was horrific. We started with a budget of $100,000 a year for five years. In 2000, things started taking off. The budget is $5 million this year, so we can actually do significant work. For the first five years, the money came from friends and my savings.
And your first grant?
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.
Was it a tough decision to charge organizations to post job openings on the website?
It was, because we feared they wouldn’t pay. It was 1999 and we had no money and we were struggling to survive. So we put the announcement up, waited, and I think within an hour we had requests to post jobs.
It’s been over a decade since Idealist’s launch. Is the honeymoon over?
It can be frustrating at times, but 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.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Jake Brewer