For many people, the upcoming holiday season is a time to give thanks and give back to those less fortunate. But for Kathy Calvin, giving back is something to do year-round.
As the CEO of the United Nations Foundation, Calvin helps those in need all across the world, overseeing campaigns on everything from clean energy to empowering women in developing countries. She has also spearheaded the foundation’s foray into the digital age, with new initiatives such as #GivingTuesday, a social media campaign encouraging a universal day of donating, and the Global Good Challenge, which encourages online users to share information about global issues with their social networks.
Prior to her role at the U.N. Foundation, Calvin has had an enviable career path, with high-ranking positions in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Her roles have included serving as President of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Director of Editorial Administration for U.S. News & World Report, Press Secretary to Senator Gary Hart, and Senior Managing Director at Hill and Knowlton.
Calvin took a minute out of her schedule to tell us about her diverse job experiences, the evolution of the philanthropy field, and a few ways that even the busiest career women can give back.
You’ve worked in many different fields, ranging from politics to public relations to your current role at the U.N. At the start of your career path, what was your dream job?
I am one of those people who has never had a game plan. For me, a dream job was something where I was going to be able to make a difference and sort of be a translator between different worlds. I guess that’s kind of the theme that’s gone through all of the things I’ve gotten to do. I’ve always liked something that had a little bit of adventure, a little bit of service, and a little bit of being on the cutting edge. I never had that one thing, like, if only I could be a rock star, opera singer, ballet dancer, or even politician. I knew the kinds of things I wanted to do, I just didn’t know where it would all take me. And it was actually kind of good, because I was open.
Of all those roles you have held, which do you think has been the most challenging?
You know, every one was different. Being the Press Secretary to a U.S. Senator was scary because it was a big job, and I was young and wasn’t quite sure if I knew what I was doing. But I think that’s probably true for everybody when you start a new job—it takes a while to figure out what it requires and what you can bring to it that will be really different and special. AOL was challenging in another way—in that we were creating a revolution every day and nobody had a map, so it was very exciting and full of learning.
The U.N. Foundation has probably been the most fulfilling challenge, because it brought together all the things I’ve done—from politics to journalism to communications online to policy work—and it’s on a global stage and we’re helping people all over the world. So it is probably the most exciting of anything I’ve done.
What do you like about working in the non-profit sector?
I believe that the philanthropic and non-profit sector is the most energizing place to be. There’s so much energy, so many people who want to be engaged, and so much new interdisciplinary thinking that it’s just very exciting.
When I went to AOL just 15 years ago, giving back was still something people did at the end of their lives. It was only just starting to change then, that giving back is something that you do today and that you can give back in all kinds of ways. You give back through your job, in your free time, with some of your money, and by making your voice heard. This is something people want to make part of their lives.
I think it’s a very big movement and a very human instinct all across the globe. It’s easier to give back in our country because we have a lot of tools and resources, but you go anywhere in the world and you see young entrepreneurs trying to make a difference in their own communities.
I think there are many people who want to contribute to causes they care about, but may not have the finances or time. Do you have any advice for them?
#GivingTuesday is going to be the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. We hope it will become a day that kicks off the giving season, just like the way Black Friday or Cyber Monday does for shopping. A lot of us tend to give the day after Christmas or during the holiday season in general because of tax reasons, but this is a reminder that we should be thinking about it sooner, and we should be sharing what we’re thinking. With #GivingTuesday, we can tell our friends about it, we can get them engaged, and we can share what we think is working, so I actually think it’s going to be a breakthrough in some critical ways.
The Global Good Challenge is also exciting because it gives people rewards for learning about issues they might not know about and figuring out how to share them with others. You play a game—when you give money or give some time, you get points. We know people like gaming, and we do, too, so why not try putting them together? It’s all kind of like bringing everything together. It’s going where people are, and it could not be easier.
Of the projects you have worked on with the U.N. Foundation, is there one you are most proud of?
Well, I love all of our campaigns. Probably the most exciting thing to me right now is the Social Good Summit [a weekend of conferences around the world that invite activists, journalists, and world leaders to come up with innovative ways to foster philanthropy] and the way we are learning to maximize the power of social media technology to allow anyone and everyone to be a problem solver.
That democratization with a little “d” is what I loved about AOL—it’s all kinds of things from philanthropy to education to shopping made easy for anyone to get engaged with. And I feel like we’re now doing that with philanthropy with the Social Good Summit, the Global Good Challenge, and #GivingTuesday. All of these initiatives really are at the heart of what we’re trying to do, which is to make it easy for anyone to get involved, whether they’re a billionaire or a young girl.
Your job often has you meeting with many leaders and celebrities from all around the world. What have you learned from working with such powerful people?
Powerful people are powerful because they believe in getting things done. I’ve really watched people who know how to analyze an issue, find people who can help them solve it, and then just really move mountains to get something done. These powerful people who you see on a global stage are there because they have vision and the ability to get others to join them in trying to address those big problems.
So it’s exciting to work with some of our Board Members, for instance, who are some of the great leaders in development and health, because they all bring a different skill set but are always trying to figure out how we can maximize our impact.
To learn more about the U.N. Foundation’s work and the campaigns mentioned above, go to www.unfoundation.org.