Three RWJF Grantees Featured in New Book, Everyday Heroes

Rebecca Onie of Health Leads, Gary Slutkin of Cure Violence and Jill Vialet of Playworks are among the extraordinary nonprofit leaders featured in a new book called Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time by Katrina Fried.

In a phone interview, Fried said selecting only 50 leaders to profile was no easy feat. Ultimately, her goal with the book was to create a "mosaic of the nonprofit sector right now," with a focus on organizations that help people in "direct, immediate, impactful ways." With regard to impact, Fried notes that all of the organizations featured in Everyday Heroes are "beautifully scalable."

"The organizations are all at different stages of development," she said, "but the potential for that scalability is always there. And I think that’s critical. Not that impacting 50 people isn’t deeply meaningful, but being able to see a path to scalability is critical."

The book focuses exclusively on nonprofits in the U.S., and Fried says the leaders she profiled all exhibit what she considers a "uniquely American" entrepreneurial spirit.

She cites Health Leads and Cure Violence as prime examples of innovations based on profoundly simple ideas. Onie and Slutkin "came up with ideas that were so simple yet so brilliant, it was astonishing to me that it hadn’t been done before."

When many of us have ideas, we think, "Why doesn’t somebody do that?" Fried said. "And then the next thought is, 'Well, someone would have done it already.' And none of the entrepreneurs (in the book) got to that second thought." Instead, they showed "unparalleled confidence in themselves and their instincts."

Her "heroes" have tended to have nonlinear career paths, Fried observed, and their openness to unexpected twists and turns may be one of the keys to their success. For example, Jill Vialet got the idea for Playworks when she was visiting an elementary school as part of her work with the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA), located in Oakland, CA, which she also founded. Applying her MOCHA experience to Playworks, Fried noted, "wasn’t the most obvious step. But she saw a need and she answered it...she immediately saw a way that what she had learned and experienced could be applied to a completely different area. A lot of people might think, 'Why is recess so important?' -- she recognized the potential."

In addition, the nonprofit leaders featured in the book all understand that "empowering other people is critical to building any successful organization."

"As brilliant as they all are," Fried said, "each of them has really made a point of finding people who are great at very specific jobs and very specific areas of the organization, and really empowering them to do those jobs."

Onie, Slutkin and Vialet have also done a remarkable job of tapping into "young energy," she said, noting that many of the leaders in Everyday Heroes are "galvanizing" the energy of young people to build incredible organizations, "which essentially become movements."

Health Leads is a perfect example of this, Fried said, with Onie's own youth working as an asset in her favor (Onie was an undergraduate college student when she founded the organization). Onie's approach was "born out of a kind of optimism and energy that says, ‘Why not? Why can’t we?’ And of course it’s exactly the right question to ask.”

Slutkin, on the other hand, was older and more experienced when the idea for CureViolence (formerly named CeaseFire) began to percolate, Fried said, "but he brought his experience to bear on a whole different area." He saw a correlation between epidemiology and violence "that was 100 percent correct and right and true," and again, "he demonstrates this idea of believing in yourself and being confident enough in yourself and your own ideas."

"One of the challenges we all have is getting over this very old idea in our minds that one person can’t possibly make enough of an impact to change the world," Fried said. She hopes Everyday Heroes lays this notion to waste. The book isn't just about the 50 individuals profiled, she said. "What they've created couldn’t exist without individual contributions from volunteers and partners -- that’s who they'd call heroes. That’s the point. We all have this potential for heroism."

Our Approach to Scalability

Read about the Vulnerable Population team's approach to growing programs to scale in this article in Philadelphia Social Innovations Review by team director Jane Isaacs Lowe.