The idealist.org offices located in an anonymous building in midtown, Manhattan are home to one of the most well-known websites today. If you haven’t heard of idealist, you’ve probably never worked with or for a non-profit. Idealist is the nexus of non-profit resources for employment and networking. Their site includes job, intern, and volunteer postings; upcoming programs and events; and profiles on people and organizations.
Idealist was born in the early 1990s, during a time before the internet was what it is today. It was a time when very few people had actually heard of the internet, let alone used it. “It was like trying to sell TV guide to people without televisions,” Ami Dar, founder of idealist says. The site, which is essentially a network of linked sites, was founded before search engines were designed. “You couldn’t search anything online. We had to just click on links until we found the sites we were looking for.” Almost twenty years later, the site has developed into the online hub of non-profit opportunities.
But it wasn’t always this way. Dar says that up until he was 25, he had “accomplished nothing.” He floated through the typical Israeli trajectory of completing his army service and traveling. When he took a job working for a friend in the early 1990s, he discovered the wonders of the internet. He saw in it powerful potential to answer a question he had wrestled with throughout his life: how to move people from intention to action.
Dar says that if you ask people what keeps them from making a difference, they all say the same 50 or 60 things, whether they’re thinking of potholes in the street or civil conflict in Syria. He finds that all excuses fall into the categories of time, money, power, fear of failure, feeling helpless or hopeless.
While idealist is one means of working to solve this, Dar sees a much more complicated picture, with three main issues coming to the fore.
First, how do we find real connection in life? “We are overnetworked and underfriended. We think we’re connected, but we’re not. We don’t even know our own neighbors.” Once a year, idealist invites everyone in the building to lunch in their offices. “If you don’t smoke, you may never see these people. And we all work all day together in the same building.”
Second, how do ideas travel? “Before the internet, things were completely different.” Voices had to be louder, actions more drastic. He points to the case of Ted Kaczynski who threatened terrorism unless the New York Times published his ideas. “Today, the unibomber would just be a blogger.” How do we spread ideas today? How can we harness the internet to spread the word about building a global network to connect how to connect intention with action, people with people, and spread ideas?
But perhaps the most resounding question is how to move people from online to offline. “How do you inspire people to stand up and get out there? How can we help move people to act on the issues they care about?”
Dar leans back in his chair and sighs. “With the internet, everyone knows everything. You just have to go and do it.”