Danielle Ames Spivak of American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: “Nonprofit work is really about connecting with individuals”

…Nonprofit work is really about connecting with individuals. It’s so important that we don’t see people as just potential donors, but to cultivate genuine relationships. Working in the arts nonprofit sector is all about fostering deeper human connections — after all, that’s one of the greatest gifts of experiencing music and art in general. But that lesson […]

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…Nonprofit work is really about connecting with individuals. It’s so important that we don’t see people as just potential donors, but to cultivate genuine relationships. Working in the arts nonprofit sector is all about fostering deeper human connections — after all, that’s one of the greatest gifts of experiencing music and art in general. But that lesson is relevant to any successful nonprofit. In the big picture, we are all working to build an engaged community for our nonprofits.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Ames Spivak.

Danielle Ames Spivak is the Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to having found her professional calling in the arts nonprofit sector, luxury travel, gourmet cooking, and art are some of Danielle’s interests — but most of Danielle’s time spent juggling the balls of executive leadership and motherhood, as the proud mother to 5 kids ages 9 and under. Danielle grew up in Vancouver and has lived in Jerusalem, Montreal, New York City, and Philadelphia — but is happy to now be based in sunny Los Angeles.


Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I grew up in Vancouver, Canada and have lived in many other cities including New York and Jerusalem — before settling in Los Angeles. Living in so many vibrant cities throughout my life has greatly shaped my passion for arts and culture. I also have five children ages 9 and under. Everything I do is for them, working towards a vision of the type of world I want them to inherit.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?

I studied political science at McGill University in Montreal. I had originally had planned to go to law school and go into political communications. For fun I double majored in art history, but it was never my plan to pursue work in arts and culture until I started to realize that cultural institutions tend to directly impact the public more than political institutions often do. I found my calling in the non-profit cultural sector.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

I am proud to have been with the Israel Philharmonic for over 10 years now in various capacities, including my current role as CEO of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic. For me, our commitment to education and sustainability is key and speaks volumes to our values as a nonprofit. Through our youth music education programs, we educate tens of thousands of kids every year from all racial and religious backgrounds, including children with disabilities. Being a leading arts institution means reaching and engaging all aspects and people within your community and rallying around a shared fondness for creativity. We will be the first Orchestra to go carbon neutral with Aspiration, by 2022. To me, that says it all about how seriously we take our imprint on the world.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

The first year I was working with the Israel Philharmonic (in 2011), I was 7 months pregnant and visited Tel Aviv for the 75th anniversary of the orchestra. I love talking to people at concerts — randomly introducing myself to them during intermission. So during the intermission I started talking to a young student who had received a free concert ticket as part of our ticket subsidy program. He told me he was raised in a state-sponsored home for foster kids. He was no longer a minor, and without real family, he told me that attending concerts was like “coming home” to him. To me, that truly defines the Israel Philharmonic’s mission of creating “music that matters.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Only through more dialogue and cultural exchange do we have hope of creating greater understanding amongst diverse people. At the Israel Philharmonic, we fundamentally believe that music has the power to unite across cultural difference. I am very against people or organizations that call for cultural boycotts. When channeled thoughtfully, bringing people together through the arts and culture is our greatest hope for a better tomorrow. More freedom of expression, creativity, and humanity is the answer to overcoming barriers to understanding each other in spite of different backgrounds and beliefs.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leading by example is everything. My parents and grandparents were incredible role models in my life — they didn’t spend a lot of time telling me what to think. They lived (and still do!) lives of absolute integrity, morality, constant learning and growing, and I absorbed so much from them. By my own example, I hope to raise my 5 children to recognize that they are important members of a community and our world and must give back. In all the work I do, I hope to model the leadership and diligence that I expect from others around me.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.

There are a lot of wasted resources and duplicated efforts out there in the philanthropic landscape. I’m not saying creating a new organization is never the solution, but make sure you know what is already out there and how you can amplify existing voices before starting out on your own. Understand what is out there already in line with your mission and values and consider partnering with them. I don’t view other non-profits as competitors. I believe we are all the same team, trying to give back for the greater good.

It’s also important that people aiming to contribute to the nonprofit sphere think about how they can innovate new solutions within the space they want to work. For example, at American Friends of the Philharmonic, we’ve been working on finding new ways to reach diverse audiences by taking advantage of technology platforms. As an orchestra, we traditionally connect with audiences throughout the orchestra’s tours and via in-person events — but we always wanted to be able to connect more with audiences outside of major cities. Throughout the pandemic we were able to launch over a dozen new digital programs that allowed us to reach a wider audience than ever before, across over 84 countries. We’re continuing these digital programs even as we emerge from the pandemic and it is proof that there’s always room for innovation. It’s been incredible to see how modernizing how we connect with people has allowed us to engage audiences we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Lastly, nonprofit work is really about connecting with individuals. It’s so important that we don’t see people as just potential donors, but to cultivate genuine relationships. Working in the arts nonprofit sector is all about fostering deeper human connections — after all, that’s one of the greatest gifts of experiencing music and art in general. But that lesson is relevant to any successful nonprofit. In the big picture, we are all working to build an engaged community for our nonprofits.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have tremendous respect for Edith Eger, psychologist and Holocaust survivor — her story, resilience, and insight is incredible and something we can all learn from. I am in awe of the philanthropic work of MacKenzie Scott. I’d be fascinated to hear about what drives her. I also wouldn’t turn down a meeting with Oprah.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

My grandmother, Goldie Steele, herself a child of the Depression and who devoted her life to teaching children with special needs, always told me “the past is history, the future is a mystery, but the present is a gift.” I thought a lot about this quote throughout Covid-19, with so much uncertainty around us. Her words have always inspired me to take advantage of the present moment — whether that be enjoying the meaningful work that I get to do or the precious time spent with my family.

How can our readers follow you online?

I love to draw attention to my organization’s social handles. You can keep up with us at @AmFriendsIPO on Instagram and Twitter or @afipo on Facebook. I also have found a great platform for conversation Clubhouse — you can find me at @danielleames. I host a weekly discussion room on Clubhouse called ‘Hummus Thursdays,’ where I talk Israel, the Middle East, and life at large with Israeli actress & producer Noa Tishby, media personality Shanni Suissa, and celebrity guests.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

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