Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008-2009

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Connecting people online to improve their communities

Connecting people online to improve their communities
Russ Finkelstein ´90 (right). Photo by Jung Fitzpatrick

Russ Finkelstein ´90

by Amy Rogers Nazarov ´90


Back in 1994, Russ Finkelstein ´90 remembers thinking that the Internet could change the way people support social, political or environmental causes.

The first employee hired at Idealist.org, a Web site launched by the nonprofit organization Action Without Borders, Finkelstein recalls that founder Ami Dar “described to me his belief that people needed a way to find others who cared about the same issues.” Perhaps the Web would be that connector.

The idea intrigued Finkelstein. His master´s degree in public administration from Columbia University´s School of International and Public Affairs in hand, he signed on with Idealist, which today gets about 60,000 different daily visitors to its site, where they can connect with organizations and work together to improve their communities.

“People choose where they are going to spend our time and energy,” then use Idealist to connect them to suitable opportunities, he explains.

Now the associate director of Idealist.org, Finkelstein, 40, has initiated career fairs for people switching jobs, graduate-school fairs for those exploring advanced degrees in the nonprofit sector, and events to connect people with international volunteer opportunities. He is also working on Idealist´s first book, slated for publication next year. “It´s a guide to helping people figure out all the ways they can make a difference,” he says.

“I like to give people information about what their opportunities are so they can make better choices,” says Finkelstein, who recently opened Idealist´s Portland, Ore., office after working 12 years in its New York City headquarters.

Finkelstein, a New Jersey native, says Connecticut College broadened his personal horizon. “I went to a high school where it was not taken for granted that you were going to go to college,” he says. “A big part of being at Conn was the mix of people and experiences that opened my eyes to what was possible.”

One of those memorable people was Marijan Despalatovic, senior lecturer in Slavic studies and philosophy, with whom Finkelstein would practice speaking Croatian and talk about life in general.

“He had a strong desire to share all he knew with others,” says Finkelstein, who majored in government. “I was 19 and impressed that he took the time to talk with me.” His decision to study in the former Yugoslavia during his junior year was inspired in part by Despalatovic´s mentoring.

Now Finkelstein finds himself in the mentor role for many who visit Idealist.org or attend its events in search of a chance to bring about a little bit of change to their community.

“At Idealist, the way we try to describe the work we do is moving from good intentions to action,” Finkelstein says. “When you think about it, everyone is an idealist in one way or another.”

www.idealist.org

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