Huntington Hero Award Honoree Kelly Simon: ‘Philanthropy offers opportunity’
Kelly Simon pauses. Public Justice’s Development Director is usually unflappably gregarious but being asked how she feels about being this year’s Huntington Hero Award honoree took her aback.
“I know that my wife Melissa is certainly proud,” Simon says almost bashfully. “But when I think about me being the hero — I’m shy about it. How am I the hero?”
Another pause. And then the air changes. Something has shifted. Simon’s getting revved up. “Last year was a ton of work,” she says, summing up a hard year of COVID-19. “Working long hours. Stressful work. Not knowing what was going to happen one day to the next — both personally and at the workplace. Our attorneys are out there fighting on behalf of frontline workers and their families where it is a matter of life and death. To me, everybody at Public Justice is a hero. Everybody plays a role in this.”
Simon’s crescendo is also a soft landing. “There is a movie called ‘Mean Girls’ and at the end the lead character gets her award, takes it out, breaks it into pieces and hands it out to everybody. That’s what I want to do,” Simon says. “Everybody should have this award. This is truly a team effort. Every single person had a hand in this. Just because I was leading the development charge doesn’t mean I’m a hero.”
Apparently, her peers and colleagues disagree.
The ‘Huntington Hero Award’ is presented annually in honor of a Public Justice staff member who demonstrates exceptional dedication to advancing Public Justice’s mission and exemplifies Huntington Bank’s commitment to ‘looking out for people.’ The award is accompanied by a $10,000 donation to the Public Justice Foundation in the name of the honoree. Nominations were reviewed by a committee to select the staff member who met or exceeded the most award requirements.
The award is given to a staff member who has been nominated by a colleague or Public Justice Board Member, thereby acknowledging the team effort. This year, the Award singles out “Kelly’s vision, leadership” and strategy as she oversaw “several important and transformative areas of work” that embodies Public Justice’s mission and Huntington’s commitment to “looking out for people.”
“Moving the organization from dependence on a key fundraiser and traditional revenue streams to a more dynamic model based on expanding funding opportunities and audiences and diversifying the messengers engaging with supporters would be difficult in any year, but has been doubly so during a time when in-person donor meetings have been impossible, philanthropy overall has been shrinking and all Public Justice staff – including newly hired and onboarded development staff members – have been working remotely,” one nominator wrote. “Kelly not only managed to do so, however; she did so with undeniable success: The organization’s revenue has diversified and allowed our work to move forward unimpeded and additional diversification is underway in the form of non-attorney donor identification, solicitation, and cultivation.”
But how did Kelly Simon do all this at a time when so many nonprofits had to shutter? She created a culture of community where external and internal organizational and personal philanthropy is an intentional act of activism to enable Public Justice to exercise its expertise.
“It’s wonderful that Huntington Bank stepped up to do this award,” Simon says. “It was actually their idea a couple of years ago. They said the staff work so hard, we want to do something to recognize them. The mission is not complete — it’s not ever complete. But this work is not going to get done without a dedicated staff. There are so many in the organization who are working nose to the grindstone to achieve our mission – from administrative staff to senior staff. I’m just so proud that Huntington Bank recognizes that. You don’t hear that much from these big companies. But Huntington Bank recognizes the nonprofit world and what it takes to help these communities — and what it takes to get this work done.”
Helping nonprofits help marginalized communities is a core value for Kelly Simon.
Simon was born October 26, 1978, in Bridgeport, Conn. For the first 20 years of her life, she was raised in Monroe, a very quiet wooded suburb of Bridgeport, Connecticut. After her parents divorced when she was very young, her grandparents instilled in her the important values of “learning as much as you can and working hard. Education was taken very seriously in my family.”
Hard work in high school paid off. She moved to Washington, D.C. to attend college at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. It was the late 1990s and Simon had just come out. “The plight of the LGBT community was very much on my mind,” she says, determined to make fighting for LGBTQ equality the cause of her life. “This isn’t right. Until I have equal rights and everybody I know in my group of LGBT friends has equal rights, this is what I’m going to dedicate my career to.”
After graduating in 2000 with a BA in Government and International Politics, Simon landed a political internship with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization that promotes and supports LGBTQ elected officials. Simon soon determined that politics wasn’t her thing. “I am never going to be a politician. It’s not what I want to do. That’s how I fell into development.”
Simon next landed a development job at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. “I love planning events and chatting with people. I thought maybe development might be a fit for me. I got to meet fabulous folks like ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. I’m like, ‘wow, this is amazing. I can do this. Support the LGBT community and hob knob with celebs at these events. This is really fun.’”
That’s how Simon met Steve Ralls, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which was fighting the military ban on open LGBT service. The two became fast friends and stayed in touch over the years.
Simon seriously debated about becoming an executive director while serving as development director for SMYAL, a Youth Center in Washington DC dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth.
“I was watching these kids come in from the inner city streets of DC, 16-17 years old, HIV Positive. They were just thrown out of their house. It really had a profound impact on me,” Simon says. “Every gift that came into SMYAL — whether it was a few hundred dollar gift or smaller — we would use to buy groceries and make sure they had a youth center to come to. It really did change me. I knew at that point that I was sticking with the nonprofit community. There are not enough of us doing this work. I know I’m never going to be a rich successful investment banker and I don’t care. I want to help people.”
Simon left to get her Master’s Degree in management at Catholic University, learning how to be an executive director, strategic planning, human resources, public relations, and managing finances. But she also gained a deeper understanding of the significant lack of nonprofit staff working in development and fundraising and chose instead to stay on that path. She joined the National LGBT Bar Association during the fight to dismantle Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. “That’s where I figured out the law really does change lives. I can now marry my partner. I can now serve in the military. And in most states, I cannot get fired from my job,” she says.
Steve Ralls took a job at Public Justice as the communications director in 2015 and a couple years later encouraged Simon to apply for the development director position. “I looked at Public Justice’s mission and said ‘absolutely.’ This is my next step. Not only does Public Justice take on cases that are helping LGBT youth, trans youth, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s not just the LGBT community who needs help fundraising.”
Simon started thinking about how to create a larger community around philanthropy and development.
“A lot of people who feel passionately about a cause but can’t necessarily donate the time to volunteer for that cause will write a check. That’s how they can be helpful to these nonprofits,” she says. “Philanthropy is very much ground zero. If we don’t have resources to get the work done, we’re not getting the work done. If we don’t have resources, we’re not going to help these communities who we have set out to help. It’s the backbone of any organization.”
Philanthropy, Simon says, “also provides opportunity. Without our generous donors, without folks stepping up to say this is important to me, I want to give you the resources to go do it — that’s how these organizations grow and how these programs grow. If you think about our Food Project, our Students’ Civil Rights Project and our Debtors’ Prison Project, programs of Public Justice that have grown exponentially over the past four years just because funders are coming in and saying this is such important work and it’s life-saving work and it’s changing our society for the better — how can we help? That’s how they can help. Or they can volunteer. Or tell family, friends and co-workers: ‘I’m a part of this progressive organization. I’m volunteering. I’m writing them a check. I would love for you to be a part of this too. I know this is a cause that you would feel passionately about, too. Everybody has an individualized approach to philanthropy.”
But it all comes back to serving community. “It’s very much, in my mind, community driven. It’s about the cause, of course — but the community that surrounds the cause is what drives it. If Public Justice didn’t have this community of leaders and donors and members and volunteers, then where are we?”
It was the Public Justice community that carried the nonprofit through the very difficult season of COVID-19. “Our community saw the work of our legal team, and our communications team, and our outreach team. People were literally dying from working at these warehouses. They’re getting infected at their jobs in meat packing plants. Public Justice cases were all over the news. It came to the point of life and death. People were dying. Public Justice had the tools to help. The urgency drove all of us to work together,” Simon says. “The reliance on our community is what got us through it. I can’t say it was me. Every single person played a role in that – our Board of Directors, our staff, the entire Public Justice family. Whether it was by signing up a new attorney to make some calls for us, or someone sending in a $300 check, or a significant foundation grant, it all came together almost perfectly. And not only did we survive COVID, we actually did better than expected.”
Public Justice has impacted Kelly Simon’s life, too.
“Public Justice has opened my eyes to so many different communities who need our help. Knowing that we are able to come in and help these folks, many who have been locked out of the systems that should be helping them,” says Kelly Simon. “It feeds my soul. It helps my soul knowing that we’re impacting so many who need it. It’s not just one particular group. It’s many groups. The impact that we have and how extensive that is in so many different communities is what really keeps me going.”