For Mitch Sterling, philanthropy becomes more enjoyable when it’s personal.
Sterling, a director of business development at Blank Rome, has been involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in some capacity since 2005, but the connection to philanthropy and community involvement stretched back before that.
While a law school student at Villanova University, he served as chair of the Jewish Law Students Association — “which was not a huge group at Villanova,” he quipped — and started getting involved with the Jewish Graduate Student Network with Hillel. That eventually led to invitations to Jewish Federation gatherings, like happy hours.
Then he was all aboard the Jewish Federation train.
From there, the Lower Merion native, who grew up as a member of Har Zion Temple, started working with the Jewish Federation’s Leadership Development Program, which is geared for young professionals ages 22 to 45.
He followed that path to volunteer for and eventually chair the Jewish Federation’s Renaissance Group, also geared for young professionals, which is now known as NextGen.
“I always had an interest in helping those in the Jewish community that were in need,” said the 39-year-old. “Volunteering with [Jewish] Federation has allowed me to be a part of something that is larger than the default routine of everyday life. As a young professional it can be easy to get caught up in diverse, often competing responsibilities and commitments — you get pulled in a lot of directions. With that in mind, it’s extremely fulfilling to make the affirmative choice to opt in and engage in something that you want to do but don’t have to do.”
Sterling hopes to spread that message to other young professionals looking to dip their toes in philanthropy — especially because, as he sees it, being involved with something like Jewish Federation has a lot of perks to it besides the philanthropy aspect.
Participating was easy for him because he realized how much his community work was intertwining with other parts of his life.
“It was pretty easy to say ‘yes’ with that in mind,” he said. “And then once you start getting involved, it’s very easy to stay involved. It always feels good to volunteer and give back, but it never feels like work or service.”
That idea is why he would encourage others to get involved with something like NextGen.
“Attaching yourself to a broader community and working toward positive change locally and globally is really rewarding on a personal level. When you’ve made that choice to give your time and your dollars to something meaningful to you and helpful to others, everybody benefits,” he said.
“Getting involved in NextGen specifically, and Federation more broadly, has provided me with ongoing opportunities to grow, learn and lead while serving the community,” he added.
“Just as importantly, it has provided me with the satisfaction of knowing that I have engaged others.”
His family was active with other Jewish Federation efforts and work in the Jewish community while he was growing up. His mother has been a supporter of Israel Bonds for several years and other family members were a part of the Soviet Jewry movement early on.
He would also participate in activities such as food distribution with Jewish Relief Agency (JRA), of which he is now a board member, for many years, which taught him a new way to appreciate the work.
Creating a personal connection is key, he noted, which may be especially true for the younger generation getting involved for the first time and want to see where their donations are going.
“Before you ask anybody for a donation, you want to show them why their gift is needed and where it’s going,” he said. “Any successful campaign aimed at young professionals must be rooted in engagement. Really, you want to provide a hands-on experience to hear the story, see the need, and if appropriate, connect with the recipients.
“Cook For a Friend programs and JRA distributions provide our volunteers opportunities to do just that. When people have an opportunity to connect with the recipients of [Jewish] Federation funding, they feel really good about where their money is going — and give generously.”
For him, giving back is part of his identity. He has become more involved with national initiatives like National Young Leadership Cabinet, a leadership philanthropic program of Jewish Federations of North America aimed at people between 30 and 45.
But he’s also looking to increase his efforts and connections with local initiatives.
“I always had felt like Jewish philanthropy was something to be embraced and something that connects me to my roots, my family, the Philadelphia Jewish community, and to others around the world,” he said.
After being involved for a little more than 10 years now, the work he does has almost become second nature.
“What’s been particularly valuable is the way that my involvement has become a very natural and positive extension of my everyday life,” he said.
“After a decade of involvement, my philanthropic, professional and social circles are deeply connected in the best possible way.”
This article is part of an occasional series of profiles of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supporters.
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