The evening began as the sunset performed like fine public art, sliding slowly behind a deepening blue and glowing orange Mediterranean Sea. Next door, the minaret of a long-abandoned mosque cast its shadow upon the ancient port below. Distant lights came alive in the soaring high rises of Tel Aviv.
It was June 27, my 60th birthday. Hila Solomon, a chef friend, had arranged this exotic, extraordinary event on the rooftop of a private home in Jaffa’s Old City. My wife, Dana, and I celebrated with more than 30 wonderful friends, whom we’ve met during the last two decades working with Israel’s nonprofit sector.
The initial toasts were intertwined between birthday wishes and comments about the blog I had been writing, 60Days
Til60.com, which had culminated that morning.
One friend said, with customary Israeli frankness, “This was the longest birthday I’ve ever seen coming. How did you keep up all those posts, finding different topics several times a week?”
I began writing the blog on April 29 with the overall question, “Can a man turning 60 maintain his relevance in youth-oriented America?” By my birthday, I had gathered more than 2,000 regular readers. Each blog post brought thoughtful comments from readers that demanded a depth of self-reflection I never anticipated.
On the last day, a comment arrived from Allan Pakes, the former marketing director of the Jewish Agency for Israel. His comment grabbed me by the jugular and has since provoked much ongoing thought and anxiety: “The question I have is: Was it worth it? Do you believe that by working with nonprofits you have benefited mankind and changed the world? I would really like to know your thoughts after your 18 years of experience.”
The answer, in all honesty, is mixed; I have both positive and negative reactions. At age 42, I gave up a wealth path as a successful ad agency owner, copywriter and creative director because I realized something was missing in my life. I could no longer be fulfilled writing Coca-Cola jingles, sending people out to rot their teeth.
One of the benefits of that decision is the deep friendships I have made. I can invite to my birthday 35 wonderful, close Israeli friends who are like family, with whom I share passions and dreams, professional frustrations and joys. Those bonds, and many others that I have established with cause-oriented fanatics around the world like myself, would have never happened without the courage to make this change. It is as if we all share being part of a global team working for common goals. These friendships have changed the quality of my life.
On the other hand, from the day I entered this profession, I quickly learned that in the Jewish world in particular, even though I was still a businessman, the fact that my clients were exclusively nonprofits assigned me to a very different category. I was now viewed as a plebian community/nonprofit worker by many lay people, who regarded themselves as the Kohanim-class donors working with the serving, Levite professionals. By virtue of their donor capacities, they had the final word about marketing this community, even when they were dead wrong.
Given this reality, have I made the changes in Jewish life that I had hoped? I know I have affected individual lives of the people I have worked with and, hopefully, the people they serve. I like to think that I have helped to establish an excellence in marketing and critical, creative thought.
Last year, I was in a crowded New York subway when a 30-something woman came up to me and said, “Are you Gary Wexler? Ten years ago, I attended a marketing seminar you gave to Hillel students. I learned more in those two days than I ever did in any of my college marketing classes.” I have heard similar stories from seminar attendees across the country, in Israel and in Canada.
Have I affected the organizations that have been my clients? Sometimes I hear, “We never could have raised this money without your marketing expertise.” But in many cases I have learned that Jewish organizations are so complex, so dysfunctional, so ego driven, so dominated by the fear of their lay/professional relationships, that they waste their money on all the consultants they bring in and many of the outside services they pay for, because they simply cannot or refuse to make serious internal change.
At 60, am I still relevant? Not if you ask the young digital marketing guru whom I encountered at a Jewish innovation conference, who said with no compunction, “What do you know? You’re an old guy.”
Some of our bright, young people have been so empowered by foundation monies thrown at them that they feel entitled to think and say anything, knowing they will be continually embraced and funded. On the other hand, there are young people with whom I am working closely on a knowledge exchange of concept, strategies and big ideas based on years of experience intertwined with their digital knowledge and instincts. This exchange keeps me relevant and informed in a changing world.
Relevancy in my profession is based upon constant learning and awareness of the changes in society. Marketing is always a reflection of continually evolving popular culture. I’m relevant because I take risks. I’m relevant because I speak out. I’m relevant because I don’t hide my age, and I understand the gifts it has brought me. I’m relevant because I refuse to live in fear of those who have the power.
And I’m relevant for a very personal reason. Through this profession, I have the privilege of traveling to Israel several times a year, playing an integral role in one of the most innovative, creative and risk-taking societies on the planet.
Watching the sun set from the Jaffa rooftop, I knew it would rise the next morning, blazing with possibilities. A new day is never taken for granted in Israel and among the Jewish people. With all our conflicts, I continue to be hopeful, dedicated, wiser and perhaps very foolish.
Gary Wexler is adjunct professor of nonprofit marketing in the masters program at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He consults on marketing strategies with nonprofits and businesses in the United States, Canada and Israel. To reach him, visit garywexler.com