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One On 1: Non-Profit Executive Allan Luks

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of non-profit executive Allan Luks.

Allan Luks is a phone guy in an e-mail world. In his 15 years as executive director of New York City's Big Brothers Big Sisters, Luks has made thousands of phone calls to board members and volunteers, and yes, plenty of politicians.

And he all too well knows the sound of dread on the other end; the sound of, "Oh great, my conscience is calling." But Luks says it's strictly business - not personal.

"What I learned over the years is that even though they may not take your call that first time, you’ve got to call back and you’ve got to call back," he says. “My job is to try to keep on reminding people you’re thinking about making money, which is right, [and] you’re thinking about a whole host of things - vacation, worrying about your family, etc — [but] there's another part of you which wants to change the world. You have to believe that every person has that."

That's where Allan Luks comes in. He's spent almost his entire career in the non-profit world: The Peace Corps; legal work in East Harlem; executive director of the New York Council on Alcoholism; and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

All this from a guy who graduated Georgetown Law School and could have made a lot of money practicing law. Which begs the question, why?

"I'm a product of the 60's,” he says. “When I was practicing law in East Harlem, when I was going in the Peace Corps, society was saying, ’Do it - it's right. You may have a law degree, but it's not that important. Helping and getting involved is much more important."

Through the years, Luks has heard one expression more than a few times; do-gooder. What does it mean to him? It depends on who is saying it.

He says some see him as, in his words, "a naive pest." But others saw him as someone to be admired.

"I've heard people say many times, ÎI wish I had gone into the kind of work that you do,’” he says. “Of course, when they realize how much money I make and how much money they make, they say, ÎI don't wish it that much.’"

There are 19,000 non-profit agencies in New York, and the battle for donations is intense. Luks found a clever way to get attention this year; the annual report from Big Brothers Big Sisters is actually a comic book created by kids in the program.

"So Mr. Jones now has gotten the annual report from Big Brothers Big Sisters and he has 10 others," Luks says. “[He’s] so busy and the phone is ringing and the computer is on, [and he says], ÎHey, look at this — it’s comics.’ And he reads a couple, and these are poor kids themselves, and maybe he says, ÎThis idea of mentoring, of helping each other, maybe that makes sense.’ So I got through to someone."

Fundraising may be at the heart of the non-profit world, but problem solving, a process Luks says is like a light bulb going off, is at its soul.

“When I see a light bulb going off, it means that you don't still do the work you're doing right now, but you can make a jump,” he says. “You can make a jump that will move society not at this pace, but all of a sudden at a much faster pace.”

But is it a burden to go through life as a person whose whole life is about helping others and getting others to help others? Luks recalls that he and his wife Karen .were out to dinner with friends about five years ago, the guys at the next table were loud, Luks' friend objected, and the other group started a fight.

Luks says tables and chairs were flying everywhere, and Luks was in the middle of it. He later wrote a piece for the New York Times about the incident, and how he didn't listen to a voice in his head.

“The voice of, ÎWhy, Allan, did you jump right on top of this guy? You should have been different. You should have been able to say ÎHold it! Hold it! We don't want to fight! C'mon, lets shake hands, lets have a cup of coffee together,’” he says. “I never did that. I jumped right on top of the guy. So, sure, I'm just like everybody else, but there’s a voice in your mind saying, ÎYou should be different.’ And that voice is there."

Be it with a new program for kids and volunteers from a New York law firm or a small village in Venezuela, Allan Luks has spent much of his career trying to change things — even himself, occasionally. More specifically, the accent. He once tried a speech coach who gave him some vocal exercises.

“One night after work I'm doing, ÎOoooo, roaring on high mountains,' and I would stop and she would say how well I'm doing,” he says. “She doesn't say a word, so I look at her, and she fell asleep. I then realized I was never going to get rid of the New York City accent.”

The accent he heard in his home growing up was Eastern European.

“My father is an immigrant from Poland,” he says. "[He lived] on the Lower East Side, didn't speak English, and he made it in society."

And he made sure his kids studied and went to college.

In the early 60s, Luks went off to the University of North Carolina, where the civil rights movement was brewing. He joined in for a very personal reason.

"I'm trying to impress an attractive woman who is standing next to me and she says, ÎHow come you're not marching?’ And I said, ÎYou're not marching either,’" he says. “It was embarrassing, so I got someone's sign and I walked down the main street. I never got the date.”

But the situation was not so humorous when Luks returned to the south as a Georgetown Law student a few years later to witness and help blacks register to vote.

"Trucks began to circle around the court house and I asked one of the young black kids who was with us, ÎWhat's the trucks?’" he says. “And he said, ÎThat's the Sportsman's Club,’ and I said, ÎWhat's the Sportsman Club?’ He looked at me and said, ÎDon't you understand man? That's the Klan, man.’"

After law school, much to his parents' chagrin, Luks joined the Peace Corps, specifically a program for lawyers and architects. He was a tall New York kid with little Spanish in Marakay, Venezuela.

“I'm dropped in this town and I don't know anybody, and I'm supposed to put a city real estate tax in,” he says. “I had to find a place to live, and the Peace Corps gives you very little money, and I did it. What the Peace Corps showed me is that everybody, given time, everybody can relate to one another, can overcome the biases, can overcome the suspicions. And how do you get that pleasure, that benefit into society, is something that's really motivated me until now."

After the Peace Corps, Luks came home to New York. He worked for the Children's Aid Society, he led housing strikes for poor tenants in East Harlem, and he married his wife Karen in 1969 and raised two kids in Brooklyn.

In the 70s as the head of the New York Alcoholism Council, Luks got the city to pass a law barring employment discrimination against recovered alcoholics, and to place warnings about drinking and pregnancy in bars and on bottles.

He says the law was backed by almost everyone, except the alcohol beverage industry, which made an offer he could easily refuse.

“[They told me], ÎYou have to understand Allan, we're considering a major grant to your organization,’” he says. “I said, ÎI never got...,’ [and they said], ÎYou don't understand - we've been talking about it for a long time. This is not legislation you want to get involved with. We can't tell you how big this grant is going to be, but it's going to be major.’ I said, ÎGood, but give me a hint how major?’ [They said], ÎJust drop this legislation.’ So of course we knew it was ridiculous and we went ahead with the legislation."

The industry never made the grant.

Luks' latest cause is the Safe Mentoring Act, which would require a level of certification for people who run mentoring programs.

“There are no standards!” he says. “It’s incredible! Kids will go out with a volunteer and sleep over their homes, and there’s no requirement, no state standards. Unlike every other child welfare field, they say you've got to do background checks for volunteers."

Over the years Luks has come to realize what we all know intuitively, and what medical research has indicated — that you feel better when you do something for someone, and that people who volunteer maybe even live healthier and longer lives.

Luks coined a phrase - "The helper's high" - and used it in his 1991 book, "The Healing Power of Doing Good."

“It makes you feel good about yourself, if makes you feel strong,” he says. “And I believe, and I know from experience, that the more you expose people to this feeling, they want it too."

For Allan Luks, the helper’s high is a permanent feeling. And though the causes and the times have changed, his message has not.

“To the degree that I can connect people, that's the real mark on society,” he says. “And then if I can create a law or something that can bring even more people together and help even more people, that's what it's all about.”

- Budd Mishkin

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