An Unexpected Life in Philanthropy

By Ignacio Lopez

A life dedicated to giving hardly seemed the plan for Jonathan Rodriguez. As a kid, he loved comic books. He wanted to be Indiana Jones when he grew up. As Jon puts it, “I’m not sure there are many kids who say they want to grow up to be a philanthropist.” Looking back to his youth, however, Jon sees the seeds of his life’s work, which ultimately led him to his current position as a Senior Specialist on the Grants and Contracts Services team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Even one of his childhood superheroes, Spiderman, had the motto “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Jonathan Rodriguez

Jon’s parents were his greatest influence. As teenage immigrants from the Dominican Republic who had three children at a young age, his parents faced many challenges during their early years in New York City. Even after the family moved to Connecticut, Jon remembers how hard his parents worked. And those efforts did not stop at their front door. His father volunteered as a little league coach and as an overnight volunteer at a local homeless shelter, and his mother served on the board of a local Hispanic organization and volunteered on the Latino scholarship fund for their community. Even with their heavy workload, they were always giving to the community. “My childhood was grounded in the belief that we are what we are because of others,” Jon recalls, “so giving back was seen as normal and expected.”

In college, Jon became more and more involved in extracurricular service projects. He took several trips to volunteer in the Dominican Republic and, back in the States, joined the University’s student government, working on issues affecting students of color. Ideas of social and economic justice became increasingly central to his life, and he began to take a hard look at what was important to him, his own values. He ultimately shifted his major to theology with a focus on ethics.

Jon with his father as a child

After college, Jon took an internship at UN Women, a United Nations entity working for the empowerment of women, which gave him his first exposure to the powerful impact of research and data on efforts to enact social change. His interest in the field of research grew when he went to work at MDRC, a social policy research organization that looks at best practices for programs and policies that affect the poor. At MDRC, Jon conducted cost-benefit analyses of post-secondary education initiatives and researched conditional cash transfer programs in the U.S. Jon found a natural interest in trying to understand the most cost-effective ways to create social policy and programs. He also began to see how building a body of knowledge can directly help people in the community.

All of these experiences came together for Jon when he joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Working on the operations side of a large philanthropy and seeing how resources are managed and judiciously expended have been great learning experiences. Jon has developed a more nuanced understanding of philanthropy beyond solely program development and direct service provision. He has come to see that impactful giving fundamentally relies upon a strong foundation of rigorous research and accurate data, both of which inform strategy, as well as sound fiscal management that allows new programs and practices to come to fruition.

Jon with his mother

As Jon continues to grow his career in philanthropy, he hopes to make an impact in the areas close to his heart. He knows that education is vital, the most important factor for advancement in disenfranchised communities. Global health issues—like fighting malaria and HIV, providing access to vaccines, and meeting other needs essential for a healthy life—are also crucial in Jon’s vision for the future. Most important, Jon wants to focus on the struggles of people of color, who are living through difficult times and increasing economic disparity. He is striving to find new ways to empower communities, a new philanthropy where ideas come from the bottom up and where giving leads to lasting change long after the dollars are spent.

Addressing these critical issues will take time and resources, and Jon knows he will need to put to good use the research skills he has developed and his knowledge of the operational side of philanthropy. All he learned in his early years about giving back and working hard for the community will also continue to nurture him—the foundational lessons his parents gave him and even what he read about superheroes in the pages of his comic books.

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