Jean Shafiroff is at the pinnacle of New York’s philanthropic circles, sitting on the boards of numerous foundations, chairing multiple events – nine in 2018 alone – and donating to many causes in addition to those with which she is personally involved.
“When it comes to giving, Jean Shafiroff leads the pack,” says Elsie McCabe Thompson, president of the New York City Mission Society, an organization with which Shafiroff has long been actively involved.
“I believe those who do have the resources have an obligation to give,” says Shafiroff. “I believe you must. I think when we look back on the great leaders in history, Martin Luther King, JFK, and just about everyone else, they all believed in the importance of giving back and trying to aid society.”
Shafiroff’s selfless devotion to causes has not gone unnoticed; in April, she was honored at the Women’s Leadership Awards, hosted by state assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright. The NYC International Film Foundation also recognized her work, and this summer, Shafiroff will be honored by Hadassah.
“Philanthropy entails the giving of one’s time, one’s resources, and of oneself,” says Jonathan W. McCann, former board president of the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation. “Having worked successfully with Jean Shafiroff on behalf of the Foundation, her knowledge and dedication in the field is highly respected.”
Three areas closest to her heart are underserved communities, women’s rights, and animal welfare. “There’s tremendous need everywhere,” she says.
Shafiroff is passionate about the New York City Mission Society, which benefits underserved children in the city. “We’ve been around for 200 years; I think that’s very important,” she says. “We are primarily based in Harlem and we help children with after school, weekend, and summer programs to give them supplemental education so that they can be prepared to get into college.” The group is now exploring the possibility of setting up a charter school. “I think that would be great.”
Shafiroff also sits on the board of the New York Women’s Foundation, which helps to empower women to rise out of poverty. “We are the largest grant-making group of our kind in the United States. We’re also a voice for women, which is particularly important today. That’s not just in the United States but worldwide. Women need a voice worldwide.”
These represent just the tip of the iceberg of worthy causes on Shafiroff’s radar. Among the galas she is chairing in 2018 are benefits for the American Heart Association, the Ellen Hermanson Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, and the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT. This year, Shafiroff has hosted parties in her home for several of these organizations, as well as for Surgeons of Hope, and more are in the planning stages, including an event for Southampton Hospital.
“I feel very lucky to be able to do the charity work that I do,” she says. “I think that it’s a great blessing to be in the position that I’m in. I’m very fortunate that I can help others.”
In fact, Shafiroff has devoted her life to philanthropic and humanitarian work. While the black-tie galas are glamorous, the fundraising and planning is grueling. “As a volunteer it’s a lot of work and it’s hard,” she says. There are many meetings, and chairing events entail a lot of fundraising. “Not everybody may want to support the causes you’re involved with, and you have to be able to accept a lot of rejection. I’m enjoying my life too, but my philanthropy work is full-time, and I work very hard at all of the causes that I’m involved with.”
How did Shafiroff get where she is today? She comes from a middle-class background, and credits her family life and Catholic school education for teaching her the importance of giving back. “My dad was a schoolteacher,” she says. “I live a different life now, but I never forget my roots.”
Working as a physical therapist at St. Luke’s Hospital, she saw the struggles facing some of her patients living at or below the poverty level. Sharifoff later returned to her alma mater, Columbia University, this time to earn a MBA, after which she worked on Wall Street. “I found that Wall Street wasn’t really for me,” she laughs.
By then she had married her husband, Martin Shafiroff, and once she became pregnant, stopped working and became a stay-at-home mom. That’s when she began getting involved in philanthropy in small ways, volunteering at the schools her two daughters attended, and pitching in for school fundraisers. “I must have baked two thousand brownies with my daughters.”
She continued to raise funds for the schools, and also became active with the American Jewish Committee, where her business education came in handy. “As a non-Jewish woman, they put me on their board and they put me on the diplomatic finance committee.” She was in her early 30s, and found it quite stimulating.
While her daughters were still in school, she slowly got more active in charity. “Once I became an empty nester, I became more and more involved,” Shafiroff says. A part-time Hamptons resident, Shafiroff chaired the Southampton Hospital’s big gala three times, in 2010, ’11, and ’13, and raised a lot of money. “I was actively involved in fundraising, asking for many, many donations, mostly $10,000 and up. The first year I chaired we raised $1.7 million, and then the next year $2 million, and the third year about $1.7 million.”
Shafiroff’s daughters are now grown and involved in their own philanthropic causes. Her younger daughter, Elizabeth, started her own animal welfare organization called Global Strays, working with local groups and rescuing stray dogs in developing countries. Mom, a big animal lover, also actively participates, and is a major donor.
Shafiroff absolutely loves what she does. “I don’t play golf or tennis, although I do work out and I’m social, but I’d just as soon socialize around causes than just go out to dinners,” she says.
In 2016, Shafiroff took it to a whole new level, publishing a book, “Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life By What You Give,” a guide for everyone, no matter your financial status, on how to help make the world a better place.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book was to try to encourage others to get involved and to see their own value and self-worth, so they know that they could be of value to others, to humanity, or to animals.”
In the book, Shafiroff defines a philanthropist in the traditional sense of the word, as “one who makes an active effort to promote human welfare,” per the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Anyone can be a philanthropist,” she says, casting aside the modern notion that only people who give huge sums of money are philanthropists. “When we think of philanthropists, we think of someone like Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates, but everyone can be acting philanthropists,” she says.
An example she cites is how many firefighters and police officers volunteer on the side, for example, as EMTs or helping the American Red Cross when disasters hit. Others volunteer as Big Brothers or Big Sisters, or read to the blind. “We have hundreds of opportunities to volunteer, and as a result people who don’t have the financial resources available can be active philanthropists by lending their available time and knowledge.”
We all have a responsibility to act to help improve the world, she believes. “Philanthropy and activism go hand-in-hand. To be silent on human rights violations is wrong. To be silent on crimes against animals is also wrong. God gave us a voice and we must use it. God gave us two hands to work with. We must speak out – and then walk the talk.”
Shafiroff advises helping out in causes you’re passionate about, or that have affected you, perhaps a friend or relative has suffered some form of cancer or other disease, for instance.
She personally strives to get involved where she thinks there is a need. “The biggest organizations probably don’t need me,” she says. “If they’re well funded and raising a lot of money, I think I should use my resources elsewhere.”
Shafiroff also purchases tickets to many charitable events with which she is not directly involved because she thinks it’s important to show her support for other worthy causes. And so she has an extensive wardrobe, befitting a woman who attends many of New York’s red-carpet charity galas.
“I love fashion, and fashion employs a lot of people,” she says. “I work with a lot of lesser known designers, and I like to think I am helping a little by buying one of their dresses.”
Among the more independent New York-based designers she frequently wears are B. Michael, Victor de Souza, Zang Toi, and Milly. Shafiroff does mix in big names like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, but tries to vary it. “It’s a hobby, so I enjoy it. And of course I look for sales because I can’t buy everything, like anyone else.”
And she unabashedly repeats outfits. “If women like Beyonce and Kate Middleton can repeat, I can, for sure!”
Increasingly, Shafiroff has been thinking about philanthropy on a global scale. “The idea of global philanthropy is something I’m very interested in, and I’m very interested in promoting this concept in any way I can, because on some of the trips we’ve taken to different countries I’ve found that there is a great need for more philanthropy. There’s the very wealthy and the very poor.”
In some countries outside of the U.S., philanthropy is embraced on a smaller scale. While visiting China in 2012, she met with representatives of the Shanghai Charity Foundation and was very pleased to find that the Chinese are very interested in furthering philanthropic work in their society.
Shafiroff would like to see the model of philanthropy used in the U.S. adopted in other countries. “Charity is part of our culture, and charities have existed in our country for the last 200 years,” she says. “It would be wonderful to be involved in helping those outside of our country embrace philanthropy as we have.”
Poverty exists worldwide, she notes. “I don’t believe we’ll ever end poverty, but we can work to reduce poverty. We can improve lives for people,” she says, and pauses. “Maybe that’s a new book.”