JC at HRW dinner

Justin Connolly

Graduate Student Makes Leap from Entertainment Industry to Nonprofit Management

You wouldn’t think working as a talent agent in the entertainment industry would be the most seamless of training grounds for working in the non-profit world, but Masters in Nonprofit Management student, Justin Connolly, feels otherwise.

“Training as a talent agent turns out to be great training for a human rights advocate,” says Connolly. “In both occupations you form arguments and push, push, push until you get what you want or don’t. Then you get right back up and do it again. It’s also helpful training to learn how to speak with a wide variety of people pushing widely different interests to try to find consensus and then forward action.”

As the Senior Director of Southern California for the human rights advocacy organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Connolly oversees a team that supports HRW’s mission with outreach, advocacy, and fundraising.
“Basically, anything that HRW needs support for in Southern California—from helping pass juvenile justice reform in the state legislature, to holding galas in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, to providing interviews to media outlets on the plight of Saudi Women—the SoCal team is on the case.”

But why such a seemingly incongruous leap? Connolly describes the evolution: “I began as a volunteer fundraiser for Human Rights Watch as a young agent in 1992 when it was a $6 million dollar organization based mainly in the US and UK. Now our budget of $87 million funds 450 staff in sixty locations around the world.  The work was continuously surprising and impactful over the years, and made me feel as if I was able to help make a difference in some really difficult situations from right here in LA.” But when did he know the time was right to make the change? “At some point, I was looking at my career and realized it was not nearly as interesting as what Human Rights Watch was doing and I made the leap. That was eight years ago.”

HRW is an independent, international organization that defends the rights of people worldwide, scrupulously investigates abuses, and exposes those facts widely through traditional and social media, all in the name of pressuring public officials to respect rights and secure justice. But HRW has grown exponentially while Connolly has been a part of the organization and he knew he had to face the adversity that came with that growth. Enter Antioch University.

“HRW’s incredible growth, doubling in size every five years, has led to some growing pains and internal management challenges. Thankfully without any of the disasters that have hit some of our colleague organizations, but nonetheless which need to be addressed. At the same time, my own career within the organization requires me to have a point of view on some issues that are completely outside my experience. Antioch’s Masters in Nonprofit Management is giving me a way to understand some of those issues so I can better develop my own perspective.”

Connolly has no plans to return to the world of entertainment: “HRW has all the aggravations of work, but when I have tough day, I can take a deep breath, re-connect to the mission of relieving human suffering, and can’t help feeling better. That never happened with a movie deal.” That said, he does not see as disparate a gap as one might think between where he came from and where he is now: “Certainly, many people in entertainment are extraordinarily generous with their time and money to nonprofits on a wide variety of causes. Similarly, some artists find ways to create shows and movies that move the culture on issues that non-profits typically take on, from human rights to animal welfare. I would say there’s a lot of overlap.”

So is this a career path that he’d recommend to others? Perhaps someone with a similar background as his looking to find something more meaningful? He would. And he has some advice to offer that person: “Pick an organization that seems like it has its act together and start helping. You may soon find yourself in meaningful relationships with outstanding people you might not otherwise ever have had the chance to meet.”

Photo Credit: Maya Myers