Progressive fundraising pro finds perfect match in AJWS

Laura Talmus was in rural Bolivia when the purpose of her new job really sank in.

“It was fascinating to be there. I came away feeling so excited and hopeful,” she said.

As the new Western region director of American Jewish World Service, Talmus traveled to Bolivia and Peru to meet with a number of activists, educators, artists and farmers who receive funding from AJWS.

The trip confirmed for her the importance of the organization just four weeks after she started the job.

Laura Talmus

“The grantees look to AJWS as trusted partners and friends,” Talmus said. “I was struck by how effective the grantees are with the funds we give them, working on not just alleviating poverty and hunger but also the underpinning reasons that cause” such problems.

Talmus succeeds Rabbi Lee Bycel as the Western region director for AJWS. She’s lived in the Bay Area for about 30 years, and most recently worked as the finance director for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris in her bid to become California’s next attorney general.

Before that, Talmus worked for 20 years as a fundraising consultant. Clients included a number of synagogues, JCCs and Jewish nonprofits such as Hillel at Stanford, Peninsula JCC in Foster City and Camp Newman-Swig.

She also worked for 10 years for the New Israel Fund as the regional director of Northern California, a post she left in 2002.

Beyond Jewish organizations, she has worked as a consultant for a number of San Francisco nonprofits, including the Breast Cancer Fund, Equal Rights Advocates, UCSF Women’s Global Health Imperative and the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment.

“My background in progressive politics and fundraising blends perfectly for this position,” she said of her AJWS position.

That’s one of the primary reasons AJWS staff in the nonprofit’s New York headquarters thought she’d be a good fit for the job.

“She has a track record as an experienced, seasoned fundraiser, and she also has a long-term professional and personal commitment to social justice,” said Phyllis Teicher Goldman, AJWS vice president for external affairs.

Since returning from South America on Aug. 21, Talmus has turned her focus to fundraising.

“I want to make sure we end 2009 as strong as possible,” she said. Despite the economic downturn, she said the Western region is in good shape and on track to meet fundraising goals.

She’ll also focus energy on helping develop AJWS’ presence in 12 other Western states. Her first stop is Portland and Seattle, cities where AJWS has strong support but not an organized infrastructure. She’ll make the trip this month with AJWS president Ruth Messinger.

Talmus intends to grow AJWS’ reach into those cities by working with Jewish professionals and lay leaders, introducing them to — and encouraging them to roll out — AJWS’ national programs, while also nurturing local ideas and energy.

“We feel very enthusiastic and optimistic about her capacity to take us to the next level,” Teicher Goldman said.

Talmus grew up in Queens, N.Y., and attended the University of Michigan. In the late 1970s, she moved to San Francisco, where she met her future husband, political strategist Ace Smith. The couple lives in Kentfield and belongs to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

They have two children, Abram and Lili, who are indirectly responsible for their mother’s new job. After Talmus became an empty-nester when Abram left for college and Lili left for boarding school, she knew she needed a new job that would let her dive into work that combined her passions — progressive politics, social justice and development.

“I consider this position sacred, and I plan to stay and grow this Western region into something that will do justice to the work of AJWS,” Talmus said.

“The organization deserves all of the support, funding and respect it can get. And I can really devote myself to that mission. That’s why I’m here.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.