Jonathan Kaufman at Apple Hill in Placerville with children Oliver, 5, and Louisa, 3
Jonathan Kaufman at Apple Hill in Placerville with children Oliver, 5, and Louisa, 3

Q&A: A social do-gooder who helps nonprofits use data to do more good

Name: Jonathan Kaufman
Age: 35
City: Sacramento
Position: Co-founder and principal, Third Plateau

J.: You were recently honored by the Sacramento Business Journal as one of the region’s “40 Under 40.” Your website describes you as a “Driver of game-changing ideas and awesomeness. Ambitiously ambitious. Trained slaughterhouse butcher. Ironman athlete. Spreadsheet nerd. Able to eat more than you.” Are you really able to eat more than anybody else?

Jonathan Kaufman: I’ll accept the challenge! The day after I retire, I’ll be enrolling in culinary school. My wife is Italian so we cook together. She’s naturally gifted; I have to work at it.

So, do you love to eat, or do you love to cook?


You are in the social change business as co-founder and principal of Third Plateau, which works with organizations aiming to make positive change in the community and the world. What are your top three recommendations for how nonprofits can increase their impact?

First, you have to be “solutions agnostic.” If you are working for a soup kitchen, it’s not because you are passionate about soup kitchens, it’s because you are passionate about ending hunger. If you are wed to a hunger program, that’s the wrong element to focus on. You should be looking at your data and advocating for ways to end hunger. You want to focus on outcomes and impact. Everything else is a means to get there.

Second, your idea probably exists, so find others to join forces with. Otherwise, you are stretching your already limited resources. Nonprofits don’t look around to see who is doing the same work. They think their idea is genius, so they don’t collaborate.

Third, you hear a lot about how nonprofits should run like a business, but boards were traditionally run by old, white guys. Communities don’t look like old, white guys anymore. Why are you still using Robert’s Rules of Order or “I motion this” and “I second that”? It is inefficient and a waste of energy for volunteers. What can we do to allow you to do your work better?

Who are your clients?

Clients I get excited about have a leader with a bold vision for what’s possible and who is relentlessly optimistic about inspiring that vision. They also have to have a willingness and ability to persevere to make that bold vision a reality.

Can you share a couple of success stories?

We have been working with the Maidu Summit Consortium and Conservancy for two years. Native American rights are both so painfully obvious and incredibly complex. It’s the original sin before slavery. Native Americans in Plumas and Lassen counties had their land taken away. There was a settlement with PG&E to give back 3,000 acres. However, the once-unified tribe that goes back for generations had become fractured. [The Maidu Consortium] was created to bring the family lines back together. We were brought in to facilitate and build bridges so the organization can have one voice. This consortium can be a model for other Native American communities.

[Another is] Gardens for Health International based in East Africa. They work with mothers who have children with severe malnutrition. First, they teach mothers to take ownership over their families, and then they teach them how to garden and grow fruits and vegetables that have the greatest nutritional value. Mothers go from not being able to feed their children to growing food and contributing to their family economically. They came to us because they didn’t know how to measure their impact — are they moving the needle? Are kids visiting health clinics less frequently or are they growing at higher rates? Are women more empowered? Are they in leadership positions more often or are they taking more ownership over family planning? We are helping them to build that robust metric system.

How does Judaism fit into your work?

I was raised in a family where there was never a doubt about your responsibility to help people. Social justice and social change were baked into our DNA through the synagogue, youth groups and Jewish camps. Everything I’ve done is about how my efforts can be the driver of the greatest social good. Even our name, Third Plateau. The three principals — my brother, my friend and I — were trying to pick a name that was meaningful to us and that was the single, greatest day we had at Camp Swig. We were awakened at 4 a.m. to hike in the dark to a physical space where we watched the sunrise and did morning prayers. It was a place of clarity and community. That place was called the Third Plateau. There is no greater metaphor for what we are doing: helping organizations feel like they are at the Third Plateau.

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.