Man of Persuasion
Meet the 2011 Philanthropist of the Year: a man who works to meet the county’s needs, and never takes no for an answer
Jeffrey Slavin takes out his BlackBerry and begins conjuring a connection.
“Here,” he says, leaning close and smiling conspiratorially. “You must call this woman.”
Slavin’s friends know that when the mayor of Somerset insists they do something—whether he’s offering public-speaking advice or suggesting a potential donor—it’s a good idea to comply.
At 56, Slavin, a real estate broker who heads the Sanford and Doris Slavin Foundation, is a networking whiz who doesn’t take no for an answer.
That tenacity has inspired second-generation philanthropists like himself to donate to area nonprofits—and it has helped earn Slavin the 2011 Philanthropist of the Year award from The Community Foundation for Montgomery County (CFMC).
Even as he has persuaded others to give, Slavin has donated generously himself, honing the focus of the charitable foundation his parents started in 1970—all with the goal of bettering life for needy families in Montgomery County.
“Jeffrey is genuinely interested in who philanthropists, heads of nonprofits and political leaders are as people, not just as whatever role they’re playing,” says Sally Rudney, executive director of CFMC. “He uses that deeply personal knowledge to make matches that are satisfying for the donor as well as the recipient. When he says to a philanthropist, business leader or a politician: ‘I know something you’ll love,’ he’s almost always right.”
Slavin had what he describes as the “American-dream upbringing” in Bethesda’s Bradley Hills neighborhood, with loving, attentive parents, good schools and vacations in Europe and Africa. His mother was a social worker, and his father was a civil engineer who founded Princemont Construction, the Rockville firm that helped widen New Hampshire Avenue, North Capitol Street and Georgia Avenue, and also built segments of the Capital Beltway.
Slavin says his parents taught him and his sister, Roni Slavin Pekins, the Jewish principle of tzedakah, or charitable giving. His parents individually donated to a variety of causes, and regularly helped friends in need.
But Slavin didn’t truly become attuned to community needs until the late 1970s, when he started working at U.S. Rep. Gladys Spellman’s Hyattsville office while on break from Tufts University.
“I spent a lot of my time working one-on-one with her low-income constituents,” Slavin says. “It was very rewarding, and very enlightening.”
Later, as a student at Georgetown University Law Center, Slavin volunteered with Legal Counsel for the Elderly. After graduation, he immersed himself in Democratic politics in Washington, D.C., serving as a staffer for Ward 3 Councilmember Polly Shackleton, who built a reputation helping children, the elderly and low-income residents.
Slavin says his experience working for female officials and his own experience as an openly gay man—he was “never not ‘out’ ”—made him especially sensitive “to others who are not valued, or who are discriminated against.”
“I don’t mind being the only white in the room, the only man in the room, or the only non-Asian in the room,” Slavin says. He became the first man to serve on the board of the Women’s Campaign Fund in 1991.
Slavin moved from D.C. to Friendship Heights after Shackleton retired in 1987, and bought C.J. O’Shaughnessy, a real estate and property management firm that had handled properties for his father’s company.
That’s when he started getting serious about philanthropy in Montgomery County. “You don’t have to go east of the Anacostia River to find people in great need, and to find ways to give back,” he says.
Slavin since has served on the boards of several Montgomery County nonprofits, and has been active in several more.
“I love politics,” he says, “but I realized that philanthropy is how you change people’s lives.”
A decade ago, his sister, who lives in New Hampshire, and his parents, now in their late 80s and early 90s, decided Slavin should manage the family foundation. Last year, the foundation donated more than $180,000 to roughly two dozen organizations that provide services to Montgomery County residents.
“When my mission or vision sways, Jeffrey will remind me that this county needs me, that this county would be a better place if I helped out,” says Brooke-ville’s Michelle Freeman, board chair and president of the Carl M. Freeman Companies, the Carl M. Freeman Foundation and the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation. “He has this beautiful, sweet dedication to where he grew up…and an unwavering passion for what he believes in.”
With bright blue eyes and close-cropped gray hair, the 5-foot-5-inch Slavin comes with a personality that’s larger than life. He describes himself as a “shameless name-dropper” and favors brightly colored shirts and ties. “I’m not really low-key,” he acknowledges.
Slavin introduced himself to Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin by giving her public-speaking pointers after she gave a speech in 2004. Today he chairs her finance committee, and Ervin, of Silver Spring, describes him as “an angel on my shoulder.”
“He gives unsolicited advice, but it’s almost always spot-on,” Ervin says.
Friends say Slavin simply wants to contribute to the betterment of anyone and everything he comes in contact with.
“One of Jeffrey’s trademarks is making sure that the nonprofits he’s a part of are strong and well-managed,” Rudney says. “He’s very interested in building the management capacity and increasing the efficiencies of nonprofits overall.”
Recent ventures include the Nonprofit Village in Rockville, which offers affordable office space and resources to Montgomery County nonprofits. Slavin is chairman of the Village’s board of directors, and his family foundation has donated roughly $50,000 to the organization since its inception in 2006, according to Executive Director Laura Sildon.
Sharon Friedman, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, witnessed Slavin’s “Midas touch” firsthand. When he was chairman of that organization’s 50th anniversary event in 2007, Slavin culled his network to expand the guest list, and encouraged many to become donors, Friedman says.
Slavin also assisted with its “My Mental Health Day” campaign last May, recording his own video (he spent the day taking a step aerobics class—one of his passions), and getting longtime friend and National Public Radio analyst Cokie Roberts to record one, too.
The Slavin Foundation has donated $128,750 to the organization over the past several years, Friedman says.
“He didn’t just write a check,” she says. “He sat with us and gave ideas for ways we could connect to philanthropists who were interested in what we were doing, and ideas for how we could make our message more effective.”
Not long after he moved to Somerset, Slavin was recruited to run for the town council. He lost in 2001, but won the following year. He ran successfully for mayor in 2008, and is serving his second two-year term.
Somerset Town Council Vice President Marnie Shaul says the town has benefited from Slavin’s vast network of powerful people—and from his philanthropic mind-set. Since becoming mayor, he has worked to set up The Town of Somerset Community Foundation, a vehicle for residents to contribute to local charities.
“Somerset is known as being one of the wealthiest and best-educated municipalities in Maryland,” Slavin says. “I want us to also be known as a town that gives back.”
Friends say whatever Slavin puts his mind to will happen—in part because he never takes “no” for an answer. Freeman says that was the case when Slavin wanted to recruit her for a leadership seminar run by The Aspen Institute.
“He called every day until I said yes,” she says. “Every day.”
Freeman’s husband, Josh, died in a helicopter crash in 2006. He was posthumously named Philanthropist of the Year in 2007. Freeman says the seminar Slavin recommended helped her refine her own giving and connect to like-minded philanthropists.
“He always has something that you must do, but he’s very good at choosing things you must do,” she says.
Amy Reinink’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Runner’s World and Backpacker. She lives in Silver Spring. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.