Ep 7: A Holiday Lesson on Leading with Heart and Head: Diana Aviv of Feeding America

Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv figured out at a very young age that she wasn't comfortable with the status quo.

Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv figured out at a very young age that she wasn't comfortable with the status quo.

A car accident convinced a teenaged Diana Aviv that she had to leave home and fight for the poor and forgotten.

One she caused.

"As I pulled out, I hit him, and he went into the air and did somersaults and crashed to the ground," she remembers. She, a white Jewish teen, had hit a black bicyclist in apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s. "When we went to the police station, I went to the white entrance and he had to wait and go in the black entrance. And the police officer said to me, 'You tell me whatever you like, and that's what will be what happened.' And I decided I couldn't live in a society where I couldn't take the consequences of my actions, which was to get in trouble because of what I'd done. ... This was as contaminating to me as it was for him. Just, the consequences were easier for me – but they weren't, because how could I live with myself? And I decided then that I had to leave."

Today, Aviv is CEO of Feeding America, the third largest charity in America by donation value, at more than $2 billion annually.  As I learned when I sat down with her for the Fortt Knox podcast, her journey to that position is a study in how leading with your emotions as well as your head can bring world-changing results. Click above to stream audio of the conversation.


Passion beats titles

Not long after the car accident, Aviv did leave South Africa to attend college and engage in anti-apartheid activism in New York. A couple of decades later, South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and planned to visit New York. Around that time, as a mid-level staffer at a Jewish organization, Aviv caught wind of a chilling development: A local rabbi among those planning to protest Mandela's visit because he had been photographed with Yasir Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar el-Qaddafi after his release. She feared if the protest materialized, it would sour relations between blacks and Jews for a generation. On her own initiative, without any real authority, she made a phone call that paved the way for a remarkable thaw. (Hear the details in the podcast.) The lesson: You don't have to be in charge of an organization to make a big difference.

Reason can't smother feelings

In another job, Aviv headed an organization that advocated for battered women. Through her experience working with the women, and after consulting a friend with expertise in the field, she realized that 9 out of 10 women returned to their abusers, whether the men changed or not. So Aviv had an epiphany: The men needed counseling. She would get them to submit to it either by court order, or by begging the women to delay their return as leverage. "I said we're going to start a counseling program. And it's not for us to judge. It's for us to work with people and to see what it is that they need, and to help them, and to stop being part of the women's liberation movement that says 'Men who are ...' and all of that." By working against convention, she got abusers into counseling, and helped more women to heal.

Guilt is cheap

I asked Aviv the one thing she'd want people to change this holiday season and in 2017, to help Feeding America and organizations like it. Her answer surprised me. "The one thing I'd say is, don't feel guilty," she said. Why? "Because guilt only works so much, and then at some point there's a reaction to the guilt and a resentment toward guilt." What should you do instead? In our conversation, Aviv gives some concrete suggestions.