Alumni Interview: Jen Bokoff finds balance in philanthropy

As the Tufts student body was hunkering down for a cold night one winter, Jen Bokoff (LA’08) was thinking about how the homeless people she volunteered with would be spending the freezing night. Rather than waiting to find out until morning or the next time she saw them, Bokoff invited one of her clients into Harleston Hall’s basement and gave him shelter for the night.

Since then, Bokoff has not stopped doing what she can to make the world more just, but her perspective has changed after a decade working in philanthropy.

“I learned through that experience that casework and stuff dealing with life or death like in a given moment in time is not something I do well with,” Bokoff said. “I’m not really comfortable saying ‘Bye, have fun on the street tonight.’ I’m someone that crosses lines and tries to help with whatever person I can … Homelessness and gun violence, for me, will always be important issues,” she said. “But to [work in those fields] every day would not optimize my energy because I would get too attached to the people behind the issues that we were talking about.”

Bokoff just began a new job as the director of development for the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, a global non-profit that, according to its website, “empowers persons with disabilities to advocate for equal rights and full participation in society.” 

In considering career — and other — choices, she weighs a careful balance of pragmatism and idealism, assessing both the contextual experience of a job (“Is it remote or in an office? What’s the meeting culture? What’s the leadership like?”) as well as help alleviate many of the problems she sees in the world.

To this end, Bokoff thinks about how her work in one philanthropic field can impact other areas, too.

“I was actually just writing a grant proposal about how we’re looking at intersections with gender, sexual orientation, race and how the intersectionality of identities actually can make you more marginalized within the disability community,” she said. “I like that about where I work.”

For Bokoff, the path to philanthropy in general and fundraising in particular began in a Tufts classroom, where she took the Experimental College class Experimenting with Philanthropy. The class instilled in her a sense of the “power that money holds” and inspired her to pursue a career in philanthropy.

This notion, along with a strong belief that Tufts is shaping the next generation of leaders, compelled Bokoff to volunteer on behalf of Tufts in alumni relations, at first as part of a group dedicated especially to fundraising from younger members of the Tufts alumni network. Today, she serves on the Alumni Council’s executive committee and is co-chairing a strategic planning committee focused around increasing access to the alumni network’s various offerings.

More broadly, Bokoff uses social media as an antidote to many of the problems it can create for others. Rather than allowing it to become an echo chamber, she consciously works to make her feed a mixture of many different viewpoints.

“I intentionally follow people who I admire, people who I don’t admire but who are influential [and] news publications from all sides and in different geographies, [people with] different identities in all forms. I’ll read up on different hashtags at different times that are being used by a different array of people than what I might be exposed to,” she said. “It’s about proactively seeking out people who are going to think a little bit differently.”

Bokoff also uses Twitter to field questions that she knows will elicit different answers “for the point of engaging.” As a more trite example, she recently asked her followers when they use the word “utilize,” a word which she didn’t see as being very useful. Their responses prompted her to reconsider her take.

Just as her social media use exposes her to new ideas, Bokoff also finds new relationships through it. She recently reconnected with an old classmate whose political views she disagreed with after he commented on one of her social media posts, and she has seen relationships from Twitter bloom into real-life connections. For example, her “accountability buddy,” who helps her stay on track with her goals, is someone she met online 10 years ago.

Running parallel to the brief comments and 280 character posts of Bokoff’s social media is her recently reignited blog, the “Jeneralist” — which she describes as “a blog of lists by a generalist named Jen” — where she is able to delve deeper into the topics that interest her. These range from social justice and philanthropy to board games and self-care. In nearly any post, though, Bokoff emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and thinking about one’s goals.

One of her favorite tools for doing this is thinking of a “highlight, lowlight and insight” at the end of a busy day, a sort of spinoff of the more popular “rose, bud, thorn” exercise. In fact, Bokoff used to arrange her note-taking around that. 

“For years, I sat with specifically those three colors [corresponding with a rose, a bud and a thorn] of sticky notes, and that is how I took notes during the week, which was a little extra, even for me, so I stopped that practice,” she said.

In a sense, those sticky notes embody the balance that Bokoff constantly strives for, balancing work with self-care and social media’s positive and negative components. Bokoff signed off with a bit of career advice.

“It’s really about figuring out how you want to be spending your time and then how can you leverage your strengths to still make a difference,” she said.