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Gene Jeffers on Photojournalism, Nonprofits, and Connecting People

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Gene Jeffers is a retired freelance writer who worked with media relations and crisis management at a variety of NGOs. He began his career as a photojournalist covering key White House proceedings (e.g. the Watergate scandal and Carter inauguration), publishing in sources like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg. Afterwards, he served as the Media Relations National Spokesman for both the American Red Cross and the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC. Continuing his roles in management, Gene was recruited by firms in Los Angeles after the Northridge Earthquake to lead post-crisis turnaround strategy, establishing himself as a prominent NGO leader in the LA region. Aside from his current freelance work, Gene runs a literature website with his wife and serves on various non-profit boards.

Stories Worth Noting

1. On his career in photojournalism and pivoting to nonprofit management.
2. On getting his MBA.
3. On more general advice.

Origins

What inspired you to enter photography and photojournalism in the first place?

My father was an avid amateur photographer so I was exposed to it quite early on; photography was my first paying job when I was 15. And when I got out of college, unemployment was quite high really. I went home with my wife and said, “Why don't I try freelancing?” Sometimes you bend with the wind and it turned out to be quite good. I ended up covering the Senate, the White House, and Congress. Particularly interesting at the time, the Watergate hearings were ongoing and it was a great training ground that taught me to understand what mattered — what's important about this particular hearing? Who are the important people? What kind of a photo do they want from that?

Gene Jeffers

A photo by Gene Jeffers of a flood in Kentucky in the late 1970s.

What motivated you to make the shift from photojournalism and media to nonprofit management?

I started finding that the path for strictly photography was pretty limited. If I were to stay as a photographer, it would mean spending an awful lot of time away from my wife and growing family. I looked to the magazines and it just so happened that the Red Cross National Headquarters was looking for a photographer. I started there in the 1970s as a staff photographer for four years but I soon realized that what I was doing with the field slowly expanded into more and more PR work on an informal level — I was creating stories, writing notes about them, passing them along to the PR shop. I went back to school for my master's degree in journalism and as I was completing it, a position in the PR department opened up with the Red Cross. I thought yeah let's go beyond just taking pictures and let's start working with words.

After a major reorganization at national headquarters, I eventually ended up as the head of media relations with exciting work. We were in the midst of a number of crises like the major famine in Africa and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and its relationship to blood collection. Dealing with these crises really prepared me when eventually the National Association of Broadcasters recruited me away to take a job as a V.P. with them. It got me really into the management line and I ended up coming out to Los Angeles to work with the Western Insurance Information Service Centers. But I soon learned that the insurance industry and I don't exactly mix well so I went over to lead at a local Red Cross chapter that had collapsed to get them back on their feet.

Gene Jeffers

A photo by Gene Jeffers of a boy who was helped by the Red Cross in the early 1980s.

Skills and Experiences

With the variety of professional roles you’ve served in, have you noticed any common skills or themes that have tied everything together?

I think the main thrust of most of the work I've done is connecting people. Connecting people to ideas, events, or other people would be the core work I've done — whether as a freelance photographer connecting people to what was happening in the Senate and Congress at the White House or as a relations manager with the National Red Cross. The primary focus is helping industry people find each other, network with each other, and do business together.

Second, I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to ask somebody for advice than it is to ask for a job. It's just an easier conversation for both sides of the equation and often times the person you go to for advice has other ideas for you to check out. “Gee, I don't have anything here at my company now but you should go talk to Bill Jones down the street at that company, I know he’s looking for something like that.” That happens a lot and, again, you're not putting pressure on that person to hire you. We all like to give advice. We all hate to say no, I don't have a job for you. It's a much different conversation when you approach it that way.

What was the experience like going back to school for your MBA and how does it differ from the kind of learning you would do on the job?

For me there were a number of really positive things that came out of it. The first one is that whether we like to admit it or not, the initials after your name do mean something. For example, when I took over at the Red Cross chapter that had collapsed, I went out and recruited a new board for the first stage of the business, with several members holding their MBA. But when there were management decisions to be made and the board would discuss the issues, the fact that they had MBAs and I didn't meant to the rest of the board that they knew more about what they were talking about than I did. That was something that I recognized while in that job; that it was important that on a public level, the initials mean that you have the official standpoint and a breadth of knowledge having thoroughly studied it.

Two, I think I learned an awful lot in getting my MBA about different ways to approach problems. Before I had approached problems from fairly unbusinesslike perspectives just by doing it and working it out logically, but I didn’t necessarily understand the core dynamics at work. I really got a grasp of them when I went to an MBA program — for example, I had never really gotten into accounting much but it especially helped me when I went back into the workplace. For example, at the Themed Entertainment Association, I discovered that the financial information put into the accrual books were never reconciled with reality and by the time I realized, we had lost almost $300,000. It took about 10 years to dig ourselves out of that hole but it was fortuitous that I made this discovery right in the midst of my studying about accounting procedures in my MBA program.

All these experiences that you get as part of your MBA program come back to benefit you sometimes without you ever really knowing it's going to do that.

In your various experiences in crisis management, have there been any insights that you learned that you have applied outside of the management context and just in your own life?

When I'm in the middle of these crises, I've always had a saying “inch by inch”: none of this is going to get fixed tomorrow.

Things move incrementally and it's very difficult. You find out where the issues are, you begin to address them. Many cases do have to move instantly especially within nonprofits where you have a board of directors who have groups of volunteers and constituencies to serve in the community. All of these things have to be worked out so that everyone feels they are content with the solution in one way or another. They may not be deliriously happy, but they can at least understand why this is how we're approaching it.

I do think that my upbringing was a tremendous advantage that I have in my problem solving skills — since my dad was in the CIA, we had to move around a lot and everywhere we went I always went to local schools. I didn't go off to the American school; I always went to the local French school, the Congolese school, or Zambian school. Learning to adapt to new environments when you have so many transitions I think helped temper me in a lot of different ways. And one of those ways is that it really taught me that there are other world views out there. Having the process of problem solving in the global perspective I think helped me tremendously in understanding how to keep pushing it forward.

Gene Jeffers

Fourteen-year-old Gene Jeffers photographed with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Advice

Is there any general advice you have for younger kids in college who are trying to figure out their careers?

Always treat the people you work with with respect and support. Never in any job did I do anything by myself. We rely on other people to help make it work too, regardless of what position you're in. Treat them well and they will repay the favor ten times over. Your volunteers and employees doing all this amazing work to help your company? They wouldn't do that if they didn't think that you cared for them and what they need. Everything is a team. We like to think about the guy at the top but it's those smart leaders who really know how to make their people feel appreciated.

All photos used in this article courtesy of Gene Jeffers.

Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent the Signal or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.



AUTHOR

Hoyt Gong
Advocating change in healthcare through technology, science, and stories.

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