Impact Story: Jay Kelly

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Jay Kelly was buying suits for his first job out of college at Subaru of America when he truly discovered the joy of giving.

“I was watching the Jerry Lewis (MDA Labor Day) Telethon,” recalls Jay, co-founder of Return on Good. “As Jerry was apt to do, he really pulled on my heartstrings. I gave a gift and bought one less suit. It was a meaningful gift to me and I felt great after doing it.”

 Children’s wellbeing throughout the world remains at the top of Jay’s philanthropic passions to this day.  Jay grew up in a “humble, blue-collar family” in the Township of Riverside, New Jersey, on the Delaware River. His father died when Jay, the youngest of three boys, was just 12.

“My mother worked really hard to provide for us,” Jay says. “We did all the things that every other kid did, like play basketball and those kinds of things. We went to the Jersey Shore in the summer. But there wasn’t a lot of extra so there wasn’t a lot of giving. When I did have extra, it really felt good to be able to share it.”

From his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Jay talks about his giving journey and the reason he started Return on Good.

Return on Good: Who inspired you as a philanthropist?  Jay: I would go back to (the late) Jerry Lewis, who, by the way, was also from New Jersey. He wasn’t just an actor and comedian. He was a humanitarian and philanthropist who put his heart and soul into fundraising for muscular dystrophy research. I’m also inspired by people like Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft). There’s a great quote by Édith Piaf, a French singer-songwriter and actress, who said, “When you reach the top, you should remember to send the elevator back down for the others.” I’ve had a lot of blessings in my career and I’m at the point where I think it’s my turn to send that elevator back down to help people.”  

Return on Good: What are your philanthropic passions?  Jay: Growing up without a father made me very aware of the need for kids to have role models, so I’m really passionate about that. I’m passionate about the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YMCAs, YWCAs—giving kids opportunities to be the best people they can be. The mold is set early and so many kids can get off on the wrong path, but I think they can come back with the right role models. I’m also passionate about food sustainability. One of the charities I learned about when we first started Return on Good is Food Tank, which works to build a more sustainable food system through education, inspiration and advocation. That’s a charity that really strikes home for me and I think they do a great job.  Return on Good: Talk about your career and founding Return on Good with Ann Oleson.  Jay: I spent a lot of my career in the sales and marketing arena with various ad agencies and marketing companies, and then in the digital marketing space as well. My last stop before starting Return on Good was co-founding a digital marketing company for higher education, which we sold to private equity investors seven years after we started it. We wanted to have the next thing that we did be more for the greater good and that’s why we founded Return on Good—to give back, to, as I said, send that elevator back down.  

Return on Good: What brought you and Ann to this decision? Was there an ‘aha moment’?  Jay: I don’t know that there was an aha moment, but I will say one of the real benefits of having your own company is being able to work with who you want to. You can work every day with people you want to work with, and then, in turn, work with clients that you want to work with. The first conference I attended was the Family Office Super Summit in Florida. Hearing those stories of people trying to help other people and the inspiration we got from that was really invigorating. We’re blessed to have an opportunity with this company to do something that we really want to do. I’m working day to day for something that really matters, to leave an impact, and it’s with people that I like to work with.  Return on Good: How do you hope Return on Good impacts philanthropy?  Jay: My hope for Return on Good impacting philanthropy in general is for people to, number one, be involved, get involved. Through our ‘I Am a Philanthropist’ initiative, I hope people will see that they are philanthropists. If you’ve ever given anything—your time, your treasure, your talent—you are a philanthropist. Number two is for people to give in a way that’s more strategic and thoughtful. Don’t make knee-jerk decisions. Think it through—what do you want to accomplish with your gifts? Do the research so you can make your giving more impactful.  Return on Good: What misconceptions do you think there are about philanthropy and what it means to be a philanthropist?  Jay: I think the biggest misconception about philanthropy from people that aren’t in it every day is that it’s only for the ultra-wealthy. We read a lot about billionaires giving their fortunes away, which is awesome, but I think people sometimes feel like philanthropy is only for the really rich, but it’s not. We’re hoping to change that with Return on Good.  

Return on Good: You talked about being inspired by Jerry Lewis, but do you have a favorite philanthropist?  Jay: My favorite philanthropist is ‘Anonymous’ because they're not in it for their name on a wall or on a building. They're in it for the true essence of giving.

Ready to Do the Most Good?

If you’re a philanthropist with an inspiring story to tell (or know someone who is), contact Return on Good. We may select you for our I Am a Philanthropist initiative.