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BPM 2013 | A conversation with Eric Law

by Valaida Fullwood

BPM 2013 | A conversation with Eric Law

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Picture by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

August 29, 2013

In observance of Black Philanthropy Month,Valaida Fullwood, local idea whisperer and co- author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, interviews, in a multi-part series, a number of Charlotte African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focuses on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.  


Eric Law: Executive Director, Hands On Charlotte

Hometown: Charlotte, N.C.

Years as a Charlottean: 55 years

Education: B.A., Spanish, Wake Forest University; M.A. and preliminary exams for Ph.D., Spanish, Duke University

Philanthropic Involvement: In addition to working as an educator and nonprofit executive all of my adult life, I have served on several nonprofit boards and volunteered with a variety of organizations. I have mentored students, and given advice to professionals seeking to start or advance careers in the nonprofit sector. I have been a member of the New Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP-Charlotte) giving circle since its founding in 2006.

(Finish this sentence) Black Philanthropy is... I don’t know that Black philanthropy is necessarily any different from philanthropy in general. The use of the adjective, however, provides an opportunity to explain and clarify the definition of philanthropy, dispelling the narrow-minded notion that it’s limited to donations of large sums of money. Going back to the word’s Greek origins, we learn that philanthropy is defined as the love of one’s fellow human beings. Any and all actions that express this love—including the donation of one’s time, talent and treasure—qualify as philanthropy under this broader definition. While only a small percentage of African Americans have the resources to make jaw-dropping financial contributions, we have a long, rich tradition of giving back in a variety of different ways to share our love with others. So (to finally complete the sentence) Black philanthropy is worth celebrating!

What is your first memory of generosity?

My parents both spent the bulk of their professional careers at Johnson C. Smith University. My dad taught Psychology and my mom (a JCSU alumna) managed the bookstore, where most of her staff consisted of work-study students. Over the years, many of those students became adoptive members of our household and unofficial older siblings to my brother and me. On our parents’ HBCU salaries there wasn’t much disposable income, but sharing a home-cooked meal and a bit of hospitality with students who had even less was a way of life for the family of educators into which I was blessed to be born.

How does that memory influence your philanthropy today?

I’ve often said that my brother and I had no choice but to do the kind of work that we do. While our parents never told us what career paths we should choose, their work as professionals and as volunteers set a powerful example for both of us. After 23 years with the YMCA here in Charlotte and elsewhere, Stan started work in February as CEO of the YMCA of Greater Birmingham in Alabama.

Hands On Charlotte is well known in the realm of voluntarism and service. What more can you tell us about the local group and the HandsOn Network?

Hands On Charlotte is Your Volunteer Headquarters. Our mission is to inspire, mobilize and equip a diverse corps of volunteers to strengthen our community. Each year, we fulfill this mission by coordinating and facilitating flexible volunteer opportunities for thousands of individuals and corporate groups. As a result, we provide tens of thousands of volunteer hours that help our partner agencies serve their clients better and realize their respective missions. Founded in 1991, HOC is a charter member of the Hands On Network. HON is the world’s largest network of local volunteer centers, with more than 250 affiliates in 16 countries. In 2007, the Network merged with Points of Light, the organization inspired by the “thousand points of light” mentioned by President George H.W. Bush in his 1989 inaugural address. Points of Light is a truly bipartisan effort, led by board chair Neil Bush (son and brother of Republican presidents) and CEO Michelle Nunn (founding executive director of Hands On Atlanta and daughter of former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn). Points of Light has recently launched the One America campaign, uniting unlikely allies in volunteer service.

What do you find most appealing about leading Hands On Charlotte?

Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to work with so many different nonprofits with great missions that address a wide variety of community needs. One of the best parts of working with HOC is the fact that we work with over 100 partner agencies in every programmatic focus area you can imagine. In that way my current work reminds me of my grantmaking days at Foundation For The Carolinas, when every application that came across my desk gave me an opportunity to learn more about a creative way to make people’s lives better. I’m a naturally curious person with a wide variety of interests, and the ability of our organization to have a tangible impact on quality of life in so many different areas brings a great sense of satisfaction.

Please share examples of recent Hands On Charlotte projects and the people who served as volunteers.

We have so many stories to tell! Here are just a few examples:

  • An annual clean-up of the Reid Park community, with more than 70 volunteers consisting of neighborhood residents, Habitat for Humanity volunteers and staff and a team of HOC board members and other volunteers;
  • A weekly project at a Charlotte Family Housing facility called “Play With Me”, where volunteers play with children in transitional housing, giving their parents a break as they work to build life skills and improve their living situation. Some volunteers have been regulars on this project for more than a decade.
  • A variety of skills-based volunteer positions with Mecklenburg County government departments. We are wrapping up the second year of a contract with the county to post volunteer opportunities for individuals with particular skill sets. One example: an out-of-work budget analyst volunteering with HOC was enlisted to review a draft of the proposed county budget for the coming year. She made several concrete recommendations, which ended up being incorporated into the final budget.
  • HOC and other Hands On Network affiliates are working with Belk on its 125 Days of Service to commemorate the department store chain’s 125th anniversary. Belk associates working in stores across the company’s 16-state footprint (as well as those in the corporate office here in Charlotte) are working on more than 250 campus improvement projects at Title I elementary schools. We will wrap up the 125 Days with a closing project and celebration on July 12. 

You’ve had the benefit of working in various facets of philanthropy—a foundation program officer, development director, executive director, board member and giving circle member. What insights can you share given your range of roles and experiences?

My first thought? Damn, I’m old! Seriously, I am so blessed to have had such a variety of personal and professional experiences in the business of helping improve the quality of people’s lives. There is so much more to the work of the nonprofit sector than most of the general public fully understands. For the most part, our organizations have always performed well on the programmatic side, doing a great job of delivering necessary services to address community needs. We are doing a better job these days of telling our stories to the world, but we still have a long way to go in the marketing department.

What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?

I was five years old at the time of the 1963 March on Washington and have witnessed so much change since then, including significant progress toward the realization of Dr. King’s dream. The promissory note he mentioned that day is not completely paid off, and recent events show that there are deep disagreements as to how much more is owed. We must, however, do whatever we can to take full advantage of the payments that have been made, and the resulting opportunities to improve the quality of life in our communities in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined.

When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration?

My dream consists of the removal of barriers to opportunity for all people. As a fifth-generation educator I’m more than a little biased, but I firmly believe that access to a quality education is the key that unlocks to door to every opportunity imaginable.

In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?

In my career so far, what continues to make me most proud is seeing so many of my former students building successful lives and careers.

Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy.

During my time studying Spanish language and literature, I read Cervantes’ Don Quijote on several occasions. The title character, a wandering knight of questionable sanity who travels the countryside working to right wrongs and rescue those in distress reminds me quite a bit of so many of us who work in the nonprofit sector. The unyielding idealism of Don Quijote’s quest to do the right thing still inspires me all these years later.

What should readers keep in mind while seeking to make a difference through voluntarism and service?

As contrary as this idea is to our modern microwave culture, we must always remember that efforts to address community needs and improve quality of life require not just hard work, but also time and lots of patience. Even though we’d like to see the results of our efforts as soon as possible, we must often accept that the full impact of our philanthropic work may not be realized during our lifetimes. Take that leap of faith anyway, and trust that your gifts of time, talent and treasure will bear fruit in time.

Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy.

Many of us are familiar with this quote from Maya Angelou: “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” Less well known, however, is this gem of a paragraph just a few lines below the above in Dr. Angelou’s Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now: “Since time is the one immaterial object which we cannot influence – neither speed up nor slow down, add to nor diminish – it is an imponderably valuable gift. Each of us has a few minutes a day or a few hours a week that we could donate to an old folks’ home or a children’s hospital ward. The elderly whose pillows we plump or whose water pitchers we refill may or may not thank us for our gift, but the gift is upholding the foundation of the universe. The children to whom we read simple stories may or may not show gratitude, but each boon we give strengthens the pillars of the world.” What this says to me is that gifts of time and talent are every bit as important as those of treasure, and that the purest form of philanthropy consists of giving whatever it is you have to give.


For more information visit and follow the hashtag #BPM2013




CV thanks Johnson C. Smith, our sponsor for this series. 


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Tags: Eric Law, Valaida Fullwood, black philanthropy month, philanthropy, Hands On Charlotte

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