A conversation with Willie Recht

Jul 27, 2023 | Article, Newsletter, Philanthropy

A conversation with Willie Recht

Jul 27, 2023

Willie Recht will join JEWISHcolorado on September 1, 2023, as the organization’s Chief Development Officer. For the past seven years, he has served as CEO of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. From 2010-2014, he worked at JEWISHcolorado as the organization’s Major Gift Officer and head of Women’s Philanthropy. He has also worked at One Colorado/One Colorado Education Fund. We talked with Willie recently about his return to Colorado and JEWISHcolorado.

William (Willie) J.L. RechtWillie, returning to Denver is a true homecoming for you.

My family is ecstatic that we are coming home, as is my husband Peter’s family. I grew up in Jewish Denver. I have always loved being Jewish, listening to my grandfathers’ stories. It was always clear in our family that we were Jewish with Jewish values and ideals abundant. My grandparents were from the West Side, and I was raised in Park Hill. I played basketball at the JCC, I was involved with the BBYO, confirmed at Temple Emanuel, and I went on the Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST). The fact that IST is one of the country’s longest running locally based trips to Israel is testimony to the amazing strength of Denver’s Jewish community and JEWISHcolorado.

What intrigued you about this new position?

JEWISHcolorado is part of a system I love and believe in, and this was an incredible opportunity to work for both JEWISHcolorado and [President and CEO] Renée Rockford. I am excited and grateful to be able to grow and enhance the Jewish experiences of people who financially support our work so that we can continue to provide the services and programs that our community needs and depends on.

In your new role, you will head up JEWISHcolorado’s fundraising arm. Ask most small children what they want to be when they grow up, and they are more likely to say “an astronaut” than a fundraiser. Did you show early signs of the direction your professional life has headed?

When I was in elementary school, we had a project where we had to help sell products for the Women’s Bean Project, the nonprofit that helps women in transition find independence and self-sufficiency through work. My mother still tells the story about how I sold an incredible amount to support the Women’s Bean Project, and I have always been good with people. So maybe it is not a huge surprise that I became a fundraiser.

When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was looking for my next step in life, I took a job at Nieman Marcus in Chicago. I went through their sales training program and learned how to be a terrific salesperson. But I missed having meaning in my work, and that is what brought me back to Colorado in 2008.

I understand it was a pair of socks that opened the door to JEWISHcolorado the first time you worked here?

Yes, they were actually pink socks! When I moved back to Denver, I got a grant from the Rose Community Foundation to do programming for the LGBTQ+ community. At Keshet, I started Queer Seder and Pride Shabbat, two programs that continue today. I was at a Jewish event in Boulder, and I ran into Susan Kramer who was then the Chief Development Officer at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. She took one look at my pink socks and said, “I am going to hire you!” She did, and I went on to become a Major Gifts Officer and manage the Women’s Philanthropy program.

Willie Recht and husbandYou have had several jobs leading up to this new position at JEWISHcolorado. Looking back, what do you bring with you from each position you have had in the past that you now will be able to use in your new role?

That is an interesting question. From my time at Nieman Marcus, I bring with me the importance of knowing your customer and clientele. From my work at Keshet, I have a strong sense of the importance of creating programs that feel safe for people who may feel isolated from Judaism. Working at the Allied Federation of Colorado gave me my first idea of how incredible the Federation system is. At One Colorado, I learned that we need to create allies outside our community. And from my time in Sacramento, I bring with me the belief that smaller Federations succeed when they successfully engage lay leaders.

When you say that the Federation system is incredible, what do you mean?

Nobody could do what the Federation does—rush in and provide aliyah for thousands of people in Ethiopia or the Soviet Union. No one can raise hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of weeks for Ukraine or fire victims in Northern California or flood victims in Texas. I am in awe of the sophistication and strength of the Federations system.

Do you have a philosophy at the foundation of your fundraising efforts?

It is all about relationships. I have always heard that if you are doing your job well, you will create connections that are real and tangible, and those connections inevitably lead to gifts, sometimes even without asking. We are in the people business, and you cannot do the job sitting behind a desk. I feel so fortunate to work for causes that I care about and that are part of me so I can speak honestly with a donor.

At this point in your career, what are you proudest of?

I am most proud of the stories we will never know about—the one person who was helped, the one person who found community, the one person who found a connection they did not have. The small stories add up and that is where I draw inspiration.

Does this homecoming feel like it was meant to be?

Yes, it does feel like it is bashert. When my grandfather passed away, I inherited a plaque honoring him and my grandmother given to them by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. I have hung it in every office I have had since then. It enhances the connection I feel to this work, and it strengthens the value the work holds in my life.