Meet Our Team: Jennifer Willis-Rivera

Name: Jennifer Willis-Rivera

Role: Director of Operations

Location: Wisconsin, USA

As 2019 draws to a close, who better to reflect on their journey with Random Acts than Director of Operations Jennifer Willis-Rivera? When Jen came onboard as a Development Officer in 2014, the structure of how everything was handled here at Random Acts was completely different – for starters, she was one of about 25 staff. As of last month, Jen has five years (and a couple of promotions) at the organization under her belt, and she has been a part of some of the biggest moments of transformation that Random Acts has undergone during that time. But the growth of our team and reach over the last year or so has been a whole new world, to say the least.

“I wish I had a time machine and could take people back who work for the organization now because they would be blown away,” Jen says. “I think of everything that we could not have done. We could not have done some of the partnerships that we’ve done. For example, it would have been so hard to do the Childhood Hunger campaign, not just running that whole campaign but helping as many areas as we were able to help. Now that we have so many staff around the globe, it is easier to do larger campaigns with a big reach. Even something like the newsletter. We had a monthly newsletter, right when I came on, and then it stopped because it was difficult with so few staff. Because we have so many amazing and dedicated volunteer staff, we have been able to do so many things. I’m really excited for how much we’ve been able to do.”

Today, there are nearly 90 volunteer staff members here at Random Acts, most of them new hires in the last year to 18 months. As the Executive Team decided to change the structure and roles in the organization to better balance the handling of all our activities, the difficult part of that growth, Jen found, was that new actions and procedures were being created in tandem with the new hires: asking them, in short, to bear with the organization as they usher in a new and better system.

“I will never forget the Memorial Day weekend right after I became Director of Operations,” Jen reminisces. “Amanda and I spent the entire Memorial Day weekend three-day weekend on interviews just back to back to back to back to back to back to back because we were hiring so many people.”

“I think the trickiest part – and we knew this, we actually explained it to people as we hired them – the trickiest part is that we were building processes as we went. And we knew, we actually had this discussion – we were like ‘Okay, we can hire people and build the processes as we go, or we can build the processes and then hire people,’ but we barely had enough staff to be able to get things going, so we made that really conscious decision to build as we went along, because it was better than the alternative.”

Now, so many new departments and roles exist, and Random Acts’ multitude of needs are being met by people who are both experienced in the particular field in question and not overextended by trying to exist as a stopgap fielding dozens of other issues. 

Jen is really thrilled and proud about the extensive Random Acts team as it stands now, and it continues to grow, and calls the volunteer staff “some of the most amazing people on this planet,” and that finding them was the best part of the admittedly chaotic rewriting of all things Random Acts from an operations point of view.

Random Acts has achieved a lot in 2019, most prominently with our Childhood Hunger campaign, using the money we raised from E4K 2018 to combat food insecurity for families with children in as many communities worldwide as we possibly could. Jen has not only been undertaking Childhood Hunger Acts of her own during 2019, she has also been instrumental in connecting Random Acts resources with people and communities where we could not physically go. One example is our donation to the Fairbanks Community Food Bank in Alaska – through Jen’s network of family and friends, we were able to connect with someone in Alaska to fund and deliver goods to this more remote city in the interior. This aspect of spreading kindness is one of Jen’s favorite parts of the job.

“Being able to not just to help people – that is super important – but also to connect other people to Random Acts and to connect other people to being able to do these big acts of kindness and how good it has made them feel has been great,” Jen says. “One thing I love and that I tell people that I meet: I tell them about the acts program and I say ‘Submit an act, submit an act!‘ and I have had some people, friends of mine at the University who submitted acts and it is just really cool to see them get really excited about the good that they can do.”

One of the most interesting thing about Jen’s journey with Random Acts is that – unlike many of our other staff – she does not come from a history of volunteering at other organizations. She discovered the organization through her children, who were at the time very into Supernatural, and when a position became available a few months later she decided to go for it and got it. 

“If you had told me five years ago that I was going to be spending this much time volunteering I would have laughed,” she says. “I would have said you were crazy, I do not have time to do that, but when you when you find something to be really important you make the time.”

Jennifer currently works around 15 – 20 hours a week at Random Acts, on top of around 40-50 at her university. In the summer, when she teaches online classes and has fewer meetings at the university, Random Acts can take up to 30 hours. Though she says the time is hard to measure, due to constantly being on call via her phone – it is typical for her to write Random Acts emails while crossing campus between classes. In fact, in the middle of our interview she had to pause and field a Random Acts problem that was quickly solved! With this level of constant commitment to schedule and sustain, logistically and emotionally, support is vital, and Jen is lucky enough to have plenty of that. 

“I have got a dual support. The first one would be my husband – he is so understanding, like next Sunday I have six one-hour meetings with my managers and you know, he just kind of puts up with me sitting on the computer for that, so he is absolutely my support system, I could not do this job without him and without his support. If he didn’t support me I would have to leave Random Acts. So he is number one.”

Director of Operations Jennifer Willis-Rivera, Co-Founder Misha Collins and Executive Director Rachel Miner. Photo by Iliana Habib.

“Number two is the executive team. We are a rock, and we are always having to pull on each other and by executive team that means David, Amanda and Rachel, all three. We have all shared lots of emotions with each other, and absolutely my managers – they keep things together. They work so hard. Everybody in this organization works so hard. I mean the fact that this is a volunteer thing, and it is really easy to just say you know what I am done, I am walking away and we know that some people have to do that because they have things that come up – family reasons that kind of thing – but people really take it seriously and I am just so thankful for that every day because if they did not, we could not function and I would be the director of nothing.”

But turning back the clock, it is actually what happened before she applied that really convinced Jen that the organization was special, and something she needed to pursue.

“So I had been going through kind of a rough time with work when I first found Random Acts. I really liked it and I made a deal with myself, because it was the beginning of summer when I found it, and I said ‘Okay, I’m gonna do an act of kindness, at least one act of kindness a day. And every time I do an act of kindness I’m going to put a quarter in the jar, and I am going to donate it to Random Acts at the end of the summer and you know, I raised about fifty bucks just doing acts of kindness, and it made me feel better.”

“Since then I have done a lot of research on kindness and there is a lot of research that shows that when you do an act of kindness for someone it does make them feel better, it absolutely makes them feel good and helps, but there is actually a bigger effect on the person who does the act of kindness, so I found that pretty fascinating.”

This idea ties into one that many of our staff have addressed in these profiles this year – the constant concern we field about sharing and promoting acts of kindness. Supporters are scared to show off their altruistic actions because they fear being judged for bragging or seeking personal credit. Jen has a really firm and thoughtful stance on that that she wants supporters to try and take on board if they ever second-guess about this sort of thing.

“Humans are very social creatures. We are in groups, we need to connect with people, we have to be able to communicate in order to survive. And we tend to do things that we see other people doing. Not in a brainless way, but in a ‘Wow that is successful for them, that is possible’ way. And so when you do acts of kindness and you talk about it and you share it on social media, that actually makes more people do acts of kindness because people see it and say ‘Oh I can do that, that is small, that is easy.’ And that is why I especially like doing acts or doing even little small acts of kindness. One of the first AMOKs that I ever did, myself and another faculty member, we wrote positive messages on a bunch of sticky notes and put them on every faculty door in the entire university and that was really fun, and she had a lot of fun doing it too. So being able to talk about those kinds of things and spread that is really… It is super important. It is not just not bragging, it is necessary.”

This mindset is one element of Jen’s drive when choosing and performing acts of kindness. Rather than a specific dedication to a certain personal cause – many of us have a “specialty subject” when it comes to some particular group or issue – Jennifer’s number one priority is finding activities that incorporate others into the task.

“I like to make sure, where I can, to get other people involved. I think that is my specialty thing. We started, on my campus, the first Random Acts student organization and we started that kind of as a test pilot to see to see how it would work, and it has worked great so I like involving students. I like involving my family. When we volunteered at the Seattle marathon a year ago I brought my entire family, that was a big family thing for me to do, so I think it is not so much what cause as much as it is involving other people. I really like to involve other people.”

When Jen came into Random Acts, she was initially hired due to her prior experience in writing grants, which is basically a version of what we do here when people apply for funding to do an act. While we are proud of the reach Random Acts has, we still find that supporters are not always aware that the acts of kindness we want them to get inspired to do and to share with us can actually be funded by us as well – that you, a supporter, can reach out with an idea and we can help make it happen. Increasing awareness about this has been an important issue for Jen, so this seems like a great moment to talk about Jen’s goals as Director of Operations here at Random Acts as we enter 2020 and the new decade.

“The first goal is to build even more awareness of Random Acts. I want more and more and more people to find out about Random Acts and to know what we do and help us spread kindness all over the globe. So definitely spreading awareness and reaching more people is super important, and I think the secondary goal is, in doing that, I want them to know about the Acts program. I want them to find out about that. I want them to write those little mini grants for acts of kindness. I want them to donate so that other people can do acts. Supporting the Acts program is something that is near and dear to my heart I do think [awareness] has increased, but I want to increase it a whole heck of a lot more. I am excited for it to continue to increase even more. I want our supporters to know about this program so that so that they can go out and and help people and do some kindness!”

To sum up her view of 2019 at Random Acts, Jennifer had this to say.

“I feel like 2019 is when we grew up, and now, we are ready take out in the world. I almost feel like – and granted because my whole life is academia, right – that that we have just graduated from high school or college and it’s like ‘Okay, time to really get out there and kick it in the pants!’”

Feeling inspired by stories of our staff, and want to join the team? Check out our Staff Page for current volunteer vacancies!