Guided: A Conversation With The Man Behind The Guide Dog Foundation
Hofstra University is no stranger to dogs. Beyond the friendly therapy pups who greet students during midterm and final weeks, many students rely heavily on guide dogs – dogs who are trained to aid, assist and protect students who have a disability, chronic illness or need extra help.
A handful of students on campus relies on guide dogs for accessibility of movement, safety and support during their college journey. Many people have a passion for dogs and want to help, but they seldom know where to start. This is where the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs are most important.
Through the Guide Dog Foundation, a nonprofit training, fundraising and educational organization, experienced professionals and volunteers train and raise funds for guide dogs. John Miller, the CEO and president of the foundation, has set goals for the future and offers tips for students who wish to break into the nonprofit sector.
Miller previously served as the national president and CEO of the Tourette Association of America (TAA) and, prior to that, as the CEO of the Red Cross division of Long Island during one of the most trying times in Long Island history – the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Now, he is the CEO and president of the Guide Dog Foundation and its sister organization, America’s VetDogs.
Before all of these professional positions, however, Miller was a Hofstra student majoring in management and minoring in political science. After this, he went for his MBA in management with the intention of working with nonprofit organizations.
“I actually had no experience working in nonprofits at the time,” Miller said.
He cites his education and work experience as being what made him what he is today.
“I was heavily involved in local politics. Both components – working and my studies – were important in deciding what I would do today,” he said.
Experience in management and politics helped Miller navigate the often difficult, competitive atmosphere that Long Island nonprofits have with each other. While the Island generally embraces a local mindset, along with giving back to the community, it is also a very small space for a nonprofit to successfully thrive.
“Long Island is a crowded marketplace,” Miller said. “There is a lot of competition, so it takes a significant effort to raise money.”
He further explained that being a local Long Islander gave him a head start in meeting people and making connections. Students who can’t call Long Island home can still benefit from utilizing opportunities to network, like through attending career fairs, completing internships and volunteering with nonprofit organizations.
While many students recognize the need for guide dogs and acknowledge the significant time and effort that goes into training them, few know how to get started with helping the organization. The Guide Dog Foundation’s Director of Marketing Andrew Rubenstein explained how to explore volunteer opportunities.
“We have around two dozen different volunteer opportunities available,” he said. “Volunteers can help with fundraising, gather toys for program dogs or spend time with the dogs for socialization. We are especially looking for puppy raisers who can help raise future guide dogs.”
There is room for students from every major to pitch in and help the organization, and acquiring a position is as simple as just reaching out.
Miller understood that some students want to go beyond volunteer opportunities. Working for or overseeing a nonprofit organization is their ideal career, but they don’t know where to start.
“I recommend that students reach out and learn about volunteering,” Miller said. “Some of our most dedicated volunteers help foster and raise puppies in their homes, but they can also volunteer in the office or directly with the dogs. I highly recommend that all students take this opportunity. Staff and students are highly involved with the organization and it is a good learning experience.”
Good learning experiences are available all over Long Island. Miller owes his appreciation for nonprofit work to the positions he held with the Red Cross and the TAA.
“Working with the Red Cross was terrific. You really have to rely on good people to volunteer and help charities. I learned to be myself and you really realize the impact you have on people’s lives,” he said. “Just the other day I saw a dog being trained when I went out into the parking lot by the offices and it reminded me of the incredible quality of life association behind what we do at nonprofits.”
For a more direct example of how nonprofits directly influence lives, Miller referenced his experience as chief of staff at the Food Bank for New York City.
“In the food banks, if you didn’t do a good job, people didn’t eat for the day. This job is very different from other institutions – you need to do a good job every day, so you can be that impact on people’s lives day to day.”
The average day of the CEO is filled with streamlining the calendar of events, fundraising, working with the leadership team and working with different points of intersection between volunteers, donors, staff and consumers. The Guide Dog Foundation is shaping up to become even busier in the next few months.
Miller’s event to look out for is NBC’s TODAY Show Puppy with a Purpose program, especially the newest puppy, Sunny. Sunny is a yellow lab with an adorably mournful puppy expression, and is meant to grow into something great.
“Between now and June [of next year], the TODAY Show is focusing on Sunny as he is raised and trained to be a guide dog,” Miller said.
Miller encouraged Hofstra students to tune in daily to watch Sunny grow up and raise awareness for the Guide Dog Foundation.
For students who want to work for a nonprofit, Miller offered his advice and knowledge.
“Learn about nonprofits, educate yourself and don’t try to be someone you’re not. Have a genuine core set of principles. I have a very clear philosophy on life – trust in relationships. Do what you say you’re going to do and work with people who have the same mindset.”
The same advice rings true no matter what career Hofstra students are pursuing.
“Enjoy your time at Hofstra,” Miller said, “but take it seriously. Really take time to learn about different nonprofits because there is a large variety of good people who need help. Understand what’s important to you and reach out.”
Students interested in volunteering with the Guide Dog Foundation can visit their website at volunteer.guidedog.org.