Jason Flom is a music executive who is known for discovering Katy Perry and Lorde and for launching the careers of iconic artists including Matchbox Twenty and Kid Rock. A longtime JCF fundholder, Flom is also a dedicated advocate for criminal justice reform. He is a founding board member of the Innocence Project and serves on the boards of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, The Drug Policy Alliance, The Legal Action Center, NYU Prison Education Program, and VetPaw. In this interview with Jewish Communal Fund, he talks about the charitable causes that are most important to him, his giving philosophy and the inspiration for all of the activism that he does.
Jewish Communal Fund: You recently launched a new podcast (“Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom”) where you interview men and women who spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The podcast has raised over $250,000 for the Innocence Project. Tell me about that—how did you decide to do this?
Jason Flom: I serve as a founding board member of the Innocence Project; it’s been a big part of my life for over 20 years. [The Innocence Project has exonerated 344 innocent people, 20 of whom were sentenced to death]. I’ve been very dedicated to post-exoneration work, helping exonerees get their lives back on track and helping them reintegrate into society. As a result, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the exonerees through the course of this work. I find them to be very inspiring, amazing people who have overcome impossible odds and terrible experiences to live happy, productive lives. A great example is Keith Allen Harward, who served 34 years for a crime he didn’t commit—imagine that, 34 years. We’ve gotten very positive feedback thus far. I’m grateful that people seem to be finding it to be inspiring and informative and uplifting. Wrongful Conviction is giving the exonerees a platform to share their stories, experiences, strength and hope.
JCF: How did you first get involved in prison reform advocacy work?
JF: I saw a case on TV and I felt compelled to get involved. I simply can’t think of anything worse than being locked up in America’s archaic and barbaric prison system for something you didn’t do. I’ve always wanted to help the helpless and when someone is trapped in that situation, you really are helpless. No one listens to you, no one cares. You’re removed from society and from your family.
JCF: What are some other charitable causes that are important to you, and why?
JF: I’ve been on the board of directors of Families Against Mandatory Minimums for 24 years and for almost as long I have served as a board member of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Legal Action Center, which are both involved in critical aspects of reversing mass incarceration and fixing our draconian sentencing laws. Decriminalizing drugs, for example.
More recently, I joined the board of the NYU Prison Education Program. I’ve also become involved with anti-poaching. I’m on the advisory board of VetPAW, an organization dedicated to preserving African wildlife from poachers by utilizing U.S. military veterans to partner with local rangers and government agencies. We’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes. The organization trains African park rangers in U.S. military tactics. It’s doing a whole world of good in helping to prevent a catastrophe.
JCF: What advice do you have for people who are not yet engaged in philanthropy, but would like to be?
JF: These causes that touch my heart found me—the causes made me want to get involved so it’s become second nature. By contrast, I was on the board of a college at one point and I lasted for just one meeting because my heart wasn’t in it. You should find something that touches you. As a kid, I had problems with drugs, so I realize that it could have been me going to jail if not for the fact that my background and ethnicity meant that I wasn’t the target.
The truth is I’ve never written a check to a charity and regretted it later. Everyone is capable of accomplishing miracles. If you really set your mind to it, you can affect real change. It’s a tremendous source of satisfaction and I hope everyone can find a cause that motivates them.
JCF: You have made the hallmark of your giving by focusing on advocacy rather than on direct services. What drives this decision?
JF: Both approaches are valid. I do get involved in micro stuff, what I call “random acts of kindness.” There’s great satisfaction in helping one person at a time and being able to see and feel the results. There’s little doubt though that people the macro stuff is more important—but I think we need both.
JCF: How has JCF been helpful to you with your philanthropy?
JF: My dad [corporate lawyer Joseph Flom] introduced me to JCF. He had a fund here, and I opened one too. JCF help me when I got involved in animal rights; they helped me find useful research. JCF has been a part of my giving for so long—it’s a very organized and efficient system that’s also much simpler for tax purposes.
JCF: You have two children—how do you pass along your philanthropic values to them?
JF: I try to lead by example. My 22-year-old daughter Allison is on several charity boards of her own. She’s done fantastic work on criminal justice reform – but not because I told her to. She’s a very brave and principled young woman. My son Michael is in high school and he’s a very empathetic and charitable person as well.
JCF: Who influenced you to become a giver?
JF: I learned from my dad, who was very charitable. On Jewish holidays, he gave my brother and I the opportunity to choose which charity to give a donation to. He told us that he was going to give his fortune to charity and that therefore we should go out and make our own. And he did—he gave almost all his money to charity which set a great example for me to follow.