Identify the need. Do your research to make sure that you have carved out a specific and differentiated cause to support. Build a compelling and strategic case for funding clearly stating your value proposition. Never stop focusing on the mission.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter J. Poulos.

Peter J. Poulos is co-chair of The Hellenic Initiative’s International Ambassador’s Program and previously served as its Executive Director. The Hellenic Initiative is the world’s most well-respected Greek Diaspora organization. Mr. Poulos has more than 30 years of political, non-profit management and fundraising experience. He lives and works in Athens, Greece with his husband Mark and his dog Mr. Stavros.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

Like many, my parents are the people who influenced me the most in my life. The life lessons they imparted are ones that I carry with me every day.

My father was a pharmacist and owned an established pharmacy in New York. As a young boy I worked at his store stocking shelves, cleaning and delivering prescriptions around our town. Many of the people I delivered to were physically impaired, and in fact so impaired that even the simple act a writing a check could take a very long time. My father told me that part of my job was to sit and speak with his customers, to engage, to listen, to be polite and not rush them because I might be their only real contact during the day. This affected me deeply and instilled a sense of compassion, the importance of listening and, above all, the need to be kind to others.

It was my mother who taught me another great life lesson that would have a profound effect on my career. When I was eight years old my third-grade teacher announced we would be going on a field trip and that each student needed provide three dollars to cover the cost. A few days later, she said that not everyone would be going, and she called out the names of those who would not be attending. That night, I mentioned this to my mother at the dinner table. She asked pointed questions and I told her I thought a few classmates could not afford the cost.

Two days later my mother appeared at my class and asked to speak privately to the teacher. They had what seemed to be a nice chat and then my mother left barely acknowledging me with a little wave. Later that day, the teacher announced that costs for the trip were covered for all students thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.

My mother never mentioned what she had done. She did not ask that I be named as the donor. She simply wanted to help someone in need without causing embarrassment and did not want or need any recognition in return. Years later she would tell me philanthropy was the “rent one paid for living.”

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I have worked with dozens of non-profit organizations over the course of my career and have had the pleasure of learning from many great business leaders, board and staff members. A few made great impressions and helped me develop moral qualities that I think have led to my success.

  • Be respectful: Treat all people with respect and dignity.
  • Provide mentorship: Recognize good work and mentor and fight for the people you believe in.
  • Offer gratitude: Take the time to thank people, to let them know you care. I make a point of sending a personal thank you to every person who contributes to THI no matter the size of the contribution.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

Since I manage The Hellenic Initiative (THI), a non-profit organization that unites the Greek diaspora, I am always fascinated by stories of Greeks fanning out across the globe over centuries. In particular I love learning about vibrant Greek communities where one wouldn’t expect them to be like Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

In 2021, we ran an on-line fundraising campaign to support the survivors of the catastrophic wildfires in Greece and I was shocked by how many contributions we received from Greeks living in Asia, in particular Singapore.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Our mission is simple: Unite Diaspora Greeks and philhellenes and encourage them to invest in the future of Greece through programs that support and fund crisis relief, entrepreneurship and economic development.

The more funds we raise, the more organizations and people we can support and the greater positive effect we will have on Greek society.

It is vitally important to make a compelling case to our donors about the effectiveness of the programs we support for crisis relief and economic development. Building trust is paramount.

To that end, we search for the best managed NGOs and then rigorously evaluate them to make sure they meet our exacting criteria. All of our grantees must complete our Accreditation Form and adhere to the strictest standards of non-profit governance and compliance.

For grants to promising entrepreneurs, we expect the same level of reporting and compliance.

Why is this important? On a parallel track with fundraising, we must continue to build trust in Greece, its institutions, and individuals. Without trust we all fail, and our impact is zero.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

Being a Diaspora Greek isn’t just an ethnicity. It is a whole way of being, acting and engaging. One feels a kindred spirit with Greeks in Greece and Greeks of the Diaspora so when someone succeeds, we are all proud. When someone fails, we are all hurt. When someone acts poorly, we are all shamed.

One of The Hellenic Initiative’s most memorable mottos is “Greeks helping Greeks” and I feel proud to be part of a movement that is bringing this to fruition.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

I always say, “We want to stop giving people fish, we want to teach them how to fish.”

A savvy, young Greek entrepreneur and his fishing school are helping to make the Mediterranean’s marine ecosystem sustainable, and The Hellenic Initiative provided sponsorship money and funding to post the school’s entire curriculum online.

Enaleia [en a lee a] is Greece’s only school for professional fishermen — who harvest calamari, squid, octopus, and other catch from the waters of the Aegean, Adriatic, and Ionian seas — and is teaching them to be responsible custodians of the sea. Lefteris Arapakis, director and co-founder of Enaleia, is a fifth-generation fishermen.

Enaleia — which translates as “together with the fishermen” — is working to reverse the Mediterranean’s decline in fish stocks, which are down 30 percent over the past 30 years (Eurostat, 2016). Enaleia also works to improve job opportunities in the fishing industry, which had 39 percent unemployment when the school was founded.

Despite economic challenges and so as to not to lay off employees or reduce their salaries, Enaleia has also begun to train fishermen to collect tons of plastic caught in their nets and remove it for either recycling disposal or upcycling into shoes, socks, bathing suits, carpet, and other products. Even fishing nets are upcycled into new products.

As a result, Enaleia has tripled in size, revenue, employees, impact, and scale in Greece and Italy since its founding.

The organization also is actively promoting fishing tourism which teaches fishermen to take capitalize on tourism and encourage fishing-related activities such as fishing trips or buying local catches.

See short video here “The Hellenic Initiative: How Greek Diaspora Transforms Greece.”

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

This is a wonderful question as it gets to the essence of The Hellenic Initiative, which is to live a life of purpose.

In 2015, we launched a young Greek professionals group called “THI New Leaders.” This group is the brainchild of THI’s Co-Founder and Board President George P. Stamas. Our intent is to provide members with the skills and insight on how to create and live a life with purpose.

The group’s stated mission is “Networking with a Purpose,” that is to find creative ways to help Greece following three core actions:

  • Fundraise to support our social programs on the ground in Greece that help local people.
  • Mentor those coming up behind you and cross-pollinate your contacts to create connected networks.
  • Volunteer and figure out how to give back in whatever way you can. You don’t need to be rich to be a philanthropist.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

As the Executive Director of a non-profit, I know that meeting fundraising goals is the most important job I have. It is my responsibility to our board, our benefactors and the people we help to operate in a way that is fiscally prudent. I like to operate as a for-profit company, keeping costs down and working with a savvy staff who can productively fulfill multiple roles.

Here are my five key guidelines for building and maintaining a successful non-profit:

  • Identify the need. Do your research to make sure that you have carved out a specific and differentiated cause to support. Build a compelling and strategic case for funding clearly stating your value proposition. Never stop focusing on the mission.
  • Operate like a for-profit. Work within strict budgets. Continuously analyze and track strategies and tactics to determine ROI. Use data to measure the impact of all performance areas.
  • Build a solid foundation of both leadership and staff. Meticulously assess potential board members who have shown long-term commitment to causes and an emotional connection to your cause. Hire multi-talented staff with a passion for the issue.
  • Tell an exceptional story. Every successful nonprofit has a clear storyline that every member of the board, staff and even competitors can easily articulate. Make sure you take the time to carefully create that narrative and then share it with everyone in your organization so they can function as foot soldiers spreading the word.
  • Thank everyone. Make your board, staff and donors feel the love every single time. People love to be recognized.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic has profoundly changed my definition of success.

Success for THI’s board, for me, our team and for everyone at THI is about impact. What are the greatest number of people we can help with our contributions? In Greece, much of our economy is related to tourism. Even during the darkest hours of the 2008 financial crisis, the tourism industry continued to thrive.

However, with the pandemic tourism suffered, and it became apparent that the need to diversify the Greek economy would be paramount to its future success. Our board made the decision to not only double down on efforts to help the needy, but also to find new ways to support entrepreneurs who were looking at alternative employment sectors with the capacity for scalability.

So, success for us continues to focus on making the greatest possible impact, while examining and quickly adapting to circumstances that affect the Greek community.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Maintaining inspiration after a setback is always a challenge. But I like to keep any setbacks — whether personal or professional — in perspective.

For too long Greece has suffered from what is called the “brain drain,” where Greeks were forced to leave their families, their communities, their homeland to find jobs in other countries. Any setback I experience seems trivial when I think of all the young people who have had to leave Greece to make a living.

I am proud of one of our largest and most successful grantees called ReGeneration, Greece’s most successful job placement program. ReGeneration recruits, trains and places young Greeks in well-paid positions in Greece. With a 92% job retention success rate, it has successfully placed more than 2,500 people in permanent, well-paid positions.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This may be the best interview question I have ever read! Yes, there is a person I would like to speak with about The Hellenic Initiative and that person is Tina Fey, an American with Greek heritage.

As a member of the Greek Diaspora and a talented actor with a huge following any support of THI by Ms. Fey would be a game changer for us. I am confident that if she heard about our work she would want to help.

Another person with Greek Heritage would be John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products. A self-made man, he understands the struggle it takes to be successful and could be a great inspiration to the entrepreneurs and start-ups we support.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?






Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.