American Civic Life

Reed Shafer-Ray of Mountaintop has a Vision to Build Community Leaders 

Reed Shafer-Ray. Photo courtesy of Mountaintop Fellows site

Reed Shafer-Ray. Photo courtesy of Mountaintop Fellows site

You could learn something from Reed Shafer-Ray if you’re an aspiring organization-builder. At 27, he’s building his second major organization and working through a thousand things that need to fall in place to launch successfully. He isn’t kidding when he tells me, “Starting a nonprofit is exceedingly challenging – physically, mentally, emotionally.”

Reed grew up in a rare Jewish family in a small Oklahoma town. They were not religious, but they knew they were different. Reed started identifying as Jewish after a trip to Israel as a young adult. In college, two of his best friends were committed Christians. Their late-night conversations left Reed with a profound appreciation and spiritual friendship with people of other religious practices.

Reed’s awakening to social change happened when a tornado hit the neighboring town of Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013. It destroyed the Plaza Towers Elementary School, killing seven children inside. The school didn’t have a safe room to protect students from a tornado. It stuck with Reed that if a good advocate had spoken out while building the school, those children might not have died.

Unfortunately, the future advocates weren’t going back to places like Moore. Reed saw his college classmates taking jobs in big cities with large companies. He focused on this problem: talented young people were leaving their home communities, where they could do the best. Reed fell in with other young people who shared his passion, and that group started Lead for America. The organization creates fellowships for exceptional young people to take on the challenges that matter in the places they know best. Lead for America Fellows showed you didn’t have to go to New York or San Francisco to be successful. Instead, you could return to your community and deal with high obesity, violence, or other social issues. 

Lead for America touched a nerve. They had almost 2,000 applications for 25 slots in year one. Since then, they’ve placed nearly 400 Fellows across the country. Fellows have gone on to do everything from leading a campaign that raised almost $20M for COVID response in the Navajo and Hopi Nations to winning the election as the youngest-ever City Councilor in their hometown. The beginning of a movement was afoot that started to get people excited about reversing brain drain in America.

So, what did Reed do with an organization that was a smashing success? Step out and start over.

Reed Shafer-Ray (seated, second from left) meeting with members of the US Department of State's Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders to discuss the Mountaintop fellowship. Photo courtesy of Reed Shafer Ray

Reed had a bigger vision, drawing on the lessons learned from Lead for America. He felt the need to go global and started a new organization called Mountaintop. He uses the phrase “moral leader” to describe the leaders he seeks to develop. His models range from Gandhi and King to Malala – people who lead from a place of compassion and courage. These leaders have a spiritual foundation for their work, although they don’t need to be religious. 

“The leaders we work with are already leaders. They can do the work. What they need most are relationships.”

So, what does a social entrepreneur do all day? Reed describes three priorities for his work:

  1. Learning: “I spend as much time as I can talking to leaders of peer organizations, young people, philanthropists, and experts in leadership development because I’m new to the international development space. I want to make sure we’re using the best practices.”
  2. Developing the program: “I talk to potential host organizations worldwide. Our first year will have 15-25 fellowships in 8+ countries. They will be involved in projects on human rights in Cote d’Ivoire to water access in Rwanda. Harvard’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics agreed to host the fourteen-day seminar. We’ve recently launched the application for the first class of Fellows.”
  3. Resource mobilization: “I talk to potential partners and funders to make this program a reality for these inaugural Fellows. The most important thing is to think about sustainability. For example, income from our Fellow host partners can reduce the need for philanthropy altogether.”

Reed says, “The most important thing I’ve learned about community leadership is that the leaders we work with are already leaders. They can do the work. What they need most are relationships – that’s the key to success. Building space for friendship, mentorship, and emotional support is the most important thing a Mountaintop fellowship provides.”


Applications for the first class of Mountaintop Fellows are open through September 30.

No matter where you are in the world, if you are a leader in a place that suffers from brain drain, you can find out how to apply.