Alexa Cortes-Culwell, an advisor to major donors, is bridging the gap between wealth and want in local communities nationwide. Hear her story.
Alexa Cortes-Culwell, an advisor to major donors, is bridging the gap between wealth and want in local communities nationwide. Hear her story.
About Why Local Nonprofits Don’t Get Enough Funds (And How to Fix It)
You may not know Alexa Cortes-Culwell by name, but there’s a good chance her work has affected a nonprofit near you.
Alexa is the founder of Open Impact, which advises some of the biggest and most highly resourced foundations and individual philanthropists on earth. Their typical client has more than a billion dollars in philanthropic assets.
But you don’t have to be a billionaire or millionaire to find value in what Alexa shares in this episode.
- If you donate to an organization (or are considering doing so), she shares tips on how to do so in a strategic and intelligent way.
- If you work or volunteer for a nonprofit, Alexa’s advice can help you be better and connect with more available resources.
- If you’re looking for inspiration, you’ll hear Alexa’s incredible backstory, including how she spent college playing poker with homeless people.
Within a few years of graduating, Alexa became director of the Schwab Foundation, which has invested more than $300 million in social causes over the last 20 years. Alexa’s advisory company, Open Impact, which has since unlocked and accelerated $12 billion of philanthropy.
Why Giving Away Money Is Harder Than You Think
In 2016, Open Impact released a study on wealth and giving in Silicon Valley that rocked the business and philanthropic worlds. Their data showed how one of the wealthiest areas in the world gave larger and larger sums – yet failed to address many needs within its own community.
Open Impact’s findings led to a fundamental shift in how nonprofits and donors view their work. Today community organizations and donors are forging deeper connections and more money is staying local.
Within this episode, Alexa discusses…
- The shocking statistics about wealth versus want her team discovered in Silicon Valley
- A major misconception that the ultra-wealthy have about donating money
- Why the worlds of nonprofit leaders are so separate from the worlds of high-wealth donors, and how to overcome those obstacles
- Alexa’s two-prong advice for how middle American families can maximize their impact on nonprofit organizations
Send a Shout-Out
We’re starting off 2022 with positivity and gratefulness. One of the best ways to spread that mindset is by sharing the stories of common acts of kindness people have done or been privileged to receive – and we want to hear your stories.
What’s a time when you’ve been on the receiving end of kindness from a person who expected nothing in return? Who’s done a kind deed for you or for others? Who deserves to be celebrated?
Tell us about anyone who by themselves, or through their actions toward others, set an example of Crazy Good Turns for us all to follow. Send them to me on Twitter, or email them to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll share your stories in a future episode of Crazy Good Turns.
Alexa Cortes-Culwell Interview
FRANK BLAKE: Welcome Alexa. It’s great to have you on the show.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: It’s wonderful to be here.
FRANK BLAKE: Maybe we just start by describing a little bit about Open Impact and then how you came about to founding it, the foundation story, and a little bit about yourself.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Open Impact is an advisory firm and it helps people who want to do good and have impact in the world envision and design and accelerate their philanthropy in search of that impact. It’s really about helping people dig deep to reflect on the purpose of their wealth and assets, and to think about how they can create a bigger legacy beyond that.
We work with philanthropic families all over the country on issues that are far ranging and can be both hyper-local to global. We do that with a lot of joy and persistence, and I would even say accountability because giving away money is hard work, especially if you want to have a big impact in the world. We try to make it accessible and we try to demystify some of the barriers that keep donors from moving and giving away their money, excess money that they will never need during their lifetimes.
I would also say that sometimes my work feels very elite in terms of maybe inaccessible to people with smaller amounts of money, but many of the practices that we talk about and work with, with our donor families, are practices I practice in my own family. Which is just really how do we take all of the resources at our disposal and creatively think about how to make change on the issues we care about and in our communities?
FRANK BLAKE: So I’m sure, I’m sure some of the folks listening are going, “Wow, I wish I had that job. I wish I was helping people give away money. That sounds like a great job.” I’m sure, as you said, it’s both hard work but it’s also a great job. How did you get into it? What’s the path that led you to where you are?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: It was literally a series of crazy good turns. I’m going to take this phrase of yours.
FRANK BLAKE: Excellent.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Which I had never heard of before. When you told me the name of this podcast and I started really understanding it, I was like, oh my gosh, I’ve had so many crazy good turns that led me to this moment. I’m excited you asked me the question in that way.
The first crazy good turn is I arrived as an undergraduate on the UC Berkeley campus, having been pretty insulated in my middle class suburban life in Southern California, and I encountered my first homeless people walking to school every day.
It was scary for me, but it also really raised my curiosity, and in a crazy good turn I saw a sign on my way to school in front of a church that they were going to be serving homeless people that night, providing food, and respite, and games, and a movie, and they needed volunteers.
I talked to the woman who was setting up that sign and every Wednesday evening during my years as an undergrad at Berkeley I began sitting with homeless people playing card games, they taught me how to play poker.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Learning about their lives. I learned they were military veterans, and I learned that they were deeply suffering from what we now know is PTSD. I learned that they had deep stories, and that they were intelligent, and that they had so much to offer, and yet here they found themselves in this horrific circumstance. It humanized that issue of homelessness to me and it made me some really unusual friends.
It was kind of fun because sometimes I’d be walking across campus, very collegiate, it was the ’80s, I was super preppy with all my preppy friends, and I’d have a homeless person go, “Hey Alexa.” We’d stop to talk and my friends would be like, “How do you know that person?” I knew them because I was hanging out, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with them on Wednesday nights.
That took me to deciding I had to make a contribution in the social sector, in the change-making sector. I got out of college and took a job at what Peter Drucker considered the best managed nonprofit in America at the time, the American Heart Association. You probably remember Peter Drucker and his role in management science and business.
FRANK BLAKE: Yeah, of course.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: I thought, I’ve got to go work for the best run nonprofit in the country, and I went and got a job there and kind of learned their secret sauce. Then the next crazy good turn is I started volunteering at an organization in San Francisco, and through that met a donor who knew the Schwab family and invited me to interview with Chuck and Helen Schwab, the founder of Charles Schwab, to be one of their first foundation staff people.
The next crazy good turn is that after a year of doing that, Chuck offered me a year to be his founding executive director. He gave me a year to prove myself. I was 25 years old, and that began a 13 year partnership of scaling up that philanthropy.
FRANK BLAKE: We’re going down a side path, but I’m curious, what do you think he saw in you that prompted him to do that at whatever you are, 25, 26 years old and he says, and I’m assuming that he has a lot of resources involved in this foundation, and he goes, “Yes, Alexa, would you please run this?”
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: We worked together for a year with me as a staff person on their team. I think I was just really nimble, agile, I was organized. He liked that I had an agenda and an outcome for every meeting. He could throw out ideas to me and I could quickly suss them out, analyze them and come back with a plan to either take them forward or to say, “This won’t work.”
After a year of doing that, and also just proving that I was eager to learn and come up the learning curve with him in philanthropy and his wife Helen, I think he just liked the fact that I wasn’t coming with an agenda, that I was going to be in service to what the family wanted to do, which is really important to my advisory work now.
That I was kind of neutral on what the issue was, but I was dogged on excellence, I was dogged on figuring it out. That just formed an incredible 13 years of growth and opportunity where I got to lead one of the larger philanthropies in the country and just have a lot of really amazing relationships, stories of impact to show for that.
Another crazy good turn is after 18 years of doing that, I then was the CEO of another private foundation. I went to Chuck to have lunch with him and told him I was thinking of setting up an advisory firm but I was a little scared, but I said, “I think I can take all the lessons that I learned and I can help other philanthropists accelerate their impact.” He said, “Why would you work for anyone but yourself? Why wouldn’t you do that?”
FRANK BLAKE: Good for him.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: He’s like, “It’s time to be your own boss.” He just gave me just that one sentence just kind of catapulted me into founding this firm, and many years later we’ve unlocked and accelerated $12 billion of philanthropy.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Toward really impactful organizations, leaders and causes.
FRANK BLAKE: So why, and preface this by talking about that it’s hard work, why is it hard work? What are some of the elements that make it difficult?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Yeah. My families are typically founders of companies, and they’ve been crazy successful, extraordinarily successful. My portfolio of work within the firm, my typical client has a billion dollars or more in philanthropic assets.
They’re crazy successful and they just naively assume that they’re going to have an instinct for how to do this and make an impact. They assume that the frameworks that have served them well in business will directly translate to serve them well in the social sector, and to some extent that’s true, but there’s a bunch of things that are missing if you just try to take your business frameworks and apply them to nonprofits. Because the sector is fundamentally broken, and not structured in the way business is.
FRANK BLAKE: Right.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: When you’re raising revenue for a startup or a new venture, there’s a marketplace of capital and all kinds of capital to access. It’s a mature marketplace. In the nonprofit sector that doesn’t exist. In the business sector you’re never asked or questioned about the infrastructure you need to build to deliver your product or service. In the nonprofit sector people are constantly examining what they consider your overhead. In the for profit sector it’s just known that you have to innovate and have money for research and development. In the nonprofit sector there’s no such thing and there’s no margin for such thing. I could go on and on.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow. That is fascinating, just going through those differences. That I see is a challenge. If you take one step back and comment, I’d love to hear your comments on why, I mean I don’t know what the number is that the country gives out to nonprofits, but I’ve got to believe it’s enormous every year.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: I think it’s almost half a trillion dollars.
FRANK BLAKE: It’s a half a trillion dollars, but the average, I think I read in something you wrote, Alexa, that is less than 1% of the nonprofits have more than $50 million in revenue. Am I remembering that right?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: That’s right. That’s a Silicon Valley figure, but it’s generally right nationally. The vast majority of nonprofits kind of don’t have staff, don’t have more than a million dollars of revenue. They’re little cottage nonprofits and they typically are a group of people coming together, they might not even have fundraising as their primary goal. The work philanthropy, and when you give money away you’re typically looking at nonprofits that have a big enough budget that the community can know about them, right? They exist and they’re operating in the community, and they typically will have some kind of profile, although I think the majority of nonprofits need to have larger profiles. Typically their profiles are not often as high as they need to be to reach people.
FRANK BLAKE: What do you mean by a high profile? What do you mean there?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Well, what we found out in our study about Silicon Valley, and we did a report five years ago about giving in Silicon Valley that’s resonated in cities all over the country, and it’s been cited and covered by media outlets from The New York Times, to The Wall Street Journal, to The Financial Times. Because the core insights really resonate, and so a core insight in that report was that, despite having all these community based nonprofits, wealthy people in the community didn’t know about them and didn’t fully understand the level of social issues happening. Believe it or not, Frank, in Silicon Valley, which is one of the largest economies in the world, just Silicon Valley, most wealthy people don’t know that one in three kids in the valley is hungry, suffers from food insecurity.
FRANK BLAKE: Just because they’re not interacting with them.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Yeah. Even though if you’re in Palo Alto, which is where Stanford is, just across the freeway is East Palo Alto, and many communities have this exact same visual. You have it in your community, right?
FRANK BLAKE: Right.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: There’s a street you cross and suddenly the world changed, and that world is really cut off, even though it might just be half a mile away from that world that has incredible resources. The world with resources, where they shop, where they go to church, where they socialize, where they send their kids to school, doesn’t give them any exposure to the fact that there’s kids who actually are food insecure on that side of the street.
In Silicon Valley, that’s exactly the issue, and so donors don’t know about those issues as much as you would hope they would. They certainly don’t really know about the nonprofits helping them. The worlds of the nonprofit leaders just are very separate from the worlds of these donors, and they don’t collide very often. That’s a real problem, and so I’m going to go back to my original thought, is donors really fret about the overhead of nonprofits, but if a nonprofit can’t communicate its impact, can’t have a social media strategy, can’t build a decent website, can’t get its profile out into the community, it’s really never going to be able to attract the resources to begin helping those food insecure children.
We just have a problem, a real disconnect between the way donors and wealthier communities understand these issues and how the nonprofits that serve them are constructed. In our report, we actually interviewed 300 people, 100 of whom were donors, and a couple hundred nonprofit leaders, and it was like we were talking to two completely different worlds of people. Then when we looked at the data, it was extraordinary, because everybody knows the Silicon Valley story, the wealth is extraordinary here. We have 150,000 millionaires and billionaires.
FRANK BLAKE: How many?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: 150,000 millionaires and billionaires.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: In the two counties below San Francisco. If you add in San Francisco, you’re getting to 300,000. There’s 77 billionaires in San Francisco alone. It’s a pretty small town, it’s a pretty small major city. There’s extraordinary wealth here, and we found out there’s extraordinary philanthropy. We’re one of the most philanthropic regions in the world in terms of, if you look at the IRS data.
Then we sat down with 150 nonprofit leaders of community-based organizations. Not the large hospitals or Stanford. These are people who run homeless programs, run food banks.
FRANK BLAKE: Food banks. Things like that.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Run after school programs. We literally were in the room with 150 of them all at once actually. We were in an enormous room and we ran focus groups and we mapped all of their needs and demands on post-its all over the room. What we discovered is that, despite all this escalating exponential growth and revenue in the valley and wealth in the valley, that they were experiencing unprecedented demand for services. Demand for services was up, meaning more people were knocking on their door needing help. When we asked them, well aren’t you getting all this money? There’s money hanging on the trees, and they’re like, “No. Our major donor support and our individual donor support is pretty stagnant. We’re not seeing this money.”
Then we’re like, wait a minute, the IRS and all the giving reports are saying that we’re one of the most generous regions in the country, where’s the money going? We did something pretty extraordinary. We called Fidelity Charitable and Schwab Charitable, which are the biggest donor advised fund holders in the country. A donor advised fund is kind of a savings account for philanthropic dollars. You can donate into those funds, get your tax deduction, just like you would donating to the food bank, but you get then some time to figure out where you want to give it. If you have a wealth event, it can be a really quick strategy for putting a bunch of money in that fund and then figuring it out.
We asked Schwab and Fidelity to disaggregate the donor advised fund activity in Silicon Valley, and we found something that we now know is generalizable to a lot of communities. Probably Atlanta, New York, Boston, it’s the same trend, and I know this because people who read the report in other cities called me and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s literally like we could change Silicon Valley to my community and the insights would be the same.”
Astoundingly, we found that the philanthropic assets, the majority of them were leaving the region to go to alma maters, to go globally. The money that stayed was staying for things that were mostly institutional. Stanford. Stanford has over 1000 development staff, they’re incredible at raising money, and a lot of people go to Stanford stay in Silicon Valley.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: I teach a class at Stanford, continuing studies, and I do guest speaking at the business school, and Stanford gave me an incredible platform to advance my thinking on philanthropy, so I love Stanford. My husband’s a graduate of the business school, but a lot of donors just don’t know what to do with their money and Stanford’s right there with an ask, and so it’s a really easy transaction for them and it’s a safe transaction. They had a personal experience with Stanford, it hugely benefited them. Similarly, donors love to give to hospitals because it benefited them in some way, it saved their mother, it performed a vital surgery.
Donors tend, when they give locally, to give to what’s familiar and where they’ve seen personal benefit. Extraordinarily, we found that less than 5% of the money staying was going to these community based organizations.
FRANK BLAKE: We’re getting that effectively all of this money, about 5% was going back into the communities.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: That was all that was going back into the communities.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s extraordinary.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: That was our answer, because we had these 150 nonprofit leaders saying, “We’re not seeing the money.” We were confounded, but once we just kept digging and digging, the story got more clear. When we disaggregated down to the level of the community based organization, which was a huge research feat, by the way. Not just how much money went to the region. If you look at how much money went to the region, it looks extraordinary, but when you start taking out the money to the major universities-
FRANK BLAKE: The university and the hospital. Yeah.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: … it just goes down, and down, and down until you get to less than 5%. It was true across what we call all asset classes. It was true from donor advised funds. It was true from foundations in the area. It was true from corporate giving. We have some of the most extraordinary technology companies in the world based here, and it was a pretty astonishing revelation for people as we went out to talk.
FRANK BLAKE: Alexa, this is, as you referenced, I mean, the report, which is called The Giving Code, and maybe our listeners will go track it down and we’ll provide a link to it. It got a lot of play and a lot of people wrote about it, a lot of people thought about it. It came out in 2016, right?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: That’s right.
FRANK BLAKE: It’s five years old. Have you seen any behavioral changes? Have people taken that to heart?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: What’s happened since 2016? Well, Silicon Valley has gotten exponentially richer. The millionaires and billionaires, they’ve doubled in the two counties that we reported on in 2016. The 80,000 we reported on then doubled to the number I told you earlier, the 150, and then you add in San Francisco, you get more to 300,000. I mean, it goes on and on.
The social problems have increased. The middle class is shrinking. The cost of living continues to go up. During COVID, our housing market got more expensive. Our teachers, police and fire people now live so far away from our communities that if an earthquake happened or wildfires happened, there’s a huge problem because they’d have to get across bridges to get to our communities, because most of Silicon Valley and San Francisco you have to come across a bridge to access it. We’ve actually pushed all those people. People might think, well those are just poor people, people who don’t want to work leaving the community. No. These are vital, critical services of people who cannot live here, and now can’t even come in an earthquake to staff hospitals. If I were to be hurt, I can’t count on my hospital a mile away to be fully staffed that day.
FRANK BLAKE: Again, the same in other areas.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Again the same. I can’t count on my fire crews to be fully staffed. That’s really a problem and it’s been exacerbated. Now that said, The Giving Code spurred a bunch of funders to come together to actually create a pool of funds and several initiatives and to build the capacity of what I’m going to call brokers or intermediaries in our community, and that has been some of the most promising bright spots that we’re seeing.
One of the insights of The Giving Code is, if you really have this deep disconnection between donors and nonprofits, what if we create more brokers who can connect them who kind of speak both languages, who are bilingual? Who are those translators? Those translators are giving circles. There’s now just huge networks of giving circles in Silicon Valley that a donor can join that educates them, helps them connect to nonprofits and where they get to be with their peers learning about the community, going on site visits, and then pooling funding. One of them is called Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, and that’s a network all over the country in cities everywhere. Giving circles exist in cities everywhere.
FRANK BLAKE: I didn’t even realize that. That’s fascinating.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Community foundations exist everywhere. You have a community foundation in your Atlanta.
FRANK BLAKE: Yup. In Atlanta.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Community foundations are awesome places for people to go to understand local community issues and to get advice and support. You can also open up a donor advised fund at a community foundation, and what’s nice about that versus at one of the big institutional brands like Fidelity, is that you get access to kind of local giving advice.
Education programs for donors are opening up all across the country, and so in Silicon Valley a lot of funders doubled down on helping build stronger brokers. Stanford now has a philanthropy lab and it trains wealth advisors on how to connect and be better advisors to their clients. Because wealth advisors are often sitting in between their clients and their philanthropy, they’re helping them plan for philanthropy, and so helping wealth advisors have more nuanced skills in terms of-
FRANK BLAKE: They understand what the resources are out there and all that.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Yeah. Wealth advisors tend to be pretty conservative in terms of money, and so a typical wealth advisor loves to tell you you should give to your alma mater, because they know the University of Pennsylvania is reliable. That just seems fine, but wealth advisors really don’t know how to tell you to give to a food bank, or how to give to a nonprofit in your community. That seems a little riskier, that’s not their skillset. Equipping them and helping them understand how to activate their clientele is an initiative that has been really strong in Silicon Valley.
A group of funders also started a group called Magnify Community, and we started a pledge where we ask donors in the community of that initiative to pledge to give a significant portion of their resources locally, and so people sign that pledge. That activated $120 million-plus to local efforts.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: When you start putting brokers and guides into the ecosystem, we’re beginning to see changes.
FRANK BLAKE: Alexa, what about advice for donors? Let’s assume you’re speaking to people who don’t have billionaire-type resources but also want to make a difference with their giving? What should they do?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Well, once you find a nonprofit that you’re excited about, that really resonates with you, a nonprofit that’s extending critical after school programs to kids to expose them to music and the arts, or to make sure that they’re not falling behind in math or reading, or you find a nonprofit that’s really helping house homeless people. Whatever that would be, whatever resonates with you, I think the key is to learn about them and to go into listening mode and to kind of suspend all your beliefs, and to be willing to kind of consider a different view of how those organizations are working and solving problems. Just being a curious, open minded listener and learner I think is the first thing I would say.
The second thing I would say is ask that nonprofit what they actually need. Typically, what they’ll tell you is, “We need unrestricted funding and we need multi-year commitments. We need to know you’re going to stick with us over time.” Our model is always going to be a philanthropic model. There’s just no magic way that most nonprofits can raise money other than donors coming and helping them scale up their work. Donors shouldn’t have a mindset of, oh this nonprofit needs to figure out a revenue model. The revenue model is the donor model. I have lots of nonprofits that have some really extraordinary alternative revenue models, but there’s always a piece where private philanthropy and donors giving is critical.
FRANK BLAKE: Just have to be. Yeah.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: It’s just always part of it, in almost every case. I would say give without restriction. Give multi-year. Then ask that nonprofit how you can use all your resources. How can you use your networks, your relationships, your influence, and your money to support and help them? Just think about really investing in them.
As a tangible example, my family for the last 25 years has doubled down on a nonprofit in San Francisco called New Door Ventures. It gives kids who just are really far from opportunity, they have all kinds of risk factors, the kinds of risk factors that if our kids had even one of them we would be really worried about them. These kids have multiple, and we help them get ready to have their first job. We connect them to their first job, and then we make sure they’re successful in that first job. We build their confidence. We build their resume. Our kids stick with education and growth in jobs because of our program at a much higher percentage rate than kids who haven’t had the program. It changes the trajectory of their lives.
Our family gives money to that nonprofit. Over the years I’ve served on the board of that nonprofit, I’ve been the chair. There have been years where I haven’t been on the board. We volunteer, our entire family goes. My kids have offered free volunteer and internship services during the summers, where they don’t get paid but they go and provide help to the teams there. My husband and I will get on and do resume reviews with youth. There’s resume writing workshops where a volunteer sits with the youth and helps them get their resume better. In our family, we just think of all of that. We invite friends to learn about it, we take them on tours. We give them giving opportunities. We think about all the ways that we have influence to help this nonprofit. We’ve done it for 25 years and it’s been extraordinary. We feel like we’re part of the family. We haven’t just said, “Oh, you know, they’ll figure it out. We’ll do it for a few years.”
It can be really transformational when you connect to a nonprofit like that, or a portfolio of nonprofits, and really just show up ready to help.
FRANK BLAKE: Folks who are starting, because we’ve had a lot of people on the show or people who write into the show who have their own, just as you say, a local nonprofit that’s doing great things. If you were advising them about how to connect with the different assets out there, what would your advice to them be?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: The first thing that I want you to do, if you’re a nonprofit, is I want you to think about how you’re going to tell your story and really get clear on just what is the problem you’re trying to solve and how are you solving it, and also learn to tell a quantitative story. Nonprofits love to tell qualitative stories, they love to kind of share their results in terms of anecdotes and heartwarming stories, and often will have qualitative ways of reporting their impact, and all of that is critical and essential. It’s what I would call necessary but insufficient.
FRANK BLAKE: Right.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Donors speak typically the language of quantitative results, because that’s what they’re used to in their day-to-day jobs. A story or anecdote will go far with them, and they might even give some money, but if you can start telling a quantitative story they’re going to stick with you, they’re going to trust you. Their understanding of you is going to grow. They’re just going to, you’re going to build a bridge to them in terms of speaking more of their language.
I learned this honestly working for Chuck Schwab. I would come in to report on our portfolios of grant investments, and all he wanted was numbers. I realized, I’m like, okay he cares about the anecdotes, he likes the heartwarming stories, but I’ve got to lead with the numbers. I’ve got to be able to report to him very clearly, from a quantitative perspective, what is being accomplished. That doesn’t tell the full story, so I also have to make sure that we as a philanthropy are also taking into consideration the qualitative data. It was a both and, but nonprofits typically don’t do a good enough job of the quantitative side and need to invest more in that part of the story. Then go out to the donors that you have and share that story and ask them for feedback. Ask them to help you make it better.
FRANK BLAKE: That is just brilliant advice. That is fantastic. Final question. What’s been the most fun? In this job, and it’s hard, you’ve got a lot of, I assume you’re interacting with a lot of folks with a big ego who have got pretty good ideas of what they want to do. Underneath it though there’s something really fun, what’s-
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: What is so fun is when you help a donor who has just encountered a lot of difficulties where you get to the point where you’ve channeled all their energy and passion, their values, found an issue they care about, found some incredible nonprofits and portfolios of nonprofits that they can fund and make a material difference with, and where you see them beginning to experience the joy of giving. Fear, which is a huge un-discussed part of philanthropy, many philanthropists live with a huge amount of fear, I know this because I’ve done all kinds of research on the inner lives of donors. Their number one issue is fear.
FRANK BLAKE: Fear of being taken advantage of? Fear of what?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Fear of failure, Frank. These are incredibly successful people. They do not want to fail. Once you begin to show them their successes and show them the path to success, and they begin to just see the impact that’s unfolding, there’s just a lot of joy that comes. It’s kind of that sober joy, because we’re working on hard issues and we have to keep moving and keep going, and so there’s a sober joy with like, wow, I’m starting to figure this out and it’s something tremendous is happening. When I see those planning meetings turn into that kind of result, it’s just really exciting. When we help a philanthropist set a goal to spend out a very specific amount of dollars and to do that really impactfully, and they meet that goal, that’s a pretty big day. It’s a really great feeling.
FRANK BLAKE: Very cool. At the start you gave some crazy good turns that impacted your life. Is there someone that you’d call out that you’d just say, “Wow, this one’s a crazy good turn someone did for me.”
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: In high school, I got invited to a zero period class that was being introduced into my public high school with 3800 kids. An extraordinary history and social studies teacher named Ken Ammann, who’s still a dear friend of mine, was creating a Model United Nations program at our school. I got to help start that program. I had to arrive every morning at 6:30 to do that. That program helped me know that I could read, write, argue, speak, present, improvise. I got to travel to cities all over the country that I had never been to, get exposed to kids’ issues, represent countries, argue things from all points of view, depending on the country that I had to represent. That was a game changing experience for me, and I use those skills every day in my work. I think it’s been really key to driving the impact I’ve had in my life. That was a crazy good turn. I have so many, Frank, I could go on and on. We could just do an interview about my crazy good turns.
FRANK BLAKE: That is a wonderful one. That is phenomenal. Alexa, this has been just so outstanding. Such great advice and so many insights. When people are listening and say, “Boy, I’d like to learn more about Alexa.” Where should they go?
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Well, we’re launching a new website in January, and we have a current one that has all of our research and writing on it. It’s at openimpact.io. The name of my firm, dot io. There’s an insights page where you can read all the things we’re writing about.
FRANK BLAKE: Which, by the way, I have looked at, and is spectacular.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Thank you, and it’s going to be even better in 2022. That’s a way to find me. You can also sign up for our firm newsletter there, where we share insights that the firm is discovering. We relay cool things going on in our work and share what we’re learning.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s spectacular. Thank you, Alexa, this has been a great pleasure and I know everybody’s really enjoyed listening to this. I know I’ve learned so much. Thank you very much for your time.
ALEXA CORTES-CULWELL: Thank you for doing it. It’s a great idea.
There is no deed too great or too small. Know somebody (or a group of somebodies) doing something amazing for somebody else? Tell us here and we’ll help spread the word.