Katherine Lorenz named one of world's prominent philanthropists

When Katherine Lorenz started her own nonprofit in Oaxaca, Mexico at the age of 24, she was not a stranger to philanthropy. Her grandparents -- Cynthia and George Mitchell -- instilled philanthropy in her blood. That did not, however, mean her nonprofit work came easy. 

"Creating an institution that has the capacity of having a positive impact on society is difficult," Lorenz said. "There's so much more to it than just figuring out funding and creating a budget and sticking to it." 

Now, as president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, she's responsible for her grandparents' vision of making the world a better place through sustainability. Lorenz was recognized in "Philanthropic Lives," a book by JPMorgan's Philanthropy Centre, as one of the world's most prominent and inspiring philanthropists. 

"I'm always happy to share my story personally and our story of the foundation," she said. "I think there's no better way to learn how to do philanthropy than from peers."

HBJ: What does it mean to you to be recognized as one of the world's most philanthropic individuals? It's a huge honor. There are so many people doing amazing work around the world -- even just here in Houston -- so to be highlighted for the work that we're doing is a big honor. A big part of what we do at the Mitchell Foundation is to honor my grandparents, so I think it's really important to help raise that legacy and help showcase the work that we're doing. 

HBJ: What do you think of Houston's philanthropy scene, and how has it changed over the years? Houston has a dynamic philanthropic sector. I've seen it recognized as having some of the best nonprofits in the country. Obviously, the economic boom that has happened in recent years has helped increase the amount of philanthropic capital available. You can see that both in the way the economy has been successful, as well as in the generosity of the people of Houston, which has helped the nonprofit sector respond to the needs of the community. 

I think across the world the new generations are coming on board and taking lead of foundations. As that happens, there are shifts in what people are interested in funding, shifts in how people are funding, people are being more involved in funding -- not just writing big checks. 

HBJ: How has the industry changed nationwide? Generations before, it was very much “make your money, and then give it away.” What you see now is more companies making their money in a socially responsible way or bringing these social values into their business -- doing well by doing good.

HBJ: What's something you learned from starting your own nonprofit in Mexico? It's a lot harder than you think. There are many people, definitely me included, who thought, "Oh, I see a problem. I'll start a nonprofit." The reality of doing that is a really big deal and huge undertaking. 

The biggest issue is that changing the world is really hard. Whatever you're trying to change, whether it's people's behavior or systems, if it were easy to do it, it would have been done already. 

HBJ: How is leading the Mitchell Foundation different? With a foundation, it's easier and harder because we are giving away funding to the nonprofits that are making the difference. I look at it as all of our partners are the ones having a direct impact. But, I know we are making an impact because there are very few foundations funding these organizations and without that funding they wouldn't be able to do all that they do. 

HBJ: What is a goal you've yet to achieve? I think in Texas, our foundation has the ability to influence how philanthropy is done. I would love to see us be more active in engaging other donors throughout Texas to work together more effectively. In a sense, I think we have the capacity in the next five to 10 years to come together with other funders to move the needle more. It's easy for other donors to be in their own silo and do their own work, and I think it's our responsibility to engage others so that we have a more robust, aligned and integrative philanthropic sector in Texas.

HBJ: How do you balance all the family members' footprints on the foundation? Within any group that's making a decision, there are voices that are louder and voices that are quieter. The challenge is to balance those in the background who are passionate but aren't as vocal with those who are vocal but aren't necessarily representative of the whole. When it does work and everyone has an equal voice, it's really fulfilling to see where that takes us.

HBJ: What's a misconception people might have of you or your family? I used to joke with my grandfather that he was always the more famous one until he built the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion because then she became much more famous and no one knew who he was. And when I say, "Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation" people will say, "On, like the pavilion?" 

It's kind of interesting when you name something big or common after somebody, it takes on a life of its own. The Pavilion is an example of that and it's something we are very proud of, but fewer people know what my grandfather is known for nationally. His work in oil and gas and innovating in that sector is where he's had more of an impact in the world. In the Houston areas, he's much more known for The Woodlands. I find that interesting. 

HBJ: What's the most important lesson you learned from your grandfather? My grandfather was a true visionary in every sense of the word. Until the day he died, he was still taking about what the world was going to be in 80 or 100 years out even while knowing he wasn't going to be a part of it. His ability to always think into the future and think, "What are the possibilities?" and not "What are the barriers?" I hope to apply that same visionary spirit to the foundation. 

HBJ: What would you say have been the biggest changes for The Woodlands? In all his accomplishments in life, my grandfather was most proud of The Woodlands. He spent so much time planning and thinking and loving it, and he really poured his soul into it. So, to see that dream that he founded over 40 years ago alive -- and thriving -- many years beyond his lifetime is special. The world's changed a lot in the past 40 years, but what people look for in a place to live hasn't changed.

I think it will continue to grow and evolve as a city and continue to maintain its values. It'll continue toward urban living -- tall buildings and more condos -- while still staying true to its foundation. It will continue to thrive. 

HBJ: What would be your advice to someone starting a nonprofit? Many people create nonprofits for many noble reasons. They have a desire to give back, and their hearts are in the right places. They see a need and they want to respond to it. Many of them don't quite understand what they are getting into, however. Certainly, I didn't know what I was getting into. So, every time someone comes to me and tells me they want to start a nonprofit, I say don't do it. 

Of course, I did it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. But I think the first thing I would say is to understand your motivation. For example, when someone loses a family member and they're in a state of grief, they want to start a nonprofit because they want to honor that person. It starts out as a way for them to handle their grief, but then years down the road, it becomes a way for them to hang on to that grief. So, if someone comes with that reason, I encourage him or her to find an existing nonprofit to contribute to. Once they understand why, I would ask them if starting a nonprofit is the right answer to that problem. It's a lifelong endeavor. So, I would ask them if they are committed to doing this for at least five to 10 years. Then, if after that they still want to do it, I would tell them to do everything to learn about the issues and how to start a nonprofit. There are courses and resources out there, so I would tell them to learn rather than reinvent the wheel, saving a ton of time and effort. 

HBJ: What are your next steps with the foundation? We're in a transitional phase since my grandfather passed away, so we are doing some serious planning for the future. We do anticipate growing in the next few years. We'll be launching a program in Galveston. That's something on the horizon. The other area we are excited about right now is Cook's Branch Conservancy, which is a nature conservancy in north Houston that we run. During the next year, we are focusing on how to best leverage that land to have more of an impact on land conservation. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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