Mitchell Foundation seeks CEO as it transitions from family leadership

AUSTIN—The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, a grant-making organization continuing a legacy that included developing The Woodlands and pioneering technology for the shale oil and gas boom, is searching for its first non-family chief executive.

The foundation announced Wednesday that Katherine Lorenz, the Mitchells’ granddaughter, would step down once a new CEO is selected.

“If you look at most family foundations as they get bigger, they’re less likely to have family leadership on staff,” Lorenz said. “We looked to some of those foundations that are doing really amazing work, and the vast majority don’t have family leadership. I think we aspire to be peers of those.”

She said it was always the plan that Lorenz would lead the foundation during her grandfather’s final years, learning what he wanted for the foundation, and then help transition the foundation into its growth phase.

The Mitchells raised 10 children and collaborated on a wide variety of projects. Cynthia Woods Mitchell, who died in 2009, had passions that included supporting the arts, educational initiatives and humanitarian issues. George Mitchell, who died in 2013, placed one of his focuses on the economic revitalization of his hometown Galveston.

Lorenz, 40, said her grandparents left most of their wealth to philanthropy, and the vast majority of that was to go through the foundation that was incorporated in 1978. The Mitchells and their foundation have distributed or pledged about $750 million in grants.

Focus on sustainability

Lorenz has spent the past eight years understanding the intentions of her grandparents for setting up the foundation, creating programs and measurable outcomes for those programs, and then putting in place the governance and committee structures that will move the foundation forward.

Through this, the foundation has placed a focus on sustainability in Texas. It provides grant money to a variety of projects, which include enhancing progress in clean energy, promoting land conservation, protecting clean water for future generations and supporting the efforts to reduce negative environmental and community impacts of shale gas development.

The foundation also operates a 6,000-acre nature preserve, Cook’s Branch Conservancy, and supports community development work in Galveston, among other things.

Lorenz said having family leadership is beneficial for inherently knowing the family’s values. But it can also be difficult to give objective performance evaluations.

Lorenz graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina with a degree in economics and a minor in Spanish. She spent most of her 20s working in nonprofits in Latin America, and then spent her early 30s working in New York in donor education, teaching philanthropists how to be more strategic.

After the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation finds a new CEO, Lorenz expects to move to a board position. She plans to spend a few months in London, where she’s been offered a practitioner in residence position at the Marshall Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and then find a job in New York.

Texas emphasis

The foundation has hired Waldron, a San Francisco executive search firm that works with family foundations, for its nationwide search. Principal Jeff Waldron said the foundation is placing an emphasis on people in Texas or who have ties to Texas.

“The importance of Texas is two-fold,” he said. “No. 1, the family has such an incredibly deep and important history and legacy in the state of Texas. And No. 2, the foundation’s philanthropic focus is on advancing issues around sustainability in the state of Texas.”

He said the foundation is seeking someone with a collaboration mindset who is willing to work with family members on the foundation’s board.

“To bring in the professional leadership that exists out in the marketplace for people who are in the business of being CEOs for family foundations,” he said, “that can be highly transformative for a foundation’s ability to really advance its mission.”


This story appeared in the print edition of the Houston Chronicle's business section on October 3, 2019. 


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