An Interview with Reginald Van Lee: Expanding the Traditional Model of Philanthropy

On the home page of the website of Reggie Van Lee is his favorite quote: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you understand why.” A renowned philanthropist and a tireless arts advocate, who also donates his time and expertise to nonprofit organizations, today Reggie is a living example of the “why.”

I have known Reggie for more than 25 years, and he has not only consistently demonstrated a commitment to service, but also has been a vocal arts champion and generous benefactor. Reggie believes everyone can give something—money or time—no matter how small or large the contribution.

A graduate of both MIT and Harvard, and a retired Executive Vice President of the global management and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, his efforts have been recognized by New York University’s C. Walter Nichols Award for outstanding community service; the Abyssinian Development Corporation Renaissance Award for his long-time and faithful commitment to the Harlem community, and the Percy E. Sutton Civic Leadership Award from the Apollo Theater Foundation. He also was appointed by former U.S. President Barack Obama to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

On March 11th, Reggie will be honored for his philanthropic work at the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) 2019 Gala, along with legendary and iconic clothing and costume designer Bob Mackie and famed choreographer/director/producer Graciela Daniele. Most people know TDF, Inc., because of the discount ticket booths—TKTS— it operates in New York to offer same-day discounts to Broadway/Off-Broadway theater and dance performances. TDF also is a not-for-profit service organization with the mission of making the performing arts accessible to more people. Among its many endeavors is a program to introduce N.Y. public school children to theater; a program to make it possible for people with mobility, vision or hearing issues to attend performances; a program for children or adults on the autism spectrum to attend special performances, and it supports training and development for theater programs around the country.

With New York’s philanthropic spotlight shining this month on Reggie, I thought this would be the perfect time for Arts & Culture Connection to interview him about his model of philanthropy and the impact it is having in the community.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts?

 Reggie Van Lee: It really began with my work with Dance Theatre of Harlem. I got involved with trying to get more people into the theater so that the audiences would reflect both the community and artists on stage. In the absence of asking directly for money, I thought about targeting affinity groups for people of color, including fraternities and sororities, and offering group rates to make attending the performance more affordable. The incentive was to make it a social event, which led to getting more people into the theater. This took time and energy, but not much money; it was a low-cost event. Then I thought if we could get people to subsidize the cost of the tickets in order to get target groups into the theater, from a financial standpoint we would accomplish the goal of audience development, while adding accessibility to the arts. Getting audiences engaged is about making the performing arts more accessible for these target populations.

Donna: How did you become involved with philanthropy?

Reggie: It started out as a non-financial contribution and became a financial contribution. I have been interested in the arts and have volunteered in small ways.  My first real substantial effort was joining a young professional group to support DTH. Since then, I find most major non-profit organizations have established young professional groups, which plant and nurture the seeds of philanthropy. When the participants become older and they’ve advanced in their careers, they can contribute more or be asked to join the Board of Directors.

Donna: What does that mean to you and how can more people of color become involved in arts philanthropy?

Reggie: People often ask me, “What should I do? I want to become more philanthropic.” My strategy is to first decide what am I passionate about. Then I decide what I can give. I review my skills, as well think about what the organization needs in terms of building and sustaining infrastructure.

I tell people to find an organization they are passionate about; not the “hot project” that everyone else is claiming, but an opportunity for their involvement to be genuine. Many non-profits have gloomy moments—the budget is stretched thin, they have management issues or other challenges. If you don’t have a passion for the organization’s mission, you won’t be able to sustain your interest during those difficult periods.

Secondly, we know all non-profits need money. However, sometimes what they need even more are the skills that will help their operations become stronger or more efficient. In other words, money is not always enough to tackle the challenges at hand. I believe there are skills and other resources we can all bring to an arts organization. For example, as a management consultant, I had business acumen. I knew how to make an enterprise grow and how to make it profitable, and I brought those insights to the non-profits with which I worked.

Oftentimes, capacity-building is what organizations need the most. Ideally, you want to combine business acumen and insight on sustainability with funding that allows the organization to expand its staff; funding for the development of a new production or dance, or funding that allows the non-profit to offer discount tickets. This combined effect results in an organization not only having financial stability, but also having a sustained operating model, and that enhances the organization’s ability to grow and prosper.

Of course, there are many ways to contribute: Get on the phone and call potential donors; promote upcoming performances, or coordinate the offering of discount tickets. You can still make a big impact, even if you can’t give money.

Donna: Where did you see you could have an impact in the providing financial resources primarily to arts organizations of color?

 Reggie: After DTH, I became involved with other arts organizations including Studio Museum in Harlem, Abyssinian Development Corporation, Evidence Dance Company, NY International Ballet Competition, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Apollo Theater, among many others. When you work with an organization you can figure out their weak spots and, with the right support, help them move forward.

All organizations want help. What is important is that you as the donor of money or time speak with the right person who can give you a sense of where the nonprofit most needs help. I recommend the head of Marketing or Development. Then, you can connect to where these organizations most often have the biggest need.

I have been made aware of an organization’s issues under unique circumstances. For example, I attend a performance and I am told that they are majorly underfunded and I will ask them to contact me. Or through mutual friends, I am led to help support board development. For Evidence Dance Company, I was the chairman of its Board of Directors for 15 years. I served for three years as Board Chair at Dance Theater of Harlem for three years; Treasurer at Studio Museum in Harlem and Board Chair for eight years at Washington Performing Arts. My problem is that I can’t go to a board meeting and sit quietly. Eventually, I ask a question or offer a challenge and then I am asked to lead.

Donna: What are the challenges and how do you address them?

Reggie: From the organizational standpoint, non-profits are born of passion, which sustains them. However, as the world evolves, the interests of consumers change, or competition enters the market, they remain stuck in the old paradigm, unable to shift or adjust to the new reality. This causes problems. It can sometimes be tough to get them to understand how to continue to serve the needs of the cause, but in a different way; a way that creates new interest or opens up other opportunities.

Donna: What is missing? Why aren’t we more philanthropic?

Reggie: This is an age-old question. There are a couple of organizations that are attempting to bring African-American donors together. It is a work in progress, but no one has yet broken the code.

I also am disappointed by how we, as African-Americans, are not as philanthropic as we could be. I’m not saying we are not philanthropic—as a matter of fact, our first gift is to the church. However, the notion of giving to other organizations that are led by people who have the wherewithal to do something positive—you don’t see as much. I also see this lack of participation from people of color for volunteering or serving on Boards.

One of my other projects is National Chair of Susan Taylor’s National CARES Mentoring Movement, which set as its goal connecting African-American women and men with African-American kids to mentor and support them. When Susan first put out the call in 2006 for assistance to help the children impacted by Hurricane Katrina, white men and women were the first to respond. It’s so important that all children have love and mentoring support and I appreciate anyone who wants to mentor kids. At the same time, we know that at some point, African-American kids need mentoring from people who look like them. Susan recognized the need to create structures and networks in order to facilitate the participation by larger numbers of potential African-American mentors, and that’s how the organization got started.

It’s also important that we bring friends and others into the organizations with which we are involved. For some people, it is personal—they don’t want to appear to be the first to donate. So, those of us who donate must lead by example. I would never ask someone to contribute to an organization unless I have done it myself. If we know people with financial means or who have other resources, it’s important that we let them know why we feel it’s important to give to a specific organization and invite them to do the same.

The scope of my giving includes arts organizations, education, youth-based projects, diversity initiatives and technology. They are all connected. I am evangelizing on behalf of these organizations to move the needle, which is not unlike what we do for the church. However, we also need to do some evangelizing for arts organizations, or groups that are not religious-based.

Donna: What do you intend to accomplish through your continued generosity and how will you measure success?

Reggie: I established a small foundation to donate money to people and organizations. I do my own analysis about how much to give, to whom, and I set the metrics for giving. I don’t have a large endowment like the Mellon or Ford Foundations, but I believe my donations of time and financial support can make a difference.

For each of the gifts, I begin with a goal. For example, if the goal is audience development, then I want to see the demographic change or expansion in the way we want it to grow. If there is no change to the audience, then we didn’t achieve our goal. If the goal is not met, I have a conversation with the organization. The result could be that we may stop funding, or an intervention may be needed to get back on track. The intervention, in this case, would require that we drill down to see what happened. I try to get ahead of the situation and understand how money can or will help us achieve the goal.

We also set milestones and check in every quarter on the development of the initiatives we have funded. Sometimes I also counsel them on different initiatives to try.

Donna: Who are you mentoring to adapt your style of philanthropy?

Reggie: I have at least 30 or 40 individuals that I mentor in some form or fashion. Some are in a more traditional, professional context to advance in their careers.  The majority, however, are interested in how to be more philanthropic; how to choose which organizations to give to, and how to add value. It’s not a formal structure but the ideas of connecting with people and advising them on philanthropy is great. And it is not always people of color that I mentor.

Donna: What are your future plans for supporting arts organizations?

Reggie: I have been thinking about that. I retired two-and-a-half years ago after 32 years with Booz Allen Hamilton. Now that I have rested enough, I am interested in re-entering the work world and will see what that looks like and what that means philanthropically, as well. I am looking forward to the March 11th TDF Gala. It is my understanding that I am the first African-American they have honored and they have been around 50 years. My goal is to expose many more African-Americans to TDF and expose TDF to many more African-Americans.

One of their programs that I believe is very important is TDF’s autism-friendly performances, which are held several times throughout the year. I attended a special performance of The Lion King for children and adults on the autism spectrum. A woman seated behind me with her teenaged son recognized that I was seated with the organization’s staff and thanked me for supporting TDF. She shared how years ago she and her son were put out of a theater because he was making noise. It was clear to her that they were not wanted and didn’t belong. At that moment, I identified with her experience from the standpoint of being a Black man working in corporate America. There have been many rooms where it was clear to me that I was not welcome. It was an earth-shaking moment for me to be able to relate to this mother’s challenge and personalize the important work that TDF does on behalf of people who would not have access under any other circumstances to the performing arts.

Donna: Do you have any closing thoughts you want to share?

 Reggie: Most people have some type of resource they can contribute to the health and sustainability of an organization. Everybody can give something. All those little somethings add up to a big something. Identify what you love and make that your platform for giving.

Donna: Thank you, Reggie, for sharing this broad and holistic perspective on philanthropic giving. It is my hope that it will provide arts organizations with several new ideas they can incorporate to expand support of and access to the arts.