Q&A with Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

Almost two years ago, Katherine Lorenz took the reins of The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, becoming the third generation of family members to lead and carry on the passion of its founders — her grandparents.

The foundation, which focuses on sustainability, funds high-impact projects in Texas such as those related to clean energy, natural gas sustainability and water. To date, the foundation has distributed more than $100 million in grants, and George and Cynthia Mitchell have personally donated in excess of $400 million to causes. George Mitchell, who pioneered natural gas shale drilling, signed The Giving Pledge last year, committing that the majority of his wealth would be donated to charity.

Lorenz was deputy director for the Institute for Philanthropy before being elected president of her family’s foundation. She co-founded the nonprofit Puente a la Salud Comunitaria in Mexico to help eradicate malnutrition and advance food sovereignty in rural Oaxaca and is very active as a board member. She is also on the boards of the Institute for Philanthropy, the Endowment for Regional Sustainability Science and the Amaranth Institute.

She took some time from her busy schedule to talk to the Houston Business Journal about the challenges, misconceptions and obstacles of running her family’s foundation.  

What’s the biggest misconception about philanthropy?

That it’s easy to do. In reality, it is essential that philanthropists be educated or seek advice from true experts in the field in order to create lasting change in the issues they care about.

Did you have an epiphany moment when you realized this is what you were meant to do?

I have had several. When I studied abroad in Chile during college, I realized that I had a passion for the developing world and wanted to pursue a career in development issues. I was particularly taken with rural health issues, which led me to spend a summer in Nicaragua and later to co-found (Puente a la Salud Comunitaria). I also took a course called The Philanthropy Workshop. During that course, I realized that the area in which I could have the most impact was working with other families and other philanthropists to help them achieve more impact in their grant-making.

What’s the toughest lesson you’ve learned?

That good intentions aren’t enough. I arrived in rural Latin America believing that I would teach these communities how to improve their lives; in reality, I think they taught me more than I taught them. It made me realize that, in philanthropy, listening will usually get you a lot further than telling.

What’s the biggest challenge you face going forward?

Balancing the many passions of my many family members who are involved in our foundation with the goal of having an impact in the issue areas my grandparents care about most. I am committed to making sure that my whole family is able to stay excited and engaged in our work without losing the focus of keeping my grandparents’ legacy alive. Family foundations can be an amazing opportunity to bring the family together over shared passions and values, but they can also be a place where family discord plays out around the boardroom table.

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