November 16, 2020

Six Reflections with Brad Dickson

Board Chair: Community Foundation of Utah

Founder: B-Rad Industries

Retired: CMO Emeritus, The Dresser-Rand Company

What life experiences shaped where, how and why you give? 

At least three things shaped my giving. I grew up in the Midwest, largely outdoors, camping with my family, backpacking in college, hiking our national parks, and just being attracted to our Utah mountain life. All those experiences have me committed to conservation, land preservation and actions I can support in my backyard of Summit County and Utah.

Second, being a frustrated, albeit enthusiastic, athlete throughout my adolescence (apparently, I wasn’t a high achiever in sport,) I find myself supporting organizations like the University of the Utah Crimson Club, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and a number of other winter Olympics national teams more broadly.  

Finally, my career in energy services for almost 4 decades educated me on the consequences of climate change, which has led me to focus on numerous climate actions and funds as a focus area for my impact investing.

You are highly focused on outcomes in your philanthropy. What contributes to that? 

I believe it’s just bringing learned and successful business principles to my giving and volunteer activity. I started my career as a marketing guy and there was this perception that marketing guys were not process or outcomes-oriented. As I moved into executive leadership positions, I think I was determined to change that perception.

As my career evolved, I really rooted myself in that outcomes mentality.  Figuring out how to implement consistent, replicable and scalable business processes in 150 countries around the world will force you to do that.

In my role working with the CEO and team at the Community Foundation of Utah, we ask ourselves what success really means, and ensure all activities drive real outcomes toward that success. For example, when we look at poverty, measuring how many mouths you feed is really important but it is not an outcome that wins the war on poverty. Ending hunger is.  We like to think we approach challenges with sustainable, replicable and scalable solutions.

Your philanthropy is not only outcomes-oriented, it takes a long-term view. What informed this?

I think we all understand that societal problems cannot be solved overnight. We need to build a foundation that will raise the entire community.

I can relate this to business processes as well. If you want to build a robust business, it takes time. What many people don’t realize is that most sustainable businesses that are perceived as “overnight successes” were actually created over many years. Systemic and sustainable solutions take time.

"I think we all understand that societal problems cannot be solved overnight. We need to build a foundation that will raise the entire community.... Systemic and sustainable solutions take time."

What are your thoughts about funding operations and overhead?  

Unrestricted funding has always been important to any nonprofit organization’s mission, but the recent pandemic has highlighted its criticality.  The pandemic has most every organization shuffling its immediate priorities and having that flexibility of unrestricted funding has been key for many nonprofits to adapt and step up quickly in this time of need.  It's people that drive outcomes and, for the most part, nonprofit staff are closest to understanding the problem and providing real solutions, so providing organizations unrestricted funding really allows them the best chance of doing that.

Do you utilize impact investing as part of your philanthropic strategy?

I am so glad you asked!  I believe philanthropy should be highly intentional and action oriented. Impact investing is core to my philanthropic portfolio.  There are many challenges in the world, like decarbonizing our society, where entrepreneurs and their ideas, the innovation they can bring and technology that they can build, can often provide the sustainable, replicable and scalable solutions that can help us reduce the impact of climate change. Impact investing is seen as bringing real social return-on-investment to some of society's most difficult challenges. 

Impact investing is a new addition to my philanthropy over the last 5-7 years. Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) are an integral part of my philanthropic strategy, including one DAF at the Community Foundation of Utah.  This DAF is geared toward helping early stage social entrepreneurs de-risk their company and associated solutions. In other words, I am using tax advantaged dollars to invest in early stage social enterprises that may not otherwise get funding as it's seen as too early, too risky, or not seen as an outsized financial return. With the DAF, financial return is secondary to the compelling social purpose, but if the investment does provide a financial return, it goes back to the DAF, and we get to do it all over again! I really believe DAFs used in this manner can help facilitate the success of more social entrepreneurs, de-risk their mission, and bring more innovation to society's problems.

"I believe philanthropy should be highly intentional and action oriented."

Could you share a local nonprofit or social venture doing exceptional work that is perhaps off many donor’s radar?

There are so many social ventures doing great things across Utah!  If I think beyond those serving the Wasatch front or back, Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George comes to mind. It has an outcomes oriented leader in Carol Hollowell and they are providing innovative and practical solutions towards addressing homelessness. This year, they are helping replicate their model in Tooele.

I’m also super excited about the work of the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah.  I have the privilege of participating in the student run University Venture Fund II. The students are amazing, Jim Sorenson is the ultimate mentor in impact investing and the fund itself is led by Jeramy Lund, to whom I have learned so much and have enormous respect.