High Impact Philanthropy: Laura Merage and Sabrina Merage Naim On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization
An Interview with Karen Mangia
…Vision: Vision requires a leader who can see the end goal, even if the reality is far from that goal. Vision also requires a leader who can communicate that end goal and bring people along for the journey.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing the mother-daughter duo Laura Merage and Sabrina Merage Naim.
Laura Merage: Laura Merage is an accomplished artist and venture philanthropist who leads initiatives that impact the lives of thousands of people every day. Laura’s generosity has made a profound impact on Denver’s Art and Culture landscape, including the 2008 launch of RedLine Contemporary Art Center, an urban art laboratory fostering education and engagement between artists and communities to create positive social change. As RedLine flourished over the last decade, Laura envisioned another dynamic nonprofit, and founded Black Cube in 2015, a nonprofit, experimental art museum that operates nomadically and aims to nurture the self-sufficiency of artists and inspire people to experience contemporary art beyond traditional white museum and gallery walls.
Sabrina Merage Naim: Sabrina Merage Naim is passionate about promoting tolerance and inclusivity between religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic communities. She founded the Sabrina Merage Foundation in 2008 with the intention of building bridges between diverse societies through educational programs for young people. Sabrina focuses much of her philanthropic efforts on uniting communities and paving the way for individuals from diverse backgrounds to connect, teach, and learn from one another. Sabrina is also the founder of Echo Capital Group, a venture capital firm focused on early stage investments in consumer product companies founded by young, driven entrepreneurs who are developing exciting concepts for the uniquely individual Millennial demographic.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Laura: I came to the United States at 15 years old from Iran, leaving my parents behind to live with my brothers in Los Angeles. When I arrived it was a complete culture shock. Despite the daunting and challenging transition, I managed to finish high school and enroll in college at the University of Southern California. In the conventional sense, I wasn’t the consummate student, however, I knew education was the key to my success. It was part of the reason why I left Iran. There, we were limited to math and the hard sciences. The humanities weren’t as readily accessible, especially for women. If I wanted to realize my potential, I had to tap into this side of academia. Thankfully, when I enrolled in art class at USC, a lightbulb went off. The discipline allowed me to express myself in ways I’d never known or experienced. I was reminded of my mother and the women in my life back home. They were smart and full of conviction, yet tragically limited by their prescribed gender roles. You could say that I realized my potential through the arts, but more importantly, I realized a responsibility to bring this experience to women and marginalized people everywhere. I founded RedLine, a community arts center for early to mid-career artists who are looking for camaraderie, mentorship, and creative collaboration, with this philosophy in mind. Not long after, I founded Black Cube, a nonprofit, experimental art museum that nurtures the self-sufficiency of artists and inspires people to discover and appreciate contemporary art beyond traditional white museum and gallery walls. RedLine and Black Cube offer community, education, inclusivity, and equity.
Sabrina: I started my career in the midst of a global recession. It was tough to find work that called on my background in business but at the same time, felt meaningful and rewarding. Through my family, I got involved in philanthropy. It opened my eyes to a universe beyond my personal experiences. It allowed me to truly think outside of myself and my individual goals to a more humanistic and universal model of living and giving. It opened my lens to the experiences of others and how I can use my privilege to make an impact and move the dial toward a more cohesive and equitable society.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Laura: The qualities that I lean on as an artist come through in my work with nonprofits. I try to be bold, creative, resourceful, and empathetic in everything I do. I also pay close attention to Sabrina’s work. Her empathy and business acumen come through in everything she does, both in the private and public sector. She’s an agile learner, yet discerning about what she feels is right and wrong. While the reverse is true for most people, as a mother, I want to lead by my daughter’s example.
Sabrina: As I began to become more philanthropically entrenched, my view of the world changed drastically. My lived experience was no longer just about me, it was through the lens of others as well. This helped me develop a sense of empathy and understanding of the complexities and multiple facets of the world around me. I was able to adopt this lens to my business and in developing my leadership skills. Additionally, investing in the growth and development of the people who work with me became paramount. I operate under the belief that rising tides lift all boats. Perseverance is also a quality that has served me well in my career and philanthropy. We so easily get sucked down by the internal and external voices that try to limit our creativity. I have found that persevering beyond those doubts open doors that were not thought possible previously.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
Laura: Both RedLine and Early Learning Ventures took nearly a decade to flourish. Today, they’re both wildly successful. RedLine is the only space of it’s kind in Denver, Colorado. It’s part of the community fabric. In many ways, it is more theirs than mine now. Early Learning Ventures now serves hundreds of thousands of families nationally. These organizations have taught me to be bold yet patient. They also taught me that sometimes all it takes is one person to move the needle, yet when we come together, the positive change we can make is immeasurable.
Sabrina: I learned quickly that most non-profits are overhead-heavy and clunky organizations. Oftentimes, they have a hard time pivoting and spending money efficiently. It became clear to me that being the partner that had business experience to lend was seen as very valuable. I wanted to merge my passion for impact investing with my business acumen to create a best of both worlds situation — non-profits that are lean, efficient, creative, and nimble.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Laura: I’m one-half of the David and Laura Merage Foundation. David and I share a tenacious, hands-on approach to philanthropy, investing our time, capital, business acumen, and problem-solving skills into scalable, sustainable social impact initiatives and policy changes across the arts, early childhood education, mental health, and Israel. Through programs like Early Learning Ventures, Mini Heroes, Care For All Children, and EPIC (Executives Partnering to Invest in Children), we champion access to quality, affordable childcare, drive policy change, and incubate organizations that ensure early learning equity. Our investments in the creative arts aim to increase public access to the arts beyond traditional gallery and museum walls. In Israel, we lead initiatives that empower individuals, from supporting lone soldiers and strengthening intergenerational ties to developing sustainable organizations.
Sabrina: As a young adult in college, I was exposed to acts of discrimination in a way I had never seen before — swastikas tagged on dormitory walls, racist propaganda in school newspapers. It blew my mind that in our progressive educational institutions, which exist in order to shape the minds of our future leaders, there was such division and “othering”. It became my passion to find ways to have more dialogue, education, and empathy across cultural, racial, religious, gender, and political divides. I want to live in a world where we can have differences and relish in those differences, not feel threatened by them.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
Laura: It’s in my nature to stare down the barrel of a protracted issue. If I see something sticky or problematic, I can’t look away. Of course, as an artist, it was easy for me to address the challenges in that industry. The same is true for our childcare initiatives.
Sabrina: More and more I see the need for my original mission. Our divisions are only growing, not diminishing. Much of my work has been multi-generational in impact. The hope that the road we lay today will create a better path for our descendants. But I became impatient and felt the threat growing more rapidly than I had anticipated, which is why I founded Evoke Media. Evoke exists in order to elevate the creative voices and stories in the media space to feel societal shifts through storytelling. We partner in film, a podcast, and other forms of media in order to tell the stories of our collective humanity, and why we need to care more about each other.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
Laura: When RedLine was just an idea, we heavily researched the neighborhood where we envisioned it would be. We found a building that happened to be at the intersection of several homeless shelters. As we walked around to survey the property, we found Gonzo. Gonzo, at the time, was homeless and living on the back steps of what would later be RedLine. We connected almost instantly. He’s an artist himself. His warmth, empathy, and creative spirit reminds me of our shared humanity, regardless of our circumstances. Today he’s on staff at RedLine. His creative talent is invaluable to our programming and his unique insight into our community keeps us anchored in our hyper-local mission.
Sabrina: Years ago, I was involved with an organization that brought high school-aged girls from Israel and Palestine to have a week-long deep-dive seminar in the mountains of Colorado. This was the first opportunity for many of these girls to sit down and meet others whom they have been taught their whole life to hate or fear. After days of breaking down these barriers and preconceived notions of each other, they realized that they are much more alike than they are different and actually became friends. The goal was to take these experiences back to their homes and become champions for change and more authentic dialogue. One alumna, a woman from the West Bank, changed her entire life trajectory because of the impact this program had on her. She grew up to become a leader in the organization on the ground and worked against many odds to champion for change. It was inspiring to witness her journey and see the tangible impact of the work being done.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
Laura: 1.Be bold yet patient. Think big when it comes to your mission, strategy, and tactics, but also be sure to see things through to the end. 2. Attack systemic inequities and inefficiencies. You can’t fix every problem or heal everyone, but you can reach millions when you smooth out systemic failures. 3. Invite disenfranchised communities to the table, center their voices, and problem-solve for the challenges they see, not the challenges you perceive
Sabrina: 1. Don’t get sucked into your social media echo chamber. What you see online is curated to validate your beliefs. Be curious, look outside of your comfort zone and be open to different experiences and points of view. 2. Support artists. Part of our work is around bridging the divides between us through art and storytelling. Artists should be celebrated for forcing us to think critically and through various lenses. They are among the few who do so in such profound and creative ways. 3. Invest in our children. When we want to see real and lasting social change, it’s often too late to do the work with adults. Children are impressionable, resilient, and curious. Start having conversations with children from an earlier age about people who are different and normalize it. Invest in children’s books that tell the stories of people who are different and show the rich tapestry of our world to the youngest amongst us. It’s never too early.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”
Laura: Ask yourself the following questions. If the answer is always yes, then you’re on the right path:
- Does the mission align with my values?
- Is there a strong leader at the helm?
- Will the project survive financially, becoming sustainable in the long term?
- Can the project scale?
- Is there a material need for the service being provided?
Sabrina: 1. People who buy-in to the mission: non-profit work can often be thankless no matter what side of the table you’re sitting on. I have experienced what it’s like to do this work with people who are there to collect a paycheck and they often don’t last long. Contrarily, the people who fully buy-in to the mission will make sacrifices above and beyond to see that impact in action.
2. Focus your efforts: this is an area of particular difficulty for me. Many caring philanthropists get pulled in different directions because they simply care so damn much. But focusing efforts and funds in certain areas maximizes impact.
3. Find your value niche: In addition to focus, finding your niche is about figuring out where you and your organization can provide real and tangible value. This changes based on your organization’s core competencies and how those may be able to be leveraged.
4. Vision: Vision requires a leader who can see the end goal, even if the reality is far from that goal. Vision also requires a leader who can communicate that end goal and bring people along for the journey.
5. A community: It is highly underestimated the value of having a strong network to build your vision and organization alongside. These are people who will elevate your work, challenge you in the best way, and expand your horizons in order to get there faster. That comes in the form of people you may already know or people you have yet to meet but the message is the same, invest in relationships that are net net positive.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
Laura: For better or worse, the pandemic didn’t change my definition of success, but it did encourage us to be more agile and respond to crises rapidly. It also reminded me of the importance of healthy, happy, and prosperous communities, which are driven by innovation and sustained investment. As the global pandemic wages on, our programs continue to be lifelines to communities in need. And for that reason, we’re staying the course.
Sabrina: The pandemic accelerated the need and timeline of much of the work we’ve been doing for so long. It appears the pendulum has swung between extremes and those extremes have widened during this time. We needed to double down, refocus our efforts, challenge our strategy and have raw and candid conversations with our partners to make sure we were headed in the right direction and focusing on the most pressing issues. We are even more intent than ever that our dollars must be tracked directly to helping people and tangible impact. Pouring money and resources into blackhole organizations is a waste for all involved.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
Laura: A setback is an opportunity to stop and recalibrate. I’ve made mistakes at every stage of my career, both as a venture philanthropist and as an artist. In those moments of disappointment and even sorrow, I try to remember that I’ve confronted failure before and in many cases, moved on wiser, stronger, and more equipped for potential pitfalls ahead. I also think of the example I may be setting for Sabrina. She’s remarkably resilient herself. I want my legacy to reflect the grit and tenacity I see in her.
Sabrina: For every setback, I hear many more stories that inspire me. These are the everyday stories of people who are creating community, people who are bridging divides, people who are helping strangers, people who are extending themselves in different ways for their fellow humans. I can deal with setbacks. What I wouldn’t be able to handle is the lack of abundance of good that exists in our world contrary to what we hear and see on a daily basis.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Laura: I’d love to sit down with Madeleine Albright. I want to ask her how we move forward when forces are pulling us backward. I’d also appreciate her advice on how to speak up and be heard in room with the opposition without being divisive or loosing sight of your core beliefs.
Sabrina: Recently, Glennon Doyle has been a source of inspiration for me. She is speaking a new language to a generation of individuals who have been overworked, overstimulated, and energy drained. She tells us that living our most authentic lives does not need to mean being “on” all the time. We need to be kinder to ourselves, allow for downtime, flubs, and quiet in order for our inner voice to be heard over all the external noise of the world. I would love to sit down with her and explore the ways in which we can create a future for upcoming generations where authentic living overlaps with impact investing and philanthropy.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Laura: https://merage.org/about-us/david-laura-merage-foundation/, https://www.RedLineart.org/, https://blackcube.art/
Sabrina: weareevokemedia.com, sabrinameragefoundation.com, @breakingglasspod on Instagram
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.