High Impact Philanthropy: Meg Daly Of The Underline On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine

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Be Passionate — Passion is the fire in your belly, the deep belief in your impact and the voice that ignites change. Passion, not education, will be the definition of your legacy.

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 Meg Daly.

Meg Daly is a full-time volunteer Founder and President of Friends of The Underline, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization leading the initiative to transform the under-utilized land below Miami’s Metrorail into a 120-acre linear park, urban trail and public art destination spanning 10-miles in the urban core (www.theunderline.org).

A 30-year sales and marketing veteran, Meg owned First Media Direct, a target marketing company serving the broadcast television industry. She held executive marketing and management positions in the public relations, advertising, technology, and real estate industries. Meg has a BA in English from Vanderbilt University and has served on numerous philanthropic boards.

Meg also serves as Chair of The Underline Conservancy, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization responsible for the maintenance, management and programming of The Underline as a world-class trail and park facility. She is a member of the Citizen’s Independent Transportation Trust (CITT), Orange Bowl Committee, MRED+U (Master of Real Estate Development + Urbanism) Advisory Board and HEAT.HELP.CURE Advisory Council.

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?

In 2014, I had a bike accident and broke both of my arms. I was unable to drive the 4-mile distance to physical therapy for two months. I decided to take the Metrorail, Miami’s above ground train, and then walk below the tracks to get to treatment. It was a hot summer day, and while walking in the shade of the train tracks, I noticed it was 10 degrees cooler. I had driven past this forgotten, desolate stretch of land below Metrorail for years. But while walking, slowing down and taking in the space, I now saw opportunity, rather than blight. I had an “aha” moment and thought, “What if all this land could be turned into a 10-mile linear park, trail and community destination?”

How did this moment shape my life? A. I had no qualifications or expertise to lead a project of this scope, scale or cost; B. I was a for profit entrepreneur, with no experience leading a non-profit organization or collaborating with the government and public sector; C. I was retired but somehow felt I had “something big left in me.”

Since this transformational “aha” moment, I have assembled over $140 million in public funds for construction and raised millions privately to support our small non-profit organization, public art and free community programs. I have a new sense of purpose and community perspective. I have been hurled into public life and am honored to have earned the trust and respect from those who believe in me, this vision and have entrusted me as a leader of this transformative project.

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.

A. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. From asking for money — ranging from small amounts to multi-million dollar donations to project managing design and construction, to overseeing a team of paid employees and army of volunteers, I have been forced to be comfortable with being uncomfortable every single day for 8 years. What has this taught me? I don’t have all the answers, and I need to ask others for help. Getting help is the first step in building grassroots support and creating a movement.

B. Embrace imperfections, and learn from them. Accept my mistakes, learn from others’ mistakes, and try to not make the same mistakes twice … though if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there will always be plenty of opportunities to make new mistakes.

C. Be willing to evolve as a leader. Being a leader at a company in the 1990s looks very different from leading one today. Now more than ever, it’s important that leaders focus on creating a culture rooted in transparency, work/life balance, and employee mental,and physical health. Embracing that evolution as a leader has been one of the most surprising and rewarding things I have had to do.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

There are so many committed public servants in the political, civic, and governmental spheres, despite what you read or hear. They are good people doing good work, and they truly have the power to positively impact the lives of their constituents.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Our project is creating a 10-mile linear park and trail transforming dead space below our Metrorail (elevated train) into a vibrant public park, trail, art and community programming destination.

Our greatest social impact is giving 120 acres of public space back to the many communities that border the park’s corridor.

A) Mental Health — One daily visitor who walks her dog along the park says that being on The Underline and connecting to nature in the heart of downtown has helped heal from her mother’s suicide. Without access to The Underline, she would feel trapped in her apartment.

B) Physical fitness — An artist who lives right next to The Underline was inspired to begin riding his bike. He now bikes everyday and has reported losing 30 pounds.

C) Entrepreneurship — 18 pop-up businesses have started on The Underline: 10 minority owned businesses started their pop up operations during the holidays with the support of Bank of America, Florida International University, and The Underline. And 8 high school students from underserved communities started the business of their dreams during the summer of 2020 with support from the Children’s Trust, Miami Dade College and The Underline. One student said the experience changed his life and now believes he is worthy of attending college.

D) Exploration — Kids from Big Brothers Big Sisters Miami visit The Underline for “Basketball and Butterflies” — free basketball clinics with Jr. HEAT in our outdoor gym followed by a tour of Underline butterfly gardens.

E) Education — From free STEAM classes to hands-on art and music classes, The Underline has exposed thousands of children from all corners of the County to cultural and STEM programs.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

I love parks and believe they are the green soul of the city. When I think of great cities, I think of their great parks.

The existing Metrorail, like many highways, slashed through neighborhoods and physically divided communities. The Underline park below the Metrorail now knits those communities back together with safe places to walk and bike, pause and be with nature, or get to know a neighbor while walking your dog or taking a Yoga class.

I have been a full time volunteer leading this initiative for 8 years. One day, people will forget that I led this transformative initiative, because they will create their own enduring memories and civic pride from being part of it.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

This note is from a father of one of The Underline’s daily visitors:

“We are from Wilmington NC. My daughter moved to South Floridaafter college 3 ½ years ago and to Miami earlier this year. She lives in the Neo Vertika building and enjoys the Underline daily. She has a little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (Lana) that she walks. I am very proud of her. She lost her mother to suicide in April and has been actively addressing her feelings of grief. I know walking the green space of the Underline helps with that process. She plays cello in a local orchestra and has a concert in February. I hope to take my mother and see her then — and walk the Underline. This really is a fantastic project!”

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?

A) See the opportunity.

B) Create a vision and understand your mission.

C) Be fierce in defending that vision and advancing your mission.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Governance — When I thought up the idea of The Underline, I asked my dad for help in creating the non-profit that would be the project’s “friend.” As the founder of Miami’s performing art center, attorney and philanthropist, he understood the governance and created the framework of the two non-profits I lead: Friends of The Underline and The Underline Conservancy (Underline Management Organization.) I could have paid a lot of money to get help setting up this framework, but he stepped in with his non-profit experience and legal skills and created a rock solid governance foundation.
  2. Early Private Donors — Starting a non-profit with just elbow grease is simply not enough. Unlike a for-profit organization with eventual returns on investment, non-profits generate minimal revenue and depend on philanthropy. Many of our sister projects around the country and world, started up with large philanthropic gifts. We didn’t, which has made our road to success even more difficult as a start up non-profit.
  3. Clear Vision — As many non-profit leaders understand, it is easy to have “mission bleed”, where non-profits attempt to do work that is not part of their mission in order to raise private dollars. Without a clear vision, the leader will be pulled in so many directions and distracted that the core work won’t be accomplished.
  4. Be Inclusive — Make sure that your mission and vision benefit the many, not the few.
  5. Be Passionate — Passion is the fire in your belly, the deep belief in your impact and the voice that ignites change. Passion, not education, will be the definition of your legacy.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

As an outdoor public space, people flocked to The Underline during the pandemic when we opened “the outdoors were the new indoors.” However, our many, many programs had to be tailored to ensure safe conditions for participants, with maximum attendees, social distancing, hand sanitizer on site, and mask requirements. This extra level of protection for guests increased our cost, while also reducing our impact with less attendees. The first order of business was to let our grantors know that we had to make these adjustments for Covid, so they could likewise adjust their goals for our benchmarks of success. They were all very understanding, as you’d hope.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Great question since I have the same formula each time:

1. Call one of my trusted advisors/friends who allow me to vent, then tell me to “get back on the horse.”

2. Never lose focus. If you allow a setback to become a crisis or a tragic event, the setback event will be more than a setback, it will debilitate you to desperation and likely failure. I am very serious about this.

3. Have many balls in the air at the same time, that way the one setback will be diminished by many other opportunities.

4. Always be moving forward, whether small or large steps, forward motion will always keep you motivated.

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. :-)

Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He understands investment and philanthropy, city building, leadership and innovation — all core values that have been central to the success of our large project. Additionally — even though she is not alive, I would have loved to have known Jane Jacobs, because she knew how to lead and revive cities, with a focus on creating an equitable fabric of communities.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Our website: theunderline.org and via social media @theunderlinemia. Thank you!

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.

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