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Franci Neely is a Retired Corporate Attorney and Philanthropist

Franci Neely is a retired corporate attorney and philanthropist in Houston, Texas. Neely’s career in corporate law spanned more than 20 years, during which she worked her way up to partnership with the Gusman Godfrey, L.L.P. law firm. The office has locations in major cities throughout the United States, but Neely worked primarily from the Houston office.

Since retiring, Franci Neely has focused her philanthropy efforts primarily on arts and culture initiatives. She helped establish the Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCSA), and she’s directly involved with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. At the museum, she works with two subcommittees that eek to increase the visibility of Islamic works. Neely is also a board member of Moody Center for the Arts (MCA) and the Menil Foundation. She enjoys travel when not volunteering for these organizations. Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you started your foundation? I’m a recovering trial lawyer, having practiced at one of the best litigation boutiques in the country. I wanted to be an actor, but I also wanted to support myself financially. I chose to perform in court. I retired relatively early to spend more time on philanthropy and in pursuit of my goal to visit every country in the world, my camera always at hand. I’ve explored about 190 countries so far, and I’m still on the road and in the air. After I retired from law practice, I formed my foundation to continue what I’d been doing before: supporting the performing, literary and visual arts. What are some of the projects you are working on right now for the Franci Neely Foundation? I was one of the founders of the Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCAS) which, among other things, produces a film festival in Houston every November which features films by and about the arts. It also showcases films made by Texans and includes a short film competition called Cinespace in collaboration with NASA. Rick Linklater is a great friend of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and has judged the Cinespace competition every year since its inception. My foundation has also supported the film, photography, and Islamic arts departments of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Two years ago my foundation created scholarships in the name of Roger Horchow for young musicians in Nucleo London’s social action program. What is an average day like running the Franci Neely Foundation? I’m fortunate to have skilled financial advisors who maintain the books and records of my foundation. They keep track of my contributions to the various nonprofits I support with special attention to those I support annually. I review those records periodically with an eye to keeping within budgeted annual distributions and to help me decide what level of contributions to make to maximize their impact. I also need to review with the nonprofits I support their own reporting to determine if donated funds are in fact making a difference. There must be success metrics which require periodic checks.

What are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful philanthropist and why? Discipline, vision, and compassion. There are myriad causes worthy of support. A philanthropist needs to develop a clear mission statement and abide by it. That requires discipline. Verifying the impact of one’s giving also requires discipline. Giving without verification too often leads to giving without impact. The best philanthropists help those he or she support to develop new and better means of reaching more people. That requires vision and imagination. It also inspires those to whom one gives. My idea of a exemplary philanthropist is a person who gives not to gain recognition but out of the spirit of selfless compassion. How many nonprofits do you currently support, and when do you consider your foundation a success? I principally support nonprofits in the visual, literary and performing arts communities with my main focus on eight in Houston, New York City, and Nantucket. I also have supported a nonprofit called African Ceremonies founded by my wonderful friends and photographers Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith. For decades Angela and Carol have traveled throughout the Africa continent photographing its people, rituals and ceremonies. They have created 17 beautiful books of photography and an encyclopedic online archive. I’ve been fortunate to travel with Angela and Carol in Cairo and Somaliland, the northern part of Chad and Lamu. I consider my giving successful when I see a child admire a painting or drawing or photograph I’ve underwritten, or read a letter from a young cellist in London who has received a scholarship I’ve helped make possible, or listened to a new musical work by a promising composer that I’ve helped fund. If I help beauty reach others, I count that success. What were the top three mistakes you made starting your business, and what did you learn from them?

  • I began making philanthropic contributions without an overarching plan or budget. That’s unwise. Establish a budget and a clear mission statement and faithfully review.

  • My philanthropic giving was at first overly reactive rather than proactive. There are many worthy causes and bright shiny objects. Make your giving reflect your own philanthropic mission rather than someone else’s.

  • Initially, my giving was too little to too many. I soon realize that more substantial gifts to fewer typically has more real impact.

What was the best advice you ever received, and who gave you this advice? The man who formed the law firm at which I worked for about 20 years was Steve Susman, a lion of a litigator and ferocious family man. One of the bedrock principles on which he founded his firm was to hire the best and brightest, to surround himself with excellence. Too many people fear competition or differences of opinion, leading them to gravitate to those who will say “yes” or “how high should I jump.” Steve liked to be challenged, and he wanted challenging people around him. I follow his example in my professional and personal life. Say I was starting my own version of the Franci Neely Foundation, what advice do you have for me? Develop a clear mission statement, one that inspires you and that, ideally, will inspire those to whom you give. Make sure that you understand at the outset what you are trying to accomplish with your gift; ask the intended recipient for its metrics of success; and monitor the impact of your gift against those metrics on a periodic basis. What is your definition of success? I’ve tried to answer that in my response to question 5 above – “How many nonprofits do you currently support, and when do you consider your foundation a success?”. I want to reach hearts and minds and foster a spirit of understanding, tolerance and community. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently? I might go to the Hague and prosecute crimes of genocide, against humanity, or of war. I am a warrior by spirit, trying to right what I perceive as wrongs, even when it would be more comfortable for me to keep silent. I cannot stand silent in the face of what I perceive as injustice. What is your favorite philanthropy quote: One of my favorite quotations about giving is by Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill How can our community get in touch with you? Please connect with me directly at Franci Neely website. Full interview:


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