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Ideamensch Interview - Franci Neely, founder of The Franci Neely Foundation

Franci Neely is involved with many causes as a philanthropist and volunteer. Before focusing on philanthropy, Neely had a long and successful career in law.

Franci Neely was a partner at Susman Godfrey, L.L.P. before retiring from actively practicing law. Her career in business litigation spanned more than two decades, and featured many successful negotiations.

Since retiring, Franci Neely has spent much of her time working with various nonprofit organizations. She’s on the board of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and serves as Co-Chair for the museum’s Art of Islamic Worlds and Film of Islamic Worlds subcommittees.

Neely is also on the boards of Moody Center for the Arts, and the Baker Institute of Public Policy. She helped found the Houston Cinema Arts Society, and also is involved with leadership decisions at The Menil Foundation. Many of these organizations she has likewise made financial contributions to.

Franci Neely lives in Houston, Texas but has strong wanderlust. She’s traveled to over 180 countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, India, Morocco and Cuba, as well as many others. She enjoys photography while traveling, and hopes to see every country with camera in hand.

Neely graduated from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law, earning high honors.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I get up before dawn, Corsickle coffee mug in hand, and plan my day. My better self includes on my “to do” list reaching out to at least one person who is in need and tackling one project that I might otherwise avoid. I want to be proactive and not merely reactive.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Don’t procrastinate! Steve Susman was the named partner of Susman Godfrey, the law firm at which I was a partner for about 20 years. His advice was to give birth to high quality work product but not to await perfection. Good intentions do not effect change.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Living in the time of pandemic taught us a great deal. The arts community learned how to reach broader and more diverse audiences through streamed performances and curated tours and lectures. Those will continue even as we again experience the electricity of live performances and up close views of original works of art.

What advice would you give your younger self?

As I’ve “matured,” I have become more proactive and less reactive. For example, when I am pondering philanthropic contributions, I ask myself if the funds are in keeping with the mission I’ve established for my Foundation. There are myriad good causes; there are many paths down which one can meander. Make choices for a principled reason and stick to them. Contributing vertically (to fewer nonprofits in greater amounts is more meaningful than contributing horizontally (to many nonprofits in lesser amounts). There will inevitably be exceptions: Funds for displaced Ukrainians, for example.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I make myself wait before committing to a philanthropic commitment. Impulsive decisions are often later regretted.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As I’ve mentioned before, I gave too little to too many too often. Pick your horses and ride them well.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I was trying to flag down a cab in lower Manhattan late one dark night. I was alone. Nearby was a man who was talking to me in a disrespectful, slightly menacing way. Then a young man on a bike came on the scene. I asked him to stop, and he obliged. After a hard day at work, he was biking back to his home in the Bronx. He insisted on waiting with me while I called an Uber. He would not take no for an answer. I apologized to him for not having any money with me to thank him for his kindness. He told me that he was not waiting with me in order to be paid. We hugged each other and exchanged contact information. I sent him a check. I wanted to show him in some small way what his compassion meant to me. He responded by saying that he had given the money to his mother who needed medical attention which the money might make possible. I will never forget Edwin, and I hope he won’t ever forget me.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

There is never just one book. Since I was a little girl, I’ve had my nose in books. But there are two books I’ve read in recent years, both novels, that come to mind. They speak to the triumph of the human spirit and the profound difference that acts of kindness can have on others’ lives. News of the World by Paulette Jiles and Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Nickel Boys.

What is your favorite 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.”

Key Learnings:

  • Don’t procrastinate!

  • Learn to be proactive and less reactive

  • Impulsive decisions are often later regretted


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