To James J. Curtis III, chairman of the ULI Foundation (ULIF), the fundamental purpose of the Urban Land Institute is a lofty one: to help people live better lives by building a better world for them. That, he says, is what is driving him in his work with the Foundation, which increasingly is the engine that enables ULI to achieve its philanthropic mission.


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James J. Curtis III, chairman of the ULI Foundation.
“Most people think philanthropy is just about major donors. Really, philanthropy is anyone who gives their time, money, skills, experience, or their networks to create a better world. That is one of the most powerful factors in ULI’s success, with the incredible volunteerism of members in combination with the human capital of the staff,” Curtis says. He explains this as “outcome-oriented philanthropy.”

ULI is able to achieve tangible outcomes by leveraging members’ financial contributions through an impressive tradition of volunteerism and through strategic partnerships. Curtis points to the $750,000 ULI awarded in 2011 and 2012 through the Urban Innovation Grant program. The funding came out of the ULIF’s Annual Fund, and grants ranged from $5,000 to $25,000 each. “The awardees competed for all of those grants, and they had to raise matching funds or in-kind contributions for their grant,” Curtis says. “On top of that came a lot of volunteering. That’s how the multiplier works: ULI is able to leverage each dollar contributed by the ULIF by a factor of between 1.5 and four times the member’s gift.”

Curtis cites ULI’s Advisory Services program as another example. At the request of community stakeholders ranging from local governments to educational institutions to private organizations, Advisory Services panels assemble a multidisciplinary team of top land use experts who volunteer their expertise to develop detailed, objective proposals for a specific land use problem. Recent panels have examined sites in Pasadena, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Hillsborough County, Florida. Support from the ULIF helps make the program possible—and ULI volunteerism adds the multiplier. “Advisory panels alone have contributed around $75 million to $100 million to communities through the capitalized value of volunteerism,” Curtis says.

The Foundation is looking to expand the portion of its funding that comes from planned gifts from members’ estates. Such commitments are family decisions, Curtis notes. “We have to be able to earn the right to be part of their philanthropic gift allocation,” he says. Part of his mission is to help people understand why ULI is much more than a networking organization; it is a platform for philanthropy and volunteerism. “Unless we can articulate why ULI and ULI members are making a better world, we will not be able to achieve our potential as a philanthropic organization,” Curtis says. “That is what’s driving me right now, as an individual.”