Austin couple shares the secrets of civic leadership

Lynn and Tom Meredith will accept Harvey Penick Award from Caritas of Austin.


Highlights

“The award is hugely intimidating when you look at all the people who received it.”

“Since then, the old divisions — university, business, government, technology — have really just disappeared.”

Show up. Listen. Make friends.

Do right. Collaborate. Learn about your city. Help when and where you can.

These are some of the lessons — applicable to philanthropy, as well as business and other fields — shared recently by Tom and Lynn Meredith, who left behind California and, before that, Washington, D.C., for a life as open-eyed Austin newcomers almost 26 years ago.

The occasion for these timely reflections? On Sept. 20, during the Words of Hope Dinner to benefit Caritas of Austin, the Merediths will pick up the Harvey Penick Award, considered by many observers to be the highest local honor for charitable leadership.

Named after teacher, golfer and sage Penick, it has gone to Austin topliners such as Barbara Jordan, Edith and Darrell Royal, J.J. “Jake” Pickle, Teresa and Joe Long, Sarah and Ernest Butler, state Sen. Kirk Watson, Pat Hayes, Tomi and Pete Winstead and two recently deceased civic leaders, Frank Denius and Bishop John E. McCarthy.

RELATED: John McCarthy, retired bishop, dies at 88.

“The award is hugely intimidating,” Lynn says. “When you look at all the people who received it. They have made such an impact on the community. Michael and Susan Dell. Mrs. (Lady Bird) Johnson. People we revere. People we looked to for guidance and wisdom.”

The Merediths arrived in the 1990s just as Austin’s economy and its culture of philanthropy were about to change forever. In fact, one of the instigators of those changes, technology innovator and humanitarian George Kozmetsky, had recommended financial expert Tom Meredith to Michael Dell to fill the role of CFO of rapidly growing Dell Computers.

“In the shuffle of time and progress, we tend to forget who came before,” Tom says. “The Kozmetskys were engaged in the community, and they wanted others to be engaged in the community. Not just talent and money, but involvement.”

At that time, too, the Dells had not yet created their mammoth family foundation, which has since invested $1.5 billion in health and wellness, urban education, college success and family economic stability here and abroad.

“When we first came here, a lot of the locals were distraught by the lack of involvement from the technology community in terms of public service,” Tom says. “There was even a fair amount of animus. I think that’s changed for the better. Any number of organizations would not have prospered or grown without tech community support, leadership and planning.”

Networking for value

As is so often the case, the Junior League played a part in preparing Lynn for philanthropic work.

“It’s what I brought with me,” she says. “The Palo Alto Junior League was very progressive. I remained a sustaining member and continued to work on the national level.”

RELATED: Junior League turns out supervolunteers.

In fact, she first learned about Caritas, which cares for the homeless and refugees, through the League.

Her experience with wide-lens networks like the League also led to projects — sometimes behind the scenes, at other times in the forefront — with the meta-charities that tend to shape other nonprofits, such as the Austin Community Foundation, Mission Capital and I Live Here, I Give Here.

The boom in Austin nonprofits — and the need for collaboration among them — has not gone unnoticed by the Merediths.

“Now, there are 8,000,” Tom says. “The highest per capita in the country. Some are redundant, sure, but we have a better map of the needs now and who is taking care of them.”

Still, he thinks the Austin Community Foundation, which formerly served as a sort of nonprofit bank but now focuses on high-impact projects, is in particular undersized.

“But the current leadership is looking to breathe life into our community by scaling up, collaborating with other groups, spawning other activities,” Tom says. “They convene around needs.”

Meanwhile, the Merediths’ family foundation has joined forces with others like it to pinpoint shared causes.

“When I arrived here, I really felt it was part of being an Austinite to serve the community,” Lynn says. “That was made really clear to us by the mentors. You were expected to roll up your sleeves to earn any credibility.”

Tom made sure that Dell was part of the charitable equation.

“Since then, the old divisions — university, business, government, technology — have really just disappeared,” Lynn says. “Now, it’s about impact. How can you do it? And how can you do it differently.”

At first, Lynn was surprised by the local anti-California enmity reflected in the media, especially on talk radio.

“They’d say: ‘Why would we do something like California?’” Lynn recalls. “But in truth, people here are more open than that.”

Early on, it helped that their whole young family was embraced as part of the Austin social equation. As their now-adult children have taken leadership roles, Tom and Lynn continue to throw their networking nets as wide as possible.

“The Kozmestkys and the Johnsons were interested in everyone,” Lynn says. “The young and old and everyone in between. Tom and I try to do this, too. I’m hoping that’s happening with all the new folks coming to town. … We have friends of all ages.”

Lynn remembers how the other families helped them to acculturate to the local scene.

“There was always a welcome,” she says. “Welcome to Austin. Welcome to Texas. They helped you become a Texan and an Austinite. Underlying the invitations and conversations was the notion: This is who we are and why we are Texans.”

In Austin, they discovered that the truism that philanthropy is a later-life pursuit is obsolete.

“Austin is a ‘forever young’ city in part because so many college students live here,” Tom says. “Today’s young people tend to have a sense of purpose. Giving back. More than money. That is filtering through the community.”

Tom notes that in Washington, whom you worked for conferred social status, while in California, it was where you lived. In Austin, a sort of egalitarian networking is the constant theme.

“We once convened a dinner and asked everyone what caused them to become philanthropic,” Tom says. “Each table had at least one or two highly successful people. At the end, people got up and talked about what they learned. Now, they are friends who are all giving back to the community.”

A special project

“I’ve been doing Waller Creek for 10 years,” Tom says of the Waller Creek Conservancy. “I work for Waller Creek, or there are very few days when I don’t! And I love doing it for our community.”

The conservancy is a nonprofit tasked with designing, building, programming, operating and keeping up a string of destination parks along neglected Waller Creek in the eastern sector of downtown. A decade ago, Tom, along with environmental lawyer Melanie Barnes and arts visionary Melba Whatley, was tapped by Austin City Council members to initiate a public-private partnership.

Already, the conservancy has raised $46 million from the private sector, and it plans to pull in another $48 million to complete the $246 million project. The rest of the money comes from the state and the city, including tax increment financing on land within the creek’s floodplain.

RELATED: Waller Creek Conservancy lands in Symphony Square.

The idea of the conservancy was first pitched publicly to the donor class a decade ago during a dinner inside the Merediths’ ample penthouse. At the time, some critics believed it was too big a project; it would never get done.

Currently, however, the conservancy is moving into renovated digs at Symphony Square, a short walk from Waterloo Park, which is scheduled to reopen in 2020 and includes the 5,000-seat Moody Amphitheater, backed by $15 million from the Moody Family Foundation.

“I’m proud to prove all the naysayers wrong,” Tom says. “Waller Creek is a jewel that has been part of the city since time immemorial. But it has been ignored — an asset in a state of atrophy. We are about to transform it, and the community around it will also be transformed.”

He believes the Waller Creek park project is a wise investment for myriad reasons.

“It connects north and south and east and west in ways that has been missing,” Tom says.

And the project serves to illustrate how things get done.

“Now, every entrepreneur has an undying belief in their idea. If they lack it, they don’t get past that,” Tom says. “And everyone hears ‘no’ many times. The next big idea for Austin will always be a little idea like this hiding in plain sight. It’s sort of like the social media giant Facebook, which spawned companies like Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, etc. They were small ideas hiding in plain sight.”

Caritas

The Merediths have observed Caritas in action since they arrived in town.

“The thing that appealed to me about Caritas, it was not just providing somebody a home, but an ecosystem,” Tom says. “Well-being, jobs, things we take for granted. Taking somebody off the street and putting them in a house doesn’t mean they are now not homeless. Caritas accepts people for where they are, not where we would like them to be.”

Lynn agrees.

“Homelessness, mental health problems, the need for affordable housing haven’t gone away,” she says. “Where’s the housing stock? The great thing about Austin is a sense that we can do something like this. We don’t have national corporate headquarters, so the only way you raise money is to build out the constituencies. You get people in the room, and you talk and inspire and criticize and debate, and you find a way. Things happen because people are willing to come together.”



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