James Dondero’s Unique Approach to Philanthropy and its Impact on the Dallas Community

James (“Jim”) Dondero’s reach in the immediate Dallas community has come a long way since he made the Lone Star State the headquarters of Highland Capital Management, L.P., an investment management company he co-founded with Mark Okada in 1993. While the duo launched the firm in Los Angeles, they quickly relocated to Dallas in search of a more favorable business climate, a better commute, and a time zone only an hour behind New York, where many of the firm’s counterparties operate. Although Highland’s business has since become a global operation, even recently adding an office and portfolio management team in Argentina to the mix, Dondero’s charitable giving philosophy has kept him close to home.

James Dondero
Highland Capital Management’s president and co-founder focuses philanthropic efforts locally, finding areas where he can make his contributions count

Working with Mary Jalonick and The Dallas Foundation, Dondero has expanded Highland’s role within the Dallas community, establishing partnerships with prominent local organizations like the Dallas Zoo and The George W. Bush Presidential Library. Additionally, with the help of Linda Owen, the Charitable Giving Manager hired in early 2016, Dondero has been able to pursue innovative giving strategies and support new ventures in Dallas.

In her role, Owen has focused on making Highland’s gifts more impactful and has worked with Dondero to find new and creative ways to better serve the community. Together, the two have challenged organizations to maximize charitable gifts, putting money to work in ways most likely to effect positive change.

Dondero and the Dallas Zoo: supporting a big undertaking

Highland’s support of a recent undertaking at the Dallas Zoo highlights this approach to charitable giving. A $5 million grant from the Harold Simmons Foundation kicked off a long-awaited project focused at bringing hippos back to the Dallas Zoo after a more than 15-year absence.

Highland Capital Management, a long-time supporter of the Dallas Zoo, made an additional $1 million grant that helped build the Highland Hippo Hut, a space used for special educational displays and private events. The Simmons Hippo Outpost campaign was funded solely with private donations, and Dondero recognized this unique opportunity to enhance the African waterhole habitat and exhibit as a whole, going beyond the viewing experience to providing educational opportunities for visitors and a potential revenue source in an event space for the Zoo.

The result was the Highland Hippo Hut, a versatile space that draws guests to the exhibit and provides the opportunity to appreciate the surprisingly agile “water-horses.” On top of that, the venue space can be used for private events. No matter what the Highland Hippo Hut is being used for, it supports the ultimate mission of the larger project: educating visitors of the conservation efforts for hippos. The numerous benefits this multipurpose space provides is what drives Dondero’s giving philosophy of maximizing every dollar that goes to supporting these organizations.

Getting The Family Place to the finish line on its Legacy Campaign to fund new facilities

In a similar fashion, Dondero worked with Owen to issue a recent $1 million challenge grant on behalf of Highland Capital Management to finish The Family Place’s $16.5 million Legacy Campaign, a capital campaign launched to fund much-needed facilities to serve the growing number of clients in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The Family Place is the largest family abuse service provider in the state of Texas providing 180 shelter beds each night, including the state’s only shelter for men and children. The organization works to eliminate family violence through intervention and proactive prevention, extensive community education, and advocacy and assistance for victims and their families. The capital campaign raised funds for a new building that brings victims and clients closer to key medical resources and provides emergency accommodations for those with immediate needs. In addition to serving more than 2,000 victims annually, the new facilities will also house the agency’s Be Project, which provides bullying and teen dating violence prevention education, reaching more than 6,000 students each year.

Dondero saw The Family Place’s ambitious project as an opportunity to make a direct and positive impact in Dallas by serving the local victims of family violence and better addressing the city’s immediate need. In addition, Dondero gladly supported the vision for collaboration between The Family Place and the local medical facilities, including U.T. Southwestern Medical School, and the efforts from both organizations to streamline the care and service provided to victims in the most critical moments.

Thanks to this collaboration, the new facility, the Ann Moody Place, is better prepared to provide for family violence victims, making the dollars that built it go even farther. Because of the challenge grant from Dondero and Highland, The Family Place was able to raise all the funds it needed ahead of schedule, and opened in May of 2017.

Highland Capital gets creative in its giving

In recent years, Dondero, with the help of Owen have worked to not only make Highland’s donations more impactful, but also to find new and creative ways to give, beyond traditional contributions.

Highland was recently featured in an article in the New York Times that highlighted some of the creative ways Dondero and the firm have donated to local nonprofits, including making connections between the organizations it supports within the Dallas community. For instance, when Highland had access to rental facilities at the Dallas Zoo, Dondero recognized that this benefit could be used to support another community partner. Highland was able to connect the Dallas Zoo and The Family Place by donating the firm’s rental space at the Zoo for a Mother’s Day event for the women and children residing at the shelter. This gift helped support the clients at the shelter by providing an opportunity otherwise unavailable to them, while also promoting the mission of the Zoo in expanding its audience.

Though more labor-intensive, connecting nonprofits and repurposing benefits in this manner makes Highland and Dondero’s overall philanthropic efforts more effective than if they simply declined those benefits, and it demonstrates more mindful giving than is typical in many foundations. There is a calculated value, and thoughtfully using this unique access has brought Highland closer to those it supports. Through the desire for a more meaningful impact, Dondero has evolved the idea of going beyond writing checks that fund daily operations. He has taken into account the needs and goals of different organizations within the community and, with his differentiated approach to philanthropy, has made gifts in a way that allows many, rather than few, to enjoy.