Helping the Nonprofit Community

By Peter Brill   |   March 5, 2020
Ken Saxon, philanthropical guru and founder of Leading From Within

Every once in a while, I have something that I feel so strongly should be presented because of its importance to community, change, and capital that I write it without a question from my readers. Ken Saxon’s work is one such example.

Ken Saxon rightly is seen in the Santa Barbara community as the guru of leadership and the nonprofit world. He has a background from a great business school and has proven his ability as an entrepreneur. He is extremely bright, a systems-thinker with great humanity and commitment to helping our community and world. Besides all that, he is a really nice guy with a lovely family. When Ken talks, people listen. When Ken talks, I listen. Here is the interview.

Ken’s History

Ken was a liberal arts student with a sense that he wanted to go into business. From 1986 to 1988, he attended Stanford Business School. That’s where he caught the entrepreneurial bug. When entrepreneurs came to class, they had great stories to tell and that impressed him. When he came out of business school, he partnered with a classmate in the business of warehousing and managing business documents. It was called First American Records Management. Ken and his partner bought it from the owner who was ready to retire. Since they were just out of grad school and had little money, they bought it over a period of seven years.

Ken’s feelings about it give you a sense of who he is.

“I loved entrepreneurship. It challenged me, and was very creative.

“Did I have what it took to run a successful business based on values I respected? The answer turned out to be ‘Yes.’

“I learned what I needed to learn.

“People were the most fun part of business for me. I got gratification from interacting with and developing them.”

How Ken got into Philanthropy in Santa Barbara

“I began to look for the intersection of what I had to offer and what the community needed. As a small business guy, I identified with executive directors. They are generalists, they wear a lot of hats, most haven’t been formally prepared, they don’t have enough support, and they experience the loneliness of leadership. They also hold an awful lot of responsibility.”

This understanding led him to seek training through a leadership group model created by Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal. It involved a peer group of leaders meeting in retreats. Groups meet quarterly for three days, over a 13-month period. Ken started such a program in 2008 here in Santa Barbara (and later, three other leadership programs). He founded local nonprofit Leading from Within to operate them and which is now led by Executive Director (and program alumnus) Ed France.

Ken is justifiably proud of what has been accomplished here. 

“Our programs give participants a nourishing space to slow down and reconnect with themselves: What’s working, what’s not working, being together with their peers. It cultivates trusting relationships among peers. We now have 400 alumni from our four leadership programs. They have become an alumni network of local changemakers. That way they can keep investing in themselves and their communities.

“1. I don’t know of another region of the country where there is this level of personal and professional development in the nonprofit sector. It has created all sorts of collaborations here. The Santa Barbara Foundation has been a partner in each of our programs. We couldn’t have built all this without them.

“2. It has created a generative circle of relationships where before people and nonprofits operated more in separate siloes. Why a circle? Because no one is the head. Circles invite collaborative conversations and hearing from all voices.

“3. Our circles lead to leaders feeling more inspiration, support, relationship, passion, partnership, creativity, and they help to counteract burnout that can happen when you feel alone with the burdens you have taken on.

“We are dealing with complex problems. There needs to be more system-level thinking. As a nonprofit, your focus can become simply keeping your program going; you may or may not be having a real impact on the problem. It might be just as bad tomorrow as it is today. So, any real social change has to engage across boundaries –nonprofit to nonprofit, business, government, citizens. I think this is where innovation really happens – across boundaries.”

Impact Investing and its Place in Helping the Community

I asked Ken what his opinion was of impact investing and its place in helping the community. Although he is familiar with impact investing and has done some himself, he first asked me to define what impact investing was. I took that as wanting to see where I stood in the large and emerging world of impact investing. Would I think that it was just another form of investment capital in emerging companies? Was my focus solely looking for market rate return? Or did I embrace the entire spectrum from almost pure philanthropy to astoundingly impactful and profitable emerging impact investments. 

I told him I believe that impact investing is a spectrum. It includes low interest loans to nonprofits and emerging impact organizations, loan guarantees, and a variety of programs that tie together capital from government, foundations and other sources of capital, including private individuals. While I thought grants were vital and important resources, any distribution of capital that had no anticipated return was only a grant and not impact investing.

Here was his response:

“There is a lot of capital out there. This is a world that is awash in capital. Anything that supports more of that capital being used to the benefit of the local community is a good thing. Every individual has their own risk profile and their own likes and dislikes. Impact investing should attract more people because it addresses all these diverse needs. For most people who accumulate wealth beyond what they can use, they have the potential to do a great deal of good with it to benefit society. Many just lack the imagination of how to use it.”

This is why educating those interested in using capital to do good and make a sustainable difference in social, environmental and economic needs is so vital.

I welcome all questions and comments and can be reached at


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