“Lean into Empathy and Humility.” A Conversation with Denver Foundation President Javier Alberto Soto

Javier Alberto Soto

The son of Cuban immigrants, the Denver Foundation’s President Javier Alberto Soto was born in Madrid and moved to Miami at a young age. “I always say that my parents were the first philanthropists I knew,” Soto told me. “If there was a neighbor who was not feeling well, my mother would give them a plate of food of whatever we were eating that night. I always keep that idea very present — that philanthropy can be shared with the world in many different ways.”

Prior to entering philanthropy, Soto worked in the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office and as chief of staff to County Mayor Alex Penelas. In 2009, he became president and CEO of Dade Community Foundation, which was subsequently renamed the Miami Foundation. There, he instituted Miami Giving Day, an online 24-hour charitable giving event that has raised more than $60 million for hundreds of area nonprofits since 2012.

In October 2019, Soto became the president and CEO of the Denver Foundation, a community foundation established in 1925. In his first month on the job, he cycled more than 60 miles throughout the city meeting residents. “COVID happened six months later, so we put the tour on pause and relaunched it last summer,” he said. “I just did one this week and we have another one next week. After that, I will have reached all 78 neighborhoods in the city.”

I recently caught up with Soto between bike tours to discuss what he’s learned from the experience, the foundation’s growing footprint in the policy space and the one television show everyone in philanthropy should watch. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Soon, you will have biked through every neighborhood in Denver. Having talked with countless residents, what are some key takeaways?

The tour positioned the foundation — and maybe even philanthropy — a little differently in the eyes of the community. When you go out to where people are and speak to them in languages they’re most comfortable with — many of these conversations have been in Spanish, by the way — you’re removing some of the barriers to philanthropy that can feel impenetrable for community.

This realization informed one big shift in our strategic framework, which is a pivot away from being a “knowing” organization to being a “learning” organization. Oftentimes, philanthropy feels like they have all the answers, and I want to make sure that we are always listening with humility.

Were there any common themes in your discussions with residents?

Macro and micro themes emerged. On the macro side, there were concerns around housing affordability, public safety, transportation options and economic issues of all kinds, and they informed what our strategic framework would focus on. But there were some really unique micro neighborhood-level issues.

For example, there’s a mobile home park on the west side of town that was potentially going to be purchased by a venture capital firm. This has been happening throughout the country and the impact on residents usually is not positive. We got involved with state legislative efforts that will make it easier for residents to not just purchase the park from the owner, but also the land underneath it. If I didn’t do the bike tour, I’m not sure we would have been involved with this issue.

It’s interesting how components of the work overlap with your public policy experience.

Absolutely, and that was part of the strategic framework. It led us to be in a posture where we’re attempting to move all of our assets toward impact and not just rely on the grantmaking bucket. That means incorporating policy in an intentional way by building out an infrastructure — we now have a director of policy — and aligning what we’re doing on the grantmaking side with the policy side.

The last pillar of this work is investment management. Can we invest our assets in such a way that aligns with our mission and creates additional impact? Because most foundations are granting out four 4 or 5%, and the other 95% or 96% is sitting in investment portfolios. In my mind, that’s a tremendous opportunity to increase impact.

Recognizing that leaders have their own unique risk tolerances, is there an untapped opportunity for community foundations to expand their footprint in the policy space?

Yes, and I often encourage those in the community foundation field to take on policy as another way to help their communities. Some community foundations will lean in heavily on convening around policy issues, others on advocacy. But to your point, there are different risk tolerance levels at committee foundation boards, and I must say that I’ve been blessed to have two boards that have unanimously embraced this idea of aligning policy with grantmaking.

What’s been particularly rewarding about your time at the Denver Foundation so far?

Four years into the job, I’ve enjoyed working with a team of outstanding and compassionate individuals, a dedicated board of trustees, and meeting so many caring people in this community. 

On that note, we had a tragedy in our family 19 months ago. I lost my 14-year-old daughter Sofia unexpectedly. And, Mike, the response from this community has been absolutely incredible. Because it’s not like I’ve lived here my whole life. For two of those years, I was sitting behind a Zoom screen, so the fact that in such a short time we’ve seen that kind of outpouring of support has been really touching. 

I'll share a story with you that actually just happened this morning. There’s an organization here called Judy’s House that helps bereaved families. The loss of Sofia was traumatic for all of us, including my younger daughter, so we went through a program where you create a quilt square that then gets woven into a larger quilt for all the other families to share about their loved ones.

I went over there this morning to meet the executive director who was going to share the quilt with me. When I showed up, the mayor of Denver and the heads of two of the biggest private foundations in town were there, and they unveiled for me that one of the rooms used by teens in the program is now named the “Sofia Isabel Soto Teen Room.” I’m not often speechless, and I was speechless, and it again, it just goes to show just how incredibly supportive this community has been.

That’s unbelievable. Thank you for sharing that. And I’m so deeply sorry for your loss.

I appreciate that. Thank you.

Pivoting away from philanthropy, which living person do you admire the most?

I’m going to give you two answers (laughs). The first is my parents, and I’m blessed that they’re still with us. They are incredibly hard-working immigrants who worked two jobs for as long as I could remember. One of those jobs was cleaning an office building at night. Sometimes, if there was nobody that could watch me while they went to their second job, I would go with them and help empty out wastepaper baskets. 

My second answer is Pope Francis, because I feel like in a world where we’re so quick to judge, for him to ask the world who is he to judge, was just such a powerful statement. I feel like his positioning of the church toward those who are least well off is a message that many people should receive and hopefully emulate.

Last but not least, what book would you suggest to IP readers?

I told you about my daughter’s passing last year. This journey is a very difficult one and something that has helped me tremendously is to read grief memoirs. It's hard to talk about the loss of a child on many levels, and by reading grief memoirs, I feel like I’ve been in dialogue with others who have suffered this kind of unimaginable grief. 

Two books in particular that had a profound impact were “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion and “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala. We’re all going to be touched by grief at some point in our lives, either personally or through someone you know, and it’s helpful to understand what that person might be going through and how you can support them. And can I give you a TV series?

Please do!

I think everybody in philanthropy ought to watch “Ted Lasso.” It’s a lesson in how to be a values-centered leader and how to lean into empathy and humility in everything that you do for the benefit of others. If there’s one thing that I would say philanthropy stands for, and ought to continue to stand for, it’s exactly that — leading with empathy and humility for the benefit of others.