“What box?” Natalie Rekstad has a reputation for being an “outside-the-box thinker” who is so innovative, the box is no longer relevant.
She has advised dozens of local and global nonprofits, including the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, Campus Election Engagement Project, Pencils of Promise, Bridges to Prosperity, and World Pulse. With her gift for reaching the hearts of donors to make big things possible, I wondered if she had any advice for women with lesser financial resources who want to become more involved in philanthropy.
“You have to look at your own life experiences to find your purpose, to figure out what unique perspective and power you can bring to bear on an issue,” she said. “So if you don’t have a lot of money, maybe the best way to be a philanthropist is to start giving in a way that feels vital to you, that feels essential. You might start by giving your time and gain experience from that,” said Rekstad, in a recent interview with Inside Philanthropy.
Part of Rekstad’s philosophy of philanthropy grew out of her experience volunteering as a Big Sister over a decade-long period, starting a relationship with an eight-year-old little sister, and staying with her through early adulthood. “At the time, I only had time to give, and I spent countless hours with my ‘little.’ That time on the front lines was a game changer, because it informed my strategy years later around women’s empowerment.” It was through recognizing the value of that relationship and mentoring that Rekstad chose to focus her local philanthropy on high school-age girls. The experience helped Natalie develop “Black Fox Scholars,” which rewards high school girls for demonstrating excellence in philanthropy.
Rekstad also knows a thing or two about starting young on your journey as a philanthropist. Her philanthropy started at the ripe age of eight, after she saw a filmstrip in school about malnourished children in Africa. In response, Rekstad organized two fundraising fairs in her backyard, soliciting prizes, food and soda from neighborhood stores for the events. The fairs were a big hit, netting the young Rekstad $10 in proceeds, which she sent off to Africa through a U.S.-based nonprofit.
Rekstad grew up in a low-income family, at times living on food stamps and government assistance, and is a strong advocate for girls in similar circumstances today. “I was one of five—four girls and a boy—and it was made clear to us as children that only my brother would be supported to go to college, so there were some real wounds from early on for me related to gender,” said Rekstad.
Despite difficult financial circumstances in her upbringing, Rekstad sees her experience of raising and dispatching funds as central to her early identity formation. “I realized I didn’t have to sit with heartbreak. I had the power to make things happen for others in need,” she said of her earliest fundraising experience.
Rekstad spent the first leg of her professional career in sales and marketing in the travel industry, rising to become a director and then a vice president. “Working in a corporate setting really helped me develop my sense of self and an ability to compete in a tough environment. I learned a lot about building deep relationships in an environment where that is not the norm.”
In 2001, Rekstad made a big move toward claiming her professional powers as a philanthropist and social change agent. She founded an arts and social service nonprofit, Salon du Musée, which exhibited art from major living artists, and in the process raised funds to support several Colorado nonprofits, including Colorado Ballet, Colorado UpLift, and the Denver Art Museum. Ten years later, she bequeathed the organization to the Denver Art Museum, which continues to use the Salon brand to sell artwork and generate funds for art acquisitions.
Rekstad launched Black Fox Philanthropy in 2013, a for-profit company focused on bringing fundraising strategy and results to other organizations and causes. Its mission is to mobilize significant resources to solve complex problems on a global scale. Black Fox is the culmination of Rekstad’s lifelong desire to use her voice and business acumen to increase philanthropy’s impact.
Black Fox is no ordinary business, by the way, but a certified B corporation, meaning that it meets “the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.” In other words, Rekstad has created a model corporation that is not only providing jobs to fuel the economy, but is also addressing social and environmental problems. “Our primary driver is global social impact, and becoming a B corp is our public stake in the ground as a leader in redefining success in business.”
Rekstad also has some fascinating sidebars to her philanthropy path. She co-authored a book with her 12-year-old daughter titled The Secret Adventures of Anonymouse, which features Sophie the mouse secretly doing acts of kindness for her fellow creatures in the forest, enriching her own life and the lives of others. “When young people develop empathy,” said Rekstad, “they not only thrive in school and in life, but they also impact the community in positive, often extraordinary ways.”
To pursue her global philanthropy interests, Rekstad serves on the Global Advisory Board of World Pulse, and is also an MCE Social Capital Guarantor, providing $1 million in capital to women throughout the developing world in microfinance loans. She is also a member of Women Moving Millions, which she credits with giving her an added push to open up about her own experiences in philanthropy.
“Our deepest passions often spring from our deepest wounds, mine being around feeling marginalized in my family and my culture for being female. Being part of Women Moving Millions has enabled me to harness those wounds as a source of awakening and power, and a ‘not on my watch’ ferocity on behalf of my daughter and all girls who will be coming of age under the incoming administration."