James Lee Sorenson has made it big in the tech scene, founding companies such as Sorenson Media, whose "Sorenson Squeeze" was instrumental in bringing Internet video to Quicktime. Sorenson also cofounded Sorenson Capital, a private equity firm.
The Sorenson family has been prominent in Utah for decades, and is currently worth nearly $2 billion. Sorenson's father, the late James LeVoy Sorenson, armed with just a high school degree, became a billionaire patenting medical devices. He and his wife Beverley, an arts education advocate, were also notable philanthropists, and their Sorenson Legacy Foundation lives on, giving close to $30 million in a recent year with grantmaking centered on Utah. Much of that giving takes pretty traditional forms, with grants going to a wide range of local charities, arts groups, and education institutions.
But James Lee Sorenson and his wife Krista do things differently through their Sorenson Impact Foundation. We were curious about this couple, given our keen interests in philanthropists from the tech sector and those who are second-generation donors. We've often written about techies that bring new thinking to philanthropy, and we've written the same about heirs, who often approach giving differently than their parents. So what happens when you combine these elements?
Well, as the name of their foundation would suggest, the couple is focused on impact, which isn't quite the same as a civic stewardship approach embraced by more traditional funders. Trying to dramatically move the needle on a problem is different than ongoing funding for a set of institutions that meet key needs in your community.
The Sorenson Impact Foundation also embraces another idea we hear a lot from the new philanthropists: sustainability. With interests ranging across multiple issues—education, health, the environment and more—the foundation says it's particularly interested in investments that have the "potential to become sustainable."
Like many of the new funders, the Sorensons blend investments in nonprofit and for-profit enterprises—a trend that is growing fast right now, especially among younger donors. Obviously, if you can solve a social problem in a way that generates recurring revenue, you have a sustainable enterprise.
Additionally, the Sorensons are similar to other new funders in that they have a global outlook and are interested in development challenges. That broad worldview is unsuprising in an era when many business leaders, especially in tech, are attuned to global markets.
In practice, Sorenson grantmaking mixes support for both innovation and traditonal nonprofits, and that's not uncommon with new funders. While many talk a lot about doing things differently, they often keep writing checks to established charities. Hype aside, these donors are smart enough to see that "old" solutions are often plenty effective. Second generation heirs may also be reluctant to completely turn their back on groups their parents supported or to abandon a stewardship approach.
Let's dig more into the details of what the Sorensons are up to.
One of the foundation's program-related investments went to Wisebanyan, "a free online financial portfolio management company with low account balance requirements and zero initiation." Another PRI was made in Worldhaus, an "Indian construction company building affordable, eco-friendly and modular-kit homes for the economically weaker populations of urban, rural and slum locations." (Click here for a list of other PRIs.)
As we said, this couple has wide interests, and a top one is backing "programs and initiatives that foster upward social and economic mobility"—a goal that involves backing both local and global efforts. The Sorenson Impact Foundation has contributed to the United Way of Salt Lake's Changing the Odds Campaign, a "collaboration of business leaders, government agencies, philanthropic groups, all working together to bring in millions that will benefit Utah's young people." Recent money has also gone to Utah Food Bank, and Ronald McDonald House.
Education and entrepreneurial training are another priority. Sorenson has strongly supported University of Utah, where he graduated. In 2013, Sorenson gave $13 million to David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah to create the James Lee Sorenson Global Impact Investing Center. The center "engages students in creating sustainable change on regional and global levels through high-impact social investment, innovative curriculum and research."
The foundation also supports BYU, where Krista Sorenson graduated. Continuing the arts education philanthropy of his mother, Sorenson supports the BYU ARTS Partnership to promote arts education in Utah's schools. Sorenson also funds Junior Achievement and American Indian Services, which provides scholarships to low-income Native Americans.
The foundation supports global health and development, and the Sorensons traveled to Nepal to work with CHOICE Humanitarian. Recent money has gone to Ouelessebougou Alliance, which "works in partnership with village citizens to transform the quality of life in the Ouelessebougou region of Mali by delivering sustainable programs in health, education and economic development." Funds have also gone to IVUmed, "dedicated to teaching urology in developing countries," Vittana Foundation, which provides "international microfinance loans for students," and Village Capital, which "finds, trains, and funds entrepreneurs solving global problems."
It's worth noting that Sorenson is also interested in investments that tackle climate change. The Sorenson Impact Foundation recently backed an energy startup called Quidnet Energy along with celebrities Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.
All in all, the Sorensons are running a pretty interesting philanthropic effort, and one that says a lot of about where the sector is going right now. They remind us of various other new funders we're coming across, particularly Brad and Kimberly Keywell, whom we wrote about recently.
While there is a large family fortune waiting in the wings here, the money going out the door from the Sorenson Impact Foundation so far remains modest. That may change in coming years.
A final note: one good way this foundation is different from the operations of many new funders is that it's pretty accessible. The foundation has a helpful website with clear application guidelines for those applying for a grant or a program related investment.
Related: James Lee Sorenson Profile