TRIBEZA, December 2008
For eight years, Richard and Alan Topfer have been working hard to spend millions of dollars of their dad's money. So is theirs the story of the prodigal sons, ungrateful wretches bingeing on sports cars and bling?
Not a chance.
Because it's clear from talking to Richard and Alan that Mort Topfer—founder of the Topfer Family Foundation and the paterfamilias—wouldn't stand for that kind of profligacy.
"My father," says Alan, "is an American success story." He mentions that his father grew up poor in New York, but ended up with a successful career at Motorola and then made his fortune working with Dell. "He's been a big role model of what you should be doing, of working hard and then giving back."
Alan, 42, sits on the board of the foundation, and manages the business affairs and investments of the $55 million entity, while also helping to run the real estate investment company that he, Richard and their father founded. He speaks earnestly about the importance of work—his first job was at 14 as a bus boy at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood, Florida—and the foundation's mission of inspiring self-sufficiency in those with limited economic resources.
Alan relishes talking numbers, figures, facts. $2.5 million a year in grants. Operating expenses below 1 percent. An annual granting rate at 10 percent of the foundation's assets, twice the rate required by the IRS.
Not to say that he doesn't see the big picture. "It's been great for us," he says of the foundation. "And I'm even more excited about what it will represent for my children." He talks about the foundation as a "counterbalance" to the profit-mindedness of his other pursuits.
But that's not to say that he doesn't bring his acumen for business to the non-profit world. His zeal for efficiency, performance, and results is obvious. "Candidly, the government subsidizing programs and [keeping] people on welfare forever is ineffective." He leans forward, gets animated. "Programs like Capital Idea, where we give them money and they can leverage that...is much more appealing to us than perpetuating a dependent state."
And, he adds, "We tend to repetitively give to organizations that perform."
Where Alan focuses on analysis, Richard Topfer, 40 and also a member of the board, seems motivated by synthesis, by putting information and people together, which may explain his role managing the foundation's staff.
He says that the foundation has changed his view on things. How? "Unfortunately for the negative," he says, bluntly, "in the sense that there are a lot of bad people out in this world."
Alan urges his brother to be more specific. "Well, I'll put it this way," he says. "I was talking to my friends, and I said, guys, you don't understand this. You have to take your head off, your head of common sense, and put on a different head, because you don't get that you'd actually put cigarettes out on your child."
Richard speaks quickly, urgently, his voice full of reproach. He has 8-year-old twins, and he admits that this kind of work has turned him into an advocate.
Of the people who do non-profit work, he quickly adds, very seriously: "I couldn't do their job. Not a chance could I do it, because I'd want to beat up the people. I'd want to go find that dad or that mom..." He trails off, recovering to say how thankful he is that there are "really good people" in Austin trying to help.
In fact, both brothers make a point of talking up the agencies their foundation grants to. Words like "amazing," "proud," "thankful" describe the agencies and programs, and Richard and Alan brag on many of the agencies' accomplishments, a bit like proud older brothers. In fact, they brag on each other, too, and give the impression of being seamlessly coordinated, organized and competent.
They seem, in other words, to be every bit a team.
And they're a team devoted to Austin, with over $21 million in grants to Central Texas non-profits. The Topfer Family Foundation is restricted to granting in the communities where the family lives, meaning Austin and Chicago. As Richard puts it: "I can't give grants in Dallas. I don't know Dallas. I don't know what Dallas needs."
When asked what Austin needs, the two men sigh. "For children?" asks Richard. "More beds, more case workers, more foster homes." He talks about people who struggle to pay their bills. Then affordable housing comes up. The list, it seems, could go on forever. "We talk about the black hole here all the time," he says. "Can you change it? Well, I don't know. Saying no, you certainly aren't going to change it."
Luckily for Austin, saying no isn't the Topfer way.
Questions about my freelance services and rates? E-mail me at tiffany(at)tiffanyhamburger.com or call at (512) 524-6786
Hi. I'm Tiffany Hamburger. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. I've written and edited professionally for a decade on a wide variety of subjects.
I have an English degree and Biological Anthropology minor from Duke University, and a master's in creative writing from The University of Arizona.
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In my spare time, I like to (surprise!) read and write, teach fiction, travel as much as I can, make messes in the kitchen and run with my dog, who is also my receptionist.
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