The Great Outdoors

By Joe Donnelly   |   January 12, 2021

Some Zoom backgrounds are better than others, like the one of Deer Valley, Utah’s mountains just starting to show some autumnal gold that frames Natalie Orfalea during a recent call. Had I reached the perpetually youthful and outdoorsy Orfalea just a couple days earlier, it would have been the Absaroka Range along the eastern boundary of Yellowstone Park in Paradise Valley, Montana, where Orfalea has a ranch, comprising the backdrop. Let’s take our delights where we can get them!

Speaking of, the Absarokas don’t just provide the original entrance to arguably the most famous national park in the world; they also served as a gateway of sorts to Orfalea’s life in philanthropy. It was there that the Orfalea Foundation started a program to bring kids from underserved communities into the wilderness to help confidence and life-building experiences. 

The project, and Orfalea’s affinity for the outdoors, has deep roots. “I grew up in humble beginnings,” says Orfalea. “So, our way of recreating, or, if you will, vacationing, was camping, and that was a place that I remember in my soul and in myself as, you know, a place that fed me.”

One of six siblings, Orfalea was born in North Carolina. Her father was a career Marine before joining the civil service and the family moved to Orange County, California, when Orfalea was a young girl. Being the eldest daughter in a family that revered institutions such as the church, community, and Semper Fi, she was thrust into a care-giving role at an early age. “My dad and mom were raising six kids on their own and, you know, the kind of traditional thinking of the culture at the time was, of course, the oldest daughter would take on a lot of the help.”

Being part of a sprawling family comes with its challenges, but Orfalea says it also instilled the values she carried forward in life even as her business success greatly expanded her personal horizons. “I think I’d always had a heart for giving and I think that was taught a lot from my family,” she says. “We were definitely taught to be kind and giving and generous in spirit.”

And in that spirit, Orfalea has taken the Giving Pledge. The idea, the brainchild of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, is for the nation’s wealthiest individuals to commit to giving the bulk of their wealth to philanthropy in the hopes of spurring “a new standard of generosity” among the wealthy. When jokingly asked how her two grown sons feel about it, Orfalea smiles and says both are “very supportive” and active Natalie Orfalea Foundation board members helping to represent the next generation of philanthropy with new and innovative approaches.

“We want to be effective and we want to see results.”

-Natalie Orfalea

That may be so, but her two sons were also partly responsible for where this particular story started – in the mountains! When her sons’ school friends would come visit their ranch in Montana during the summertime and experience nature on an epic scale, Orfalea was taken aback by how these privileged, cosmopolitan kids – “that were going to Europe and all that” – were “so blown away.” 

Orfalea started to imagine what such an immersive experience would mean to youth who had “never, ever seen what a large mountain range looked like or had never seen a river without a dam on it.”

So was born a program that brought hundreds of kids who hadn’t previously imagined such experiences were available to them deep into nature and deeper into their own potentialities. Through the course of the summer program, which sunsetted along with the Orfalea Foundation and Orfalea Fund a few years ago, Orfalea learned much about effective programming. For example, after originally starting with middle-school kids, the program found that the leadership skills and confidence gained at the program translated into better college and career outcomes when serving older cohorts.

A culture of effective, inclusive planning and programming is something Orfalea says carries over from her experience with helping to grow Kinko’s from a single, niche-serving shop into the national powerhouse it became. “That culture had a lot to do with respecting each person… everyone had a voice,” says Orfalea. “When we started the Orfalea Foundation and Orfalea Fund, that entrepreneurial spirit and that culture just was brought into the giving and brought into the community that we serve.”

The Orfalea Foundation and Orfalea Fund may have sunset a few years ago, but the Natalie Orfalea Lou Buglioli Foundation is carrying on the entrepreneurial spirit as well as a culture of marrying programming to best practices. “Rather than just write checks to nonprofits or agencies to meet their budgets, you’re trying to put money towards specific programming that has directed action and gets results.”

Examples include the Partnership for Resilient Communities in the wake of the Thomas Fire and the ensuing disastrous mudflows as well as the Emergency Child Care Initiative targeting clean and safe childcare centers for frontline health workers. Orfalea has also turned attention to an emerging need – health and palliative care for aging Baby Boomers. The Natalie Orfalea Foundation has been working with Sansum Clinic Palliative Care and Hospice of Santa Barbara. Of course, interest in child development, education, and the benefits of integration with the natural world remains strong; including bringing underserved communities into the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve. 

Recently, the Natalie Orfalea Foundation has invested in social change through storytelling, primarily in documentary films. The foundation has supported a slate of well-received and highly impactful films, among them: The Social Dilemma; US Kids, which tells how the Parkland shootings turned Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students into passionate activists; 16 Shots, which investigates the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke; and Biggest Little Farm, which tells how a 200-acre patch of arid dirt in Moorpark was turned into a sustainable farm.

In all of these endeavors, Orfalea says partnerships are the key to success. “I would like to think and I hope people are coming to our organization because they want to work with a partner who wants to be a thought partner as well as someone who has resources. I’d like to make the highest use of those resources with that organization through our partnership. We want to be effective and we want to see results.”

As we speak, Orfalea’s beloved silver Labrador Bella comes on camera and sits down next to her. In some ways, Bella is an apt metaphor. Several years ago Bella survived an encounter with a mountain lion that left her with hundreds of puncture wounds and in need of multiple surgeries. She recovered and never lost her spirit and now the dog is by Orfalea’s side wherever she goes. “I just consider her my Bodhisattva,” says Orfalea, “because, somebody who goes through that…”

She doesn’t finish the thought. She doesn’t need to.


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