The Cordes Foundation


Ron and Marty Cordes created The Cordes Foundation in 2006 and were joined in 2014 by their daughter Stephanie as Vice-Chair, and Eric Stephenson as Portfolio Director. The Foundation seeks to build a more peaceful and secure world through accelerating enterprising leadership, ideas and initiatives that fundamentally advance women’s human rights and address poverty with scalable and sustainable solutions.

Where did your philanthropy begin?

Marty: Ron and I met at the University of California Berkeley, through a philanthropy project. Ron’s fraternity was selling flowers to raise money to send underprivileged children to summer camp, and they asked the sororities to help. So we met selling daffodils! After we married, we did a lot of philanthropy at a local level. Women and girls was always the main focus, but we were giving to lots of other areas too and realised this wasn’t delivering the deep impact we were hoping to make.

Ron: It often becomes humbling when you look at the scope of the issues. We wanted to drill down to become more specialised and more knowledgeable, to really understand the players. It became clear to us that we believe philanthropy should be done on the ground, from the bottom up. It’s not up to us to impose on the developing world what we think they need, they’re entirely capable of coming up with their own solutions. What they need is resources and support – this is where we see our role. 

When did you decide to create a family foundation? And how do you now work together as a family?

Ron: I had an investment management business that I decided to sell. It was important to Marty and me that we use that as an opportunity to create a family foundation. It was always something we wanted to do, to organise what had been over 20 years of personal philanthropy. We started the foundation before the business sale and funded it with stock, so it really became active when the business sold in October 2006. 

At that point it was just Marty and me and we had a good idea of the issues we were interested in, but we got help from consultants and administrators about running a foundation. Frankly, it was more frustrating than inspiring. The world we were living in was steeped in the traditional idea of investing the capital [the endowment] and giving away the income: ‘it’s great to put 100 cents in but don’t even worry about 95 of those’. We wanted to see how we could put more than just 5% of our resources to work in solving the problems that were important to us.

Marty: In the last couple of years we’ve been joined by our daughter Steph, and Eric as Portfolio Director, and they’ve definitely helped to grow the organisation. When we first started, our strategy focused on women and girls, but this was very broad and we decided we really had to focus and pick an area where we were going to make a difference. 

Steph: I joined after a few years working in fashion in New York. I’ve always been passionate about fashion, clothes and design, and wanted to figure out how I could use my passion and previous experience within the foundation. So I started learning about how over 80% of those working in fashion globally are women and many are not being paid a living wage. We wanted to find out how we could create opportunities for women in the developing world that integrated all three of our interests: women and girls, social entrepreneurship, and impact investing.

Ron: Our portfolio today reflects our combined passions around empowering women and girls, and the grants budget and investment decisions are something we do as a family. We have board members for external advice and support, but it’s a four-person team at the foundation. We consider Eric like family; he‘s in charge of managing all of the details around how we perform due diligence on our investments, how we monitor our portfolio and work with all the different organisations we support. 

How have you developed your investments in women and girls? How do you think about applying a 'gender lens' to your work?

Marty: When Steph joined the foundation, we wanted to see how her interest in fashion fit with what we were already doing around providing economic opportunities for women. Knowing that the global fashion industry is over 80% women, her interest fit perfectly.

Steph: As an example, last year we invested in an ethical jewellery company called Soko. They use a global technology platform that allows artisans to connect with and pick up orders with big retailers. We went out to Nairobi to talk to them and find out how it was working. Although many of the artisans sold in local markets, they now have access to global markets. They’re able to produce a lot more and grow their incomes.

Marty: The way we look at gender is that we aren’t just supporting organisations where women are the end beneficiaries. When we make investments in the artisan sector we’re looking for the organisation’s ability to include women throughout the entire supply chain. We’re also looking at where women are playing roles in an organisation, in leadership positions or on boards, for example, as we believe that those organisations are going to be more effective.

The main thing is that by giving women economic opportunity we are creating greater opportunity for their children and their children’s children. We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty and it’s proven that if you start with a woman you will get a better outcome. 


We’re often not an organisation’s biggest investor, but we hope we’re their most strategic investor.

How did you go about using impact investing and other tools to dedicate all your assets for your mission? What advice would you give to those who are interested in this approach?

Ron: We made some personal investments in microfinance even before starting the foundation, so had become aware of the opportunity for impact investing. In late 2007 we went to our board and proposed to allocate 20% of our portfolio to what we called ‘social enterprise investments’ for the next year. I remember saying to them that it was a new and unproven field, but that we wanted to be field-builders. We may lose a bit but we’d try to lose it intelligently so we could learn on behalf of ourselves and others.

Finding investment opportunities was incredibly difficult at the time. It took us nine months to put together roughly 20% of our portfolio, most of which was allocated in the developing world. As the financial crisis hit in late 2008 it became apparent that this 20% was actually the best performing part of our portfolio. That really spearheaded this approach as something that has both investment merit and delivers an impact.

We’ve ended up over the years bringing together people who are really deploying capital, to share honest conversations about what has worked and what hasn’t, and how we can inspire the rest of the philanthropic community to take a broader perspective on using the resources they have. If somebody tells you it isn’t possible to be an impact investor, or that there are significant limitations, then I’d suggest you probably don’t have the right advisor. It’s a growing field based on the demand from both foundations and philanthropists. 

Could you talk about some of the conferences the foundation has organised?

Ron: We rent an entire property, turn it into a college campus for five days, and take everything we’ve learnt from traditional conferences and turn it on its head. Traditionally the information flows from the top down, which means that a small group of people determines the themes they feel are important and the people who attend are just listening. There is limited time for networking and it all feels transactional: ‘How many business cards can I hand out? Who might be helpful to me?’

We decided to build an event completely the other way around: no PowerPoint presentations, no speakers and an agenda entirely developed by the attendees so the information flows from the bottom up. Then we build in hours of time for real relationship building. Instead of ‘how you can help me?’ it becomes ‘how I can help you?’ We’ve found the results to be extraordinary. Organisations come back with game changing results, people have life changing moments that truly affect the trajectory of the work they do and the lives they lead.  

What is your goal for the portfolio now?

Eric: When Steph and I joined, the goal was to get to 100% impact investing. We were at about 40% at the time, mainly in the private market. We’ve started to look at our public market portfolio, and done an assessment of the equity and debt managers who took environmental, social and governance factors (ESG) seriously. We came up with an asset allocation we felt was right for us in terms of risk and reward and domestic and international exposure, and by the summer of 2015 our portfolio was 100% allocated to impact investments. 

Tell us about your experiences with the grant recipients and investees. Do you manage them in the same way?

Eric: We can be pretty hands-on with both our grantee and investment partners. We usually give single-year grants, and there are some who continue with us for three to four years, but we always look to go ‘beyond the dollar’, making a financial investment but looking for ways to connect them with our larger network. 

Take Soko, the jewellery company. When we invested it was working with 800 artisans with revenues of around $1m. We brought all the people we know in fashion around a table with Soko to discuss the challenges of the industry, particularly working in developing countries, and a key issue was the working capital for artisans to buy the raw material they needed to create their product. Facilities were available, but at far too high interest rates. Soko created a working capital facility that started with us and others providing $300,000 seed funding, which led to another institution on the ground in Nairobi contributing $750,000. Soko is now working with over 1,300 artisans and revenues are looking to double this year. 

Ron: Most of our grants are relatively modest - $10,000 to $50,000 – and they’re almost always unrestricted. Our feeling is, ‘do we want to support the social entrepreneur or not?’ If we feel like we need a tighter handle on them, then it probably isn’t the right investment for us. Most of our investments aren’t huge, we’re often not an organisation’s biggest investor, but we hope we’re their most strategic investor.

We have access to amazing opportunities to support young enterprises where our dollars can be very meaningful. Our goal is to provide them with modest financial contributions coupled with a lot of other support that can help them grow to the point where they can apply to much larger organisations, who wouldn’t have looked at them when we originally did.

If we make a grant, our hope is that when we sit down with the organisation a year later, the money will have been important, but more important will have been all the things that came with it, through bringing them into our network and connecting them to other investors, opportunities, business partners, advisors, mentors, board members and so on.


Brilliance and talent are equally distributed in this world, but opportunity is not.

In many ways, it seems like you've had to forge your own path, especially your idea for '100% for mission'. What people or ideas have influenced how you think about philanthropy?

Ron: I’ve always been inspired by the premise promoted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that all lives are created equal, and by Warren Buffet, who talks about the bottom billion and how fortunate we are to have been born where we were. Brilliance and talent are equally distributed in this world, but opportunity is not. What can we do to build bridges between talent and opportunity to help those bottom billion lift themselves up into better lives?

Marty: I’ve always believed it is everyone’s responsibility to make a difference. It doesn’t matter whether it is financial or by giving your time, I really believe everyone can make a difference, and we need to promote that.

What do you think can be done to strengthen philanthropy in the US?

Steph: From my perspective, much of the philanthropy has been done by those my parents’ ages and older who have built up financial capital and can now donate. Millennials are now looking for ways to contribute and find fulfilling jobs without having to have made a lot of money in order to benefit the world. I think this is why we’ve seen an increase in the number of social enterprises recently. We need to find more ways to involve the millennial generation and focus more on the human capital rather than just financial capital.

Eric: I think there is a need for continued improvement in transparency in social enterprise and non-profits, particularly through technology and social media that Millennials, as they start to become bigger philanthropists, will continue to seek out. They will increasingly seek out organisations with ethics and values that align with their own.

What would you say to someone who is just starting their philanthropy journey?

Marty: Often people say they need to find something they’re passionate about before they start giving, but I would say that you need to do some research because you won’t necessarily be automatically passionate about something. Reach out to people and non-profits you might be interested in. Through talking to a variety of organisations I believe you will start getting interested, and somewhere along the line you will find your passion.

Ron: In this generation where people are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives they think that maybe the only way to achieve that is through whatever philanthropic resources they have available. But I think it’s a lot broader than that – people have enormous untapped reservoirs of both human and financial capital at their disposal. On the financial side, it’s about how they can redirect their investment portfolios in ways which support the things they care about. For most people the dollars they have in their investments may be many multiples of what they are able to give away philanthropically during their lifetimes, so there are more resources available for good than we might think.

I also don’t think people truly appreciate the human and social capital – not just your time and talent but also your ability to influence and inspire others in your network.

Across all countries covered in this report there is a wealth of experience of major philanthropy. We asked donors to share their advice on giving donations of $1m or more.

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