Philanthropy at the core: An interview with entrepreneur and investor Jeff Lund

Jeff Lund, Investor, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur

Las Vegas

Interview by Laura Piety

Jeff is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and investor focused on changing the world for the better. Jeff is one of our favorite people, has a wealth of business experience in everything from Cirque du Soleil and technology, to entertainment and insanely popular Shuffleboard Clubs. We chatted with Jeff about this experience and his main values, including his belief that philanthropy should be at the core of how construct your life. We are also excited to welcome Jeff to our panel of contributors focusing on the philanthropic space. 

Can you give us a quick span of your career up until this point?

I grew up on a working farm in North Dakota. I received an aeronautical degree with my pilot's license from the University of North Dakota. I spent the first six years of my professional career working for the National Business Aviation Association in Washington, DC. They represent the interests of the corporate business aviation community. After traveling the world, I decided to run away with the circus and joined Cirque du Soleil on September 11, 2001. I've spent the last 13 years managing large scale live entertainment shows. During that time I also received my MBA and began expanding my portfolio of investments through angel investing.

What did you do, and learn, at Cirque?

I started my career at Cirque du Soleil selling tickets at the "O" box office at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino. I paid my dues and climbed my way up the trapeze ladder as an usher, Production Coordinator, Assistant Company Manager and Company Manager. My journey allowed me to be part of the resident shows "O", Mystere, CRISS ANGEL Believe and KA in Las Vegas and the global touring production of TOTEM. I've spent the past 3 and 1/2 years touring the world, living in 24 cities and 4 countries. 

I joined Cirque when they were starting to open multiple shows a year. Creativity is at the core of all of their endeavors. They taught me to believe anything is possible. I watched them reinvent the circus industry and create a new market space by challenging the conventional assumptions about how to compete. Cirque was built on values and deep convictions which rest on a foundation of audacity, creativity, imagination and their people who have been the backbone of their success. Cirque taught me to DREAM. They encouraged the artists, creators and staff the freedom to imagine their wildest dreams and bring them to life; both inside as well as outside the company. In 2007, Guy Laliberté launched One Drop Foundation. It was at this time I became exposed to how important it is to find a cause or charity that you are passionate about. This was when I discovered what I call - philanthropy at the core.

How do you stay focused in the midst of being involved in lots of different projects?

I'm the type of person that likes to juggle many projects at the same time. The more I've got going on, the happier and more productive I am. My main focus is always on people. I'm constantly asking myself the questions; am I giving the people I invest in what they need? Managing so many projects over the years, I've gained a quick sense of understanding what people need. This may be different than what they want. If the people are taken care of, the project will continue to grow. I only invest in projects that are driven by highly passionate people who believe in their DREAMS. 

You talk a lot about philanthropy at the core. What does this mean to you?

Philanthropy at the core is very simple and it starts by coming from an authentic place of generosity.  I've come to a place in life that I want more than just a financial gain with regards to the projects I work on and whom I work with. I keep philanthropy at the center of whom I am and use it to guide my thoughts in everyday life.  Once I established my core values, I found that I gravitated towards others with similar interests. The result has been a growing circle of friends and we have become leaders of change together.  When I encounter a difficult decision, I always go back to my core passion and follow that vision which leads me to people, places and organizations that align with my core.

Philanthropy at the core is very simple and it starts by coming from an authentic place of generosity. I’ve come to a place in life that I want more than just a financial gain with regards to the projects I work on and whom I work with.

What advice would you give to people re-thinking generosity, whether that be generosity with their time or their money? How would you advise them to use their resources?

I believe time is one's most valuable asset to give away. We all have a limited about of time and it will run out, unlike money, which we can continue to make more of. For me, giving someone your time has a much higher value than giving money. I'm currently a mentor for a global team leader with Three Dot Dash. Being a mentor is based on giving your expertise, network, ideas and support to the generation that is redefining our world. It's actually been one of the most rewarding experiences of creative philanthropy yet. 

However, for some people it's much easier to give money. So many people think you have to have a lot of money to be a philanthropists. I believe just the opposite. Any amount that a person gives, is better than giving nothing. I greatly admire people who can manage giving both their time and money. Philanthropy is very personal and I suggest that you do what you can for the cause you're passionate about. 

What do you see as the future of giving money or donations to an organization? 

I see a change in philanthropy, especially with Millennials. They find a cause and use technology and social media to become leaders of change at such an early age. Philanthropy organizations need to keep a close eye on this movement as it will greatly impact the future of donations. In the past, large organizations raised large sums of money to create change. I enjoy seeing new organizations like Thirst Project solving problems with an arsenal of teenagers using technology to communicate, engage communities and raise money. I'm looking forward to watching them solve the water crisis in third world communities . Money will always be necessary to solve the world's challenges, but education is just as important. The most successful organizations will figure out the balance between raising money and education through the use of technology. We are in a very exciting time of change.

As well as being a financial investor, you also invest in relationships. Are these things mutually exclusive? How do you maintain a friendships with those you’re working with?

I was taught very early in life that relationships are the most important thing in life. This belief has held true both in my professional career and personal life. I won't enter into an investment or new project if there is not a positive, healthy and strong relationship based on trust and open communication. Again, for me, I'm not driven solely by the financial reward. Of course I want to see a positive return, but more importantly I want to see someone else realize their DREAM. Often times if I'm not able to help someone there is usually someone in my network that can. I'm always willing to make an introduction.

I was taught very early in life that relationships are the most important thing in life. This belief has held true both in my professional career and personal life.

How do you view collaboration when it comes to managing a project? 

I've found collaboration is the key to the success of any project. Again, I've watched so many talented designers collaborate and create amazing Cirque shows. All the people I've invested in have a similar view with regard to collaboration. At this stage I've perfected the art of understanding people whom I align with fundamentally. If I don't feel that energy, I tend to not get involved. 

At this stage I’ve perfected the art of understanding people whom I align with fundamentally. If I don’t feel that energy, I tend to not get involved.

Crowdfunding for projects is now commonplace. How do you see this benefiting the philanthropy space?

I believe technology is at the core of how philanthropy will be defined in the future. Take Vivienne Harr for example, a 10-year old who launched her fight against child slavery using Twitter and selling lemonade. She raised over $100,000 in a year. The tech company STAND is building a mobile-first crowd-first platform being lead by VP product Tanya Maslach along with investors like Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone. Imagine a tool that empowers everyone to put their compassion into action - wherever you stand. Philanthropy needs to be easy, empowering and effective, as well as exciting. 

Who do you look up to and why?

I look up to anyone who makes change happen. They can be young or young at heart. Most recently, I've come across so many teens who are doing just that. I call them youth leaders of change doing creative philanthropy. They don't have a lot of money but with their social network and using platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo they are becoming more powerful. They are doing what I learned at Cirque by challenging the conventional assumptions about philanthropy. They are creative, smart and most importantly... DREAM of a better world.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: