Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Kelly Alvarez Vitale. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.
Kelly Alvarez, thanks for taking the time to share your stories with us today What did your parents do right and how has that impacted you in your life and career?
It can’t go on unsaid that I am a first generation American. Both of my parents and grandparents are Cuban and arrived in this country in the early 60s. I share this because what was consciously and subconsciously seen was an incredible work ethic between all of them. They lost everything and came to this country to rebuild their life and literally started from scratch. My grandparents, who were business owners, were now janitors in a sugar mill and my grandmothers, who were stay at home moms were now working in a packing house packing vegetables. One set of grandparents started a jewelry business in our small town where my dad began working at age 14. My mom also began working at a young age to help her family, so working hard has always been something that has just been ingrained in me. However, there are two individual lessons from each parent that stand out.
Because my grandparents had meager monetary means early on, my mom would often talk about reputation in our house. She would say, “Even if you don’t have a dime to your name, if you have your reputation, then you have everything you need.” This mindset was something that has defined my entire life – my reputation. All my decisions and actions are made with the thought, how would this affect my reputation? How do I want people to view me and what do I want to be known for? This is still a constant with my business. As I coach my teammates, I always tell them to do what is right, even when that means it’s hard. If you do what is right all the time, then your clients will trust you and your teammates will admire the work you do.
My dad is a very macho man, so the fact that he ended up with two daughters was not in his original plan. Because he never got a son, we often laugh that he treated my sister and I like boys and pushed us to try and do whatever a boy could do. Now looking back, you can say this was a very progressive mindset for the 80s. I was raised never once thinking that because I was a girl or a woman that I was any less of an individual. He would taunt us by saying, “I bet a boy could do it.” That would really light a fire in me, and I would step up to the challenge. This mindset instilled a confidence in me, and I have always felt that I had a seat at the table. Many women cannot identify with that statement. I understand that. I’m grateful that I haven’t had to work through those complex emotions as a woman. It’s helped me further my career because I’ve felt that I’ve always had a voice and always seen as an equal player.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m a first generation American who came from a small town with just 12,000 people. Despite graduating co-valedictorian of my class, trying to convince my Hispanic parents to let their first born go to Florida State University, which was seven hours away and had 45,000 students, was an uphill battle. However, I was given the green light and left home. At FSU, I majored in public relations and Spanish and received a Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communication. During my time in high school and college, I was extremely involved so that was a big part of my identity. Not knowing that I could marry those two sides of my personality, my mindset post college was I was going to go into corporate America and would climb the corporate ladder.
I ultimately got hired by a major nonprofit to do development and cause marketing and found myself working with community relations professional at various corporations. I knew this would be my next career move, but then quickly learned that it’s the job that nobody leaves. You would have to wait until someone retired to apply and so despite my best efforts, it would just be a waiting game.
Simultaneously, my husband who was very involved in the community, was working at a large bank and would often be pitched by nonprofits for sponsorship dollars. One Saturday morning as we were making our bed, he was sharing about another sponsorship pitch he had heard. He turned to me and said, “You should do this.” And I said, “What?” He said, “You should start a company where you help manage all the community relations efforts for small and medium-sized companies and take this off someone’s plate.” I remember telling him that was the dumbest idea, questioned who would ever hire me and walked out the room. A week later I came back to him and asked him what it would take for me to start a business. With no business or MBA experience, I bought a book on Amazon called “How to Start a Business” and started my journey on building my company.
Thus, in January 2012, I launched Strategic Philanthropy. At Strategic Philanthropy, we believe that companies can “do good and do well.” We saw a need for a new philanthropic approach and founded the company on the belief that effective corporate giving is one that fits an organization’s business goals, values and objectives. We understand how targeted philanthropy can help organizations indirectly market products and services to clearly defined market segments and have witnessed how effective philanthropy opens business opportunities and helps employees feel more connected to the business.
Corporate philanthropy has really taken off these last 10 years. Not only do customers want to see the good that companies are doing and feel more connected to the brand, but employees also want to be able to work for a company that does good and gives them a sense of purpose. In short, Strategic Philanthropy helps companies, foundations and government agencies put a plan in place that uses philanthropy as a tool to help bridge the gap to help meet business needs. We believe that when a company does good, they will ultimately do well.
We want our clients to feel like we are an extension of their team. People often ask if our company has favorite nonprofits that we steer companies towards. I often tell clients and my team, that the money a company is donating is not our money. We are hired to help companies give back to causes that really align with what they do or want to be known for. What’s most important for us, is for a company to give. There are many great nonprofits to partner with and we want to ensure we align them with the best ones so they will continue to see the value in giving.
What I want people, and mostly our team, to know is that the work we do has actual meaning. We are really helping companies and their employees give back and ultimately helping our communities. I also want my team, and future team members, to know that work is a piece of who they are. We have built the company so that people have the freedom and flexibility to live their own life – whether they themselves want to volunteer during the work week, work from the beach or pick up their kids every day from school. My team will often hear me say, as long as the work gets done, I don’t care what time it gets done. Just meet the deadline.
We often hear about learning lessons – but just as important is unlearning lessons. Have you ever had to unlearn a lesson?
Because my reputation has always been so important to who I am, I had to unlearn that in business it’s not personal, it’s just business. Companies, clients, and team members are always going to do what’s in the best interest for themselves and it might have nothing to do with what you do or the type of work you’ve done. They are ultimately making a business decision.
One of my first clients that had been with me a while, was having discussions about taking their community relation efforts in house and wanted me to come work for the organization. I was very happy at my company and the type of business we were building, so going in-house was not going to be an option for me at that time. Thus, I was on the brink of losing one of my biggest clients. When I received the call about the internal discussions happening, I handle it professionally, hung up the phone and then balled. I felt like I was mourning this huge loss because I was taking it personally. I thought this was a reflection on me or that they did not like the work that I was doing. Once I had the opportunity to mourn the potential loss of that client, I realized that it wasn’t about me and solely about the business doing what was in the best interest for their organization; I made peace with it (and the client ultimately stayed). Once I made peace with it, I was able to know that clients come and go and it’s not personal, it’s just business. It’s the same with employees. The first time an employee leaves you feel so hurt by it, but then you realize that they’re just making the best decision for them and it’s not necessarily personal.
I now understand this as a business owner as well. I’ve had to make tough businesses decisions with vendors and teammates that I’ve had personal relationships with.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
Going into the year 2020, the company was set up to have the best year yet. The pandemic had a different story for all of us. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the economy started to falter, I didn’t know if I would have a job, or a business or if companies would continue to give. I braced for the absolute worst. What we came to find out was that companies stepped up and wanted to help more with their philanthropic efforts. They wanted to give back to their communities, to help people who were struggling, and to be a resource. So not only were we able to keep our current clients, but we were sought after by municipalities to assist with their CARES funding.
When the CARES funding was released by the federal government, municipalities throughout the country were given millions of dollars to help offer relief. We were engaged by some of these municipalities to help run these programs and disperse the funding to residents and business owners. When these cities reached out to us about the opportunity, I remember thinking that this wasn’t a fit for our company. This wasn’t what we did. I was fixed on the idea that we help companies, organizations, foundations, and government agencies give away their money to nonprofits, not to individuals. But after a powwow with my brilliant husband, he said explain to me how this is any different than what you currently do? You come up with funding priorities and criteria, you create guidelines, establish an application process and scoring process and disperse the funds. Instead of giving it to a nonprofit, you’re just giving it to an individual or a business instead. That change of mindset allowed us to pivot and take on major projects to help communities during a very difficult time for so many. It was a big pivot that allowed up to grow significantly as a company.