The biggest and number one thing to me is having a mission that people believe is right and important. Everything else flows from that: passion, drive, and people willing to support the cause.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and leaders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fred Smoller.

Fred Smoller is the President and CEO of the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon (OCSD). An associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange, California, he is also a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register. Fred earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington, his M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and his B.A. from State University New York, College of Fredonia. He was instrumental in bringing the U.S. Solar Decathlon to Orange County in 2013 and 2015, and now his dream of a decathlon that focuses on student-built green, affordable, sustainable housing is coming true with the Orange County Sustainability Decathlon (OCSD), which is a free event and festival for all ages that will take place October 5–8 and 12–15 in Costa Mesa, CA.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

The early deaths of my brother and my father heavily shaped who I am today. That, along with the feistiness of my mother, formed me as a person. I realized from then on that we must make every day count, even the bad ones.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I think having a vision, political skills, and persistence are the most important qualities to be found in a leader. With my background as a political science college professor, some of the above is self-explanatory, but having big thoughts and ideas about what you want to do and not giving up are essential. COVID threw us for a bit of a loop and delayed OCSD, but didn’t stop us. Now, we’re excited to be less than a month out from the event in October.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

My full-time job is that I am a college professor. So, I am used to working on my own and I’m considered the leader of a small group of people. That said, I don’t like to be told what to do and I don’t like telling people what to do. Through this organization, I discovered that I could work with people to define the “Big Goals” and then give them free rein to figure out how to achieve them.

To me, it’s sort of like the difference between jazz and classical music. In jazz, musicians generally know where they want to go. They then play the notes they choose that “get them there.” In classical music, there is no improvisation. All the notes are written down and, for the most part, the musicians play them as written. Jazz is inherently more democratic, which I like, and is the way I like to operate my organization.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact.

The Orange County Sustainability Decathlon has three goals. We’re aiming to engage the academic community from kindergarten to Ph.D. To address the issue of climate change, we believe that education is key. Education can get people to change their behavior and help them make informed decisions. A second goal is the engage the general public and convince them that they can live a sustainable life without sacrificing one’s quality of life. Finally, we want to change the economic DNA of our community by making Orange County the “sustainability capital of the world.” While the OC is primarily known for Disneyland or the Real Housewives, we want to cement its status in the sustainability and green community.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

Climate change is real and it is much worse than many people realize. It’s morally wrong and, in my opinion, just plain stupid to destroy the environment. Through this decathlon, we’re trying to tackle educating people about this incredibly real and important issue.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

There’s one story I’m particularly proud of. A student of mine beat out dozens of others to get a job at TESLA because of her practical experience building a house for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an event I previously worked on. These events not only educate but inspire and make a difference in the lives of the students who take part in them.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

  1. Try to live more sustainably. “Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being.”
  2. Pressure elected leaders to promote sustainable living and especially to reduce carbon emissions. Vote when environmental issues are on the ballot or contact your local representatives to ask what they’re doing about the environment in your area. Get involved!
  3. Know that we can defeat climate change without sacrificing quality of life.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”

The biggest and number one thing to me is having a mission that people believe is right and important. Everything else flows from that: passion, drive, and people willing to support the cause.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

A quote from Calvin Coolidge sums it up best for me: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

I look to those around me for inspiration after a setback. And especially my wife, who’s my biggest supporter.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

You can visit our website,, and our social media (@ocsdecathlon across all sites) for more info on the decathlon, plus who’ll be attending, what activities will be available for kids and adults alike, and more.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.