Obtain in-depth knowledge about the problem that the non-profit is trying to solve.

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 Jeff Geoffray.

Jeff has produced or served as an executive on more than 150 feature films representing more than $1 billion of production, including award-winning shorts, documentaries, and podcasts. He is co-founder of Storywarrior Media, Inc. where he and his partner, Amy Taylor, are producing their first independently financed animated feature to be available for worldwide acquisition in 2023. He co-founded the non-profit scholarship fund based, The 431 Exchange.

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?

Growing up in the shadows of heroines. My mother was a struggling teacher and sole support for her seven children when she became the director of The Adult Education Center in 1965. The school’s mission was to train mostly African American women the hard and soft skills they would need to integrate the secretarial offices of the Deep South at a time when those offices were off-limits and while many were fighting to keep them that way for years or decades to come. Although she had recently won national recognition as Teacher of the Year, the main reason she got the job was that the founder of the school had been effectively kicked out of New Orleans on the eve of the school’s opening. Suffice to say, it was a controversial project. The project changed the course of my mother’s life because, as she said herself, she got to meet and teach 431 extraordinary women whose passion for learning was like nothing she had ever encountered. The graduates went on to succeed in a business world that had previously been forbidden to them and they did so with grace and dignity. Their example opened the doors for others and changed the moral skyline of New Orleans. My sister, Jeanne Geoffray, and I were lucky enough to make the school our second home. That experience changed the course of our lives and shaped who we are today. We were inspired by the examples set by our mother’s students. They became the lodestar to our moral compasses. They were and still are examples of who we aspire to be.

Finding my tribe. When I was a sophomore at USC my goal was to graduate in physics. A life in science was the most romantic career path I could imagine based on the books I had read and the friends I knew who aspired to do the same. But, one day someone invited me to help on a student film. From the moment I started pulling cable on a set I fell in love with the process of making movies. I loved the eclectic mix of aspiring artists and craftsmen working on a common goal. Felt at home with a disparate group of people guided by the demands of the script and schedule. Enjoyed the structure that makes it possible for everyone to know at every moment how their small role fits into a bigger picture. Before that long weekend was over, I knew I had found my tribe and I haven’t been out of some form of production for even a day since then. Good thing, too, because while I romanticized about being a scientist I was terrible at math.

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.

Be impeccable with your word. A close friend turned me onto a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s a guide to the agreements one must make with oneself in order to achieve personal freedom. According to Ruiz, the most difficult of the agreements to honor is to be impeccable with your word. To be impeccable with your word is to speak without judgment against oneself and others. To speak with integrity. To recognize that what we say is who we are and, at the same time, has an impact on others. To choose your words carefully before saying them aloud. I have learned in difficult situations that it is important to take a deep breath before speaking. As President Barack Obama has said, ‘to respond, versus react.’ And perhaps just as important, to listen carefully before responding.

Master all the things that are within your control. The things that are within my control are: effort; beliefs; actions; attitude; integrity; thoughts; the food I eat; how kind I am to others; how reflective I am during the course of a day; how thoughtful I am toward others; the type of friend and family member I am; the information I consume; the people I surround myself with.

Failure is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps being the youngest of seven children has made this the most difficult to incorporate into my character. Youngest children often want to be perfect to please their older siblings. That is perhaps one reason why I became fascinated with Stanford University Professor Tina Seelig’s idea of a failure resume. She states that when she asks her classes to create a failure resume, invariably the most successful students have the longest ones. I am proud to say that I have a long failure resume to go along with many successes. But, one thing is certainly true, I have learned much more from those failures and they make for much better stories!

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

The most interesting discoveries we’ve made since we started our organization are explored in great detail in our soon-to-be released podcast, Exchange Place: How A Small Struggling School Transformed Civil Rights in New Orleans and the Nation. The podcast tells the story of a school that was on the vanguard of what we now call diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s the only work of its kind to explore in-depth the lives of the African American women who integrated the workforce at the height of the War on Poverty and then in the following decades. Some of the revelations that came in the five-year process of producing the podcast include:

a) The fierce resistance to desegregation in the workplace did not end with the passing of landmark civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965 that technically outlawed workplace discrimination, but continued for the following decades;

b) Hard working women from the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans, many on welfare or other forms of assistance, altered the moral skyline of their city and not the other way around. These women were nurtured by an African American, Creole community that was culturally rich despite limited resources. While there were many technical things they had to learn in order to work in predominantly white offices, they did not have to learn what was right or wrong, or the value of education, or the value of hard work. Those qualities had been instilled in them at an early age despite the depravity of the Jim Crow world they grew up in;

c) A conspiracy to force the Adult Education Center to shut down in 1968 came from an all-white for-profit business college whose business plan focused on reaping the benefits of new forms of educational funding that began flowing from the Federal government during that era. The for-profit school was just one of many that expanded starting in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Like its counterparts, that school saddled its new diverse student base with loans while giving very little support in terms of career counseling and job placement.

We are channeling all of these lessons into our work at The 431 Exchange.

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

We advocate on behalf of adult education and the importance of lifelong learning. We believe all individuals should have access to training in hard skills that are meaningful to them and valued in the marketplace. We also believe in the importance of holistic forms of adult education that strengthen and nurture an individual’s well-being and self-concept alongside the acquisition of hard skills. We hope to create a future where our society recognizes and rewards those who pursue a lifelong journey of education, critical thinking, re-invention and self-improvement.

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

Meeting our scholarship candidates. The opportunity to meet a diverse group of adults who are in the process of transforming their lives through education has been a humbling experience. These are quiet heroes doing their best to make the world a better place by taking responsibility for themselves and, in many cases, their families. I feel blessed to be a part of their lives and it drives me to expand the strength of our non-profit so that we can continue to help them in their educational journeys.

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

We met one of our scholarship recipients in 2020 when he was studying for his Master’s in social work at Jackson State University. In his application to The 431 Exchange he wrote that during high school he and his father experienced a prolonged period of housing insecurity. A foreign-language teacher made her classroom a home for him. In doing so, the student said “She taught me how important it is for people to feel safe and to have a sense of belonging.” Meanwhile, his father did everything possible to help him finish high school, working extra hours so his son could have test prep books and school supplies. Despite the myriad challenges he excelled in his class assignments.

Although our recipient had various funding from other sources for tuition, he needed to “piece” together additional funds to keep him housed and fed while attending JSU. The scholarship money that we sent in the form of a direct cash grant helped him do this at a critical juncture.

We continued to follow and support him with additional money until he graduated with a Masters in Sociology, monitoring his progress and his well-being all along the way. We call these additional funds “Lift” grants.

After receiving his Masters, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Colorado University at Boulder. Unfortunately, due to a car accident that killed his mother in September, and for other reasons, he dropped out of their Ph.D. program. But, he recently pivoted to get a second Masters in Psychology to be awarded to him in Spring, 2023. Currently he is doing better financially. He is employed as a counselor and his future plans are to enroll at Loyola Chicago in its Ph.D. program in Psychology.

He believes in giving back — his resume reflects his interest in others with extensive volunteer work. He has recently offered his expertise as a guidance counselor to the 431 Exchange for its scholarship winners who are planning on continuing their education in a graduate program. He has valuable insights to offer in helping other students get into and thrive in graduate studies.

A note from this exceptional young man in January, 2022 stated “I am extremely fortunate to have such kind and thoughtful people like you in my life to support my dreams. I will make certain that I return the same kindness through my work in the field of school psychology.”

It is our hypothesis that a continued attention and interest in the educational journeys of scholarship recipients amplifies the value of the financial rewards we provide. We recognize that for this student and others to fulfill their educational goals and work happily ever after they must face and overcome one challenge after another. We are here to provide a sense of belonging to go along with other benefits. In the near future, we intend to test this hypothesis in various ways and make the reports public as part of an academic study.

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?

Read about and get to know some of our scholarship recipients, especially the challenges they face and overcome. How can we do a better job at giving them the opportunity to achieve their educational goals if they are willing to put in the work? What other resources have we or they left untapped?

Ask yourself, how has education transformed your life? What resources were required to pursue your educational goals and how did you meet them? What would have happened if those resources were not available? At what point was it no longer necessary to learn and educate yourself?

Look at the job-training programs in your industry or neighborhood. Are they in demand? Are they adequate? Do they create graduates who are valued in the marketplace? Are they improving the quality of life for their graduates? What is their success rate? How accessible are they to people who have to work to support themselves? What economic burden do they place on students who attend in the form of loans and other liabilities? Please, let us know what you find even if it’s only anecdotal.

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

a. Set out on a clear mission.

In 2018 my sister and I contacted 100 of the 431 Adult Education Center’s alumnae we could locate. We intended to introduce ourselves and get to know them as we could never forget meeting them as little kids and hearing stories about their ongoing lives and careers from our mother. We wanted to know what they thought were the secrets to their long-term success. It was a surprise to us that most commented on the small stipend they received for attending the school to help them with streetcars, bus fares, lunches and babysitting. In 1965 the stipend was $35.00 a month but what a relief it was to each one of them to receive it. Fifty plus years later, they remembered the exact amount of the stipend and the details of the important ways they used it to stay in school!

Together, Jeanne and I thought…we could give a small stipend each year to a scholarship winner in the amount of $1,431. Before the first award, we felt the need to give out more and did so. As of today, since our idea in 2018, we have awarded over 100 scholarships.

The goal is to provide an invaluable ‘hand-up’ (not a hand-out) to adults determined to transform their lives through education. The scholarship fund is open twice a year to adults aged eighteen and older who are residents of Louisiana, and are enrolled in an accredited college, university, or vocational/trade/technical school in the State of Louisiana.

Top-scoring applicants are awarded $1,431. Runners-up and previous scholarship winners who need further assistance meeting some of the expenses necessitated by pursuing their educational goals are awarded $431 Lift Scholarships.

b. Obtain in-depth knowledge about the problem that the non-profit is trying to solve.

The U.S. Adult Student population’s need for financial assistance has never been greater — and our scholarship applications reflect that sobering reality. We have seen the enormous impact Covid-19 has had on the workforce, particularly for students. A December 2020 Gallup poll found 56% of Black students said the pandemic will likely impact the completion of their bachelor’s degree; 60% of Black students pursuing an associate’s degree reported the same. As if strained family income isn’t enough to stop the thought of college dead in its tracks for many, and being the first in the family to enroll in college during hard times may lose all its luster. In addition, tuition at private, public, vocational and trade schools continue to rise astronomically.

In April of 2021, Damon DeJesus, of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, wrote the research paper Lower Tuition, Eliminate Debts, and Enjoy Your Education. His premise, “Lowering the price of tuition, distributing more financial aid to students, and reducing the rate of interest attached to loans some students may be obligated to take out, students may have a more successful path to thrive.” DeJesus added, “When money is given to a student like a gift, it’s not required to be paid back or reimbursed.

While most of those who apply to us for a scholarship are working part-time, and have developed plans in the event of more financially difficult times, we believe the gift of the scholarships we give are a boon to students. As W.E.B. DuBois said, “There is in this world, no such force as the force of a person determined to rise.” The 431 Exchange is all about helping those determined to rise do so through education, affirmation, and a simple ‘hand-up’.

The simplest measure of our financial support is a point we hear over and over again from the scholarship winners when they receive their checks in the mail. They tell us, “the check came just in time!” We receive emails and notes thanking us for not only the check, but for the timing and the feeling that we are cheering them on.

c. Keep an open mind to pivot when needed.

When Jeanne and I realized we were able to award more scholarships than anticipated, we thought it would be a good idea to expand from accepting only Louisiana students’ applications to students in five additional southern states. We quickly learned after receiving 500 applications one round that we were straying away from our New Orleans roots and diminishing the number of awards to students in our backyard. Although we met and awarded scholarships to many outstanding students from Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama, we felt we were veering away from our “lane” in Louisiana. We pivoted and reworked the rules to accept applications from Louisiana students only. Right away it felt like the right decision and most importantly the applicants could learn about the legacy of the Adult Education Center and how these women lived and thrived in their own state. Then, the most amazing event happened which solidified our decision. When the $34,000,000 New Orleans Career Center was being built, the New Orleans School Board chose our mother’s name as the name of the building to house the Career Center — The Dr. Alice R. Geoffray School. This opened the door for us to award scholarships at the Career Center, have their students involved with our non-profit, and have a younger generation carry on the legacy of what we started. The directors, faculty and scholarship winners at the NOCC embraced us and our mission. Many times they have said they are willing to help out in any way and they have. We call on them for media interviews and it is truly a win-win situation as they not only represent the 431 Exchange but the New Orleans Career Center at the Dr. Alice R. Geoffray School. Win-win all around!

d. Seek buy-in from stakeholders and parties of all kinds.

After interviewing 100 of the Adult Education Center’s alumnae, we were not only inspired by them, we knew we wanted them by our sides to start the non-profit and to have them actively involved. Five of the graduates are active on our Board and on our Scholarship Committee. As we meet over Zoom to conduct interviews with the finalists, our Board Members continually tell us that these days are some of their best days of their year. We laugh, cry, and get inspired by the new scholarship winners all together. Our goal in 2023 is to invite three of our Scholarship Winners — who have graduated — to be members of our Board.

e. Set goals that can be tested and evaluated.

At first, Jeanne and I thought we could fund the scholarship awards ourselves. But with the growth of the non-profit and so much need for ‘hand-ups’ we finally decided to ask for donations. More than one of our friends said we were the worst fundraisers because we never ask for the money. We started to turn this around by asking for donations from those who already knew our story and mission. Interest grew. Last year we had our very first formal fundraiser — Culture for a Cause. One of our supporters, a talented artist from New Orleans, gifted us paintings. A local coffee shop donated their space and food for the event. Graduates from the Adult Education Center and scholarship winners told their stories at the event to inspire the guests to be as generous as they could. From one afternoon we raised $25,000. We have raised over $300,000 since the start and a large share of those donations come with commitments to do more on a regular basis. At this point, 100% of the donations go directly into scholarships. Our next goals are to expand the scholarship fund and secure corporate funding to make our organization’s management self-sustaining.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

My definition of success is to have the time and resources to treat a friend to dinner at a nice restaurant several nights a week. During the pandemic it was practically impossible to have dinner with friends and work colleagues. But, I did have more time to read. One of the books I read during that time was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, one of the seminal works of Western Philosophy. It is a surprisingly down-to-earth and accessible book that I would recommend to anyone. One of the important assumptions Aristotle makes in his book is that one cannot be happy in life without friends. In fact, he makes a case that ethics and justice spring from the conflicts that arise when a person has to weigh the actions of one friend over another. So, the pandemic has not necessarily changed my definition of success but it has elevated the importance of doing my best to be a good friend and colleague.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Dust myself off and get back on the horse. When I face a setback I would like to say that I try not to dwell on it too much. But, it’s only human to feel something when it happens. On top of those emotions that linger, many setbacks result in consequences that force a pivot or change of direction of some kind. To settle the emotions and help change course, I reflect on my overall goals and the task list I’ve made to achieve those goals, make necessary adjustments, and get back to work. Sometimes I start with the easiest steps on the task list. And other times by diving into something I’ve been putting off.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama.

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

a. Subscribe to our Podcast: https://431exchange.org/podcast

b. Subscribe to our 431Exchange newsletter: https://431exchange.org/

c. Subscribe to our Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/@exchangeplace

d. Follow me on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jeffgeoffray

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