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Fast Action Leads to Creative Gift

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The call came to the Nonprofit Loan Fund from a supporter in mid-December 2016. It was an unusual transaction and it had to close by year end for tax purposes.

Curtis Thornhill, a philanthropist from Utah with roots in Tucson, was making a significant contribution to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, giving half in cash upfront but deferring the balance until a later date. He wanted to invest the remaining pledge monies in a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona (CFSA), but only if that money could then be redeployed to help other nonprofits.

Working together, CFSA and the Nonprofit Loan Fund (NPLF) made the transaction happen quickly: CFSA opened the DAF and then transferred the funds into the NPLF loan pool, which has since been redeployed in loans to several nonprofits. Interestingly, Curtis had approached community foundations in two other states, but CFSA/NPLF was the only team that said yes and made this unusual transaction happen.

Although Curtis is young – he is only 36 – his success as an entrepreneur and his commitment to philanthropy came when he was just a boy, working for his grandparents, Mary and Ignacio Lopez, who owned a grocery store in Cotton City, New Mexico. During his summer breaks from school, Curtis helped his grandparents run the store, which at various times served as the local gas station, post office, video store, and café in this tiny community of 388.

When Mary died in 2016, Curtis lost his hero. He says she was always starting new projects, trying new things, and dragging other family members along for the ride. She was a truck driver, a pilot and a serial entrepreneur who started (and sometimes failed at) too many businesses to count. Mary nurtured Curtis’ passion for adventure. Because of her, he loves trying new things and values change and growth when opportunity knocks.

It’s likely, then, that Mary would have enjoyed seeing Curtis accept the Impact Award he received earlier this year from The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO)—a global business network of entrepreneurs from 52 countries. The group selected Curtis from among their members for this particular award because he said yes when asked to be the lead donor of a $1.8 million capital campaign to create a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ youth in Tucson.

His contribution to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation secured the naming rights for the Thornhill-Lopez Center on 4th—a name, notes his EO nomination, that recognizes his grandparents for their legacy of strength, resilience and hope, and irrevocably ties their values to his name.

“I was born in Tucson and grew up in Southern Arizona. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the love and support of amazing mentors who have guided and challenged me to reach my full potential. This new center is an opportunity to equip a new generation with the same gifts,” said Curtis, who was introduced to this opportunity by one of his Tucson-based mentors.

SAAF Executive Director Wendell Hicks says, “Since taking over several initiatives three years ago from Wingspan, we have searched for the right way to re-launch LGBTQ programming in Tucson in a sustainable way that was directly responsive to community needs and immediately addressed gaps in services. The new Center will do just that. We are so fortunate for the support of Mr. Thornhill as well as the nearly 100 other donors to the campaign, so far.”

This is not the first time Curtis has helped make “cool and interesting things happen,” as he says, adding, “there’s no good reason not to get creative.” It helps to have receptive partners, though, and he was very pleased at the way CFSA and NPLF worked together. “The speed at which this creative process came together speaks well of Tucson,” says Curtis. “It takes a lot of people who trust each other to put something like this together.”

He also serves as a judge for the Social Investors Forum at The Community Foundation of Utah, one of two places he calls home. He connected with the local YWCA through the Forum and established a kindergarten scholarship program that “hit the sweet spot of venture philanthropy.” The funding went directly to families whose need for quality early education was greater than most, but they also filled classroom capacity to get the YWCA’s fledgling full-day kindergarten up to speed faster than it otherwise would have.

When he is not in Utah, Curtis is in New York City, where he served as Mentorship Chair for the New York Chapter of The Entrepreneurs’ Organization through June 2017, partnering with the NYC Department of Small Business Services to support minority- and women-owned business owners. 

Curtis’s career began at eBay, after which he partnered to build a technology services company, American Data Company, which sold in 2014. He currently serves as Chief Executive Officer at Apt Marketing Solutions, the second company he founded. He has more than 15 years’ experience optimizing business processes and operations through implementation and integration of technologies.

Something eBay founder Pierre Omidyar once said struck a chord with Curtis early on: “Life is too short to work with mean people.” He says he knows it’s not always possible to avoid them, but it’s solid advice that rings true for him. “Life is better,” Curtis says, “when the people around you push you to be better, personally and professionally.”