The Younglings Who Would Save the Mall
The National Mall is a matter for serious people. It's the repository of our cultural heritage, for Pete's sake. And as we hear quite often these days, it's in terrible shape.
So a couple of years ago, to help bankroll its rehab, a collection of serious people started the Trust for the National Mall—people like diversified real estate empire chairman John Akridge, former ambassador to the European Union C. Boyden Gray, super-lobbyist CEO Lanny Griffith, and Disney CFO Jay Rasulo. They and their friends are collectively kicking in millions for the cause (though Akridge also gets some of that back: In 2008, according to IRS filings, the Trust paid the Akridge Company $224,325 for rent, IT, accounting, HR, and marketing expenses).
Even serious wealthy men, however, can't save America's front yard on their own. So last year, the Trust started the L'Enfant Society, which targets the young philanthropist set. The volunteer leadership is stocked with up-and-comers in commercial real estate, fundraising, and public relations—people who will be wealthy in a few years (and whose jobs require being well-connected). The Society charges a few hundred bucks for membership and asks only your attendance at a few swanky events, like this spring's Ball on the Mall, which raised a not-too-shabby $350,000.
Last Friday, I swung by Fashion's Night Out at Neiman Marcus, cosponsored by the L'Enfant Society. A Trust staffer pointed me towards co-chairman David Vennett, nattily dressed in a blue blazer and jeans, who was gliding around the first floor flanked by social blogger Pamela Sorensen and art collector Lorie Peters Lauthier. I introduced myself.
"Are you David Vennett?"
"Vennett," he corrected politely. They were busy; he handed me a heavy card embossed with a "V", and we agreed to talk later.
Vennett, a 36-year-old government affairs executive at Toyota, is the L'Enfant Society's second co-chairman, along with Kirstin Pollin (Abe's nephew's wife). The Trust approached him with the idea of serving a one-year term, and it's not hard to see why—Vennett rolls deep. According to one bio, he wrote the scripts for the 2000 and 2004 Republican National Conventions, served in various diplomatic capacities in the Bush administration, and now has several extracurricular activities, which include serving as a trustee of the British Natural History Museum and on the boards of EarthEcho International and Business for Diplomatic Action.
Isn't that, like, a lot to handle on top of a day job?
“That’s the nature of the beast in Washington," Vennett says. “There is no such thing as just a day job. More so than a lot of other cities across the country, our works spills into after hours in the weekend.”
While other organizations have started recruiting the under-40 generation, Vennett says that the L'Enfant Society is the first to do it really successfully. It's a big well to be tapped, as the next generation of corporate executives learn that demonstrated social responsibility is part of the game.
Vennett, though, says it's primarily about the cause. "There’s this incredible piece of land right on our doorstep, and it’s something that is a living breathing part of the city, and you can’t help but be affected by it," he rhapsodizes. "Historic events happen there. It’s a pretty powerful space."
For all the effort they put into fundraising–and despite being named after Washington's first planner–they don't spend too much time thinking about different scenarios for what the future of the Mall should look like. For planners, that means the money comes with no strings attached. "The L'Enfant Society is not so much involved in how the Mall is gonna be shaped," Vennett says. "We’re footsoldiers in helping to get the message out, and helping promote what needs to be done."