Home Economy James Dondero: Dallas’ Surprising Philanthropy Hero

James Dondero: Dallas’ Surprising Philanthropy Hero



James Dondero is the perfect example of an entrepreneur who effectively applies his business acumen to his philanthropic work. As a result, his charitable efforts have achieved successful outcomes for a wide array of organizations. James Dondero’s vision for the organizations he supports, coupled with his financial contributions, form a powerful and positive force within the Dallas community.

As the president and co-founder of Highland Capital Management, Mr. Dondero made sure his firm included charitable giving in its mission from the start. With his entrepreneurial mindset, James Dondero has made a point to use his foundation to make tangible impacts on the community and deliver large-scale, strategic improvements in the Dallas area.

Mr. Dondero has lived in Dallas since 1994 when he and co-founder Mark Okada relocated the firm’s headquarters from Los Angeles. Mr. Dondero quickly adopted the city as his own, and put down roots in both the business and philanthropic communities. While Highland operates globally, Mr. Dondero has chosen to focus the firm’s charitable giving to the local community, recognizing the tangible impact Highland can have in its own backyard.

Mr. Dondero and his firm have supported The Family Place, The Dallas Zoo, SMU’s Tower Scholars program, The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Education Is Freedom, and many more local charity organizations. Most gifts are made through the Highland Dallas Foundation, Inc., the philanthropic arm of Highland Capital Management.

“At Highland Capital Management, we invest in the community by supporting organizations that are advancing the Dallas area in unique, influential ways,” said Mr. Dondero.

While each organization represents a worthwhile cause, Mr. Dondero takes a larger strategic approach to his philanthropic work, considering the effects of his giving as a whole and recognizing opportunities for nonprofits to work together to maximize their impact.

To help carry out this ambitious vision, James Dondero recently joined forces with Linda Owen, former CEO of the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation. Ms. Owen diligently contributes her time and energy to Highland’s foundation to ensure that Mr. Dondero and Highland are achieving their charitable giving goals. This includes continuing to connect Highland to new nonprofit agencies in Dallas and working with existing community partners to maximize the impact of Highland’s multi-year grants.

The Family Place

With Linda Owen’s guidance, Highland Capital Management supported The Family Place by issuing a $1 million challenge grant that helped The Family Place reach a lofty fundraising goal ahead of schedule.

The Family Place is the biggest provider of family violence services in the state of Texas. The agency offers lifesaving shelters, professional counseling, and life-changing education for victims of family violence. They also provide education to thousands of students on the topics of bullying and teen dating violence prevention. The Family Place recently opened the first family violence shelter for men and their children in the state. All programs are provided in Spanish and English.

Highland Capital Management awarded a $1 million challenge grant to help The Family Place raise funds for its Legacy Campaign to build and run a new counseling center in central Dallas. The grant matched 50 percent of any funds raised for the capital campaign up to $1 million—a strategically crafted gift designed by Mr. Dondero to give the campaign an extra boost in its final stages. With Mr. Dondero’s targeted giving, Highland’s challenge grant ensured that The Family Place had a strong fundraising campaign that was completed ahead of schedule.

Mr. Dondero noted that the grant was his response to a call to action by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and former Dallas Police Chief David Brown for the community to work against domestic violence in Dallas. He recognized that other Dallas residents would appreciate the opportunity to join in this response.

“The civic community in Dallas gets things done,” Mr. Dondero said. “We at Highland Capital Management were impressed by the way The Family Place, through avid philanthropic support, took this concept from inception to the final stage of this campaign in just a year. We are proud to invest alongside many of the most generous and thoughtful in the community.”

During the campaign, The Family Place’s Executive Director Paige Flink said, “For anyone considering this effort to provide lifesaving shelter and life-changing services to family violence victims in our community, this is a tremendous opportunity to multiply the impact of their gift.”

On the heels of the success of the challenge grant, Mr. Dondero looked to provide more direct support for the work of The Family Place, and he did so by leveraging Highland’s relationship with other local nonprofits. In this case, Mr. Dondero provided a specific donation to The Family Place to hold a Mother’s Day event for residents of their emergency shelter. The event was held at The Dallas Zoo and made possible through Highland’s extensive support of the Zoo as a donor. Ms. Owen oversaw the event and helped bring together the various groups involved, connecting Highland’s wide-ranging charitable giving activities in the most efficient, effective ways.

Hippo Habitat at the Dallas Zoo

One of James Dondero’s recent undertakings was his contribution to the newest exhibit at the Dallas Zoo. Mr. Dondero and Highland Capital Management have been longtime supporters of the Dallas Zoo. His generous donation of $1 million, combined with other donations, enabled the Zoo to build a state-of-the-art Hippo Outpost in the Wilds of Africa area. Specifically, Mr. Dondero’s donation built the Highland Hippo Hut, a permanent space for special educational displays and private events.

“The Zoo is exactly the kind of organization that we like to support, and Highland was proud to assist them in bringing exceptional educational opportunities and experiences like the hippo exhibit to Dallas,” Mr. Dondero said.

In 2001, the Dallas Zoo eliminated its popular hippo habitat when an elderly hippo named Papa died. With Papa’s passing, the Zoo’s management decided not to bring hippos back until a suitable habitat could be built. Management at the Zoo knew that building the best habitat for hippos would be an extensive—and costly—undertaking, which is why contributions like James Dondero’s $1 million donation were so crucial.

After years of planning and fundraising, the Dallas Zoo completed the Simmons Hippo Outpost last year. The new habitat combines the Zoo’s commitment to conservation with a great visitor experience. This modernized edition of the hippo habitat would not have been possible without the generous support of donors, as the project was funded solely with private donations. This was the largest philanthropic effort by the Dallas Zoological Society, which manages the Zoo, in the organization’s history.

“To me, that’s a really great sign of the maturity of our organization, being able to go out and get the support in the philanthropic circles we need for this scale of project,” said Zoo president and CEO Gregg Hudson.

Thanks to Mr. Dondero’s contribution, visitors can stroll through the Highland Hippo Hut to learn more about the conservation efforts to protect the world’s third largest land mammal. The Simmons Hippo Outpost will continue to attract large crowds to the Dallas Zoo, and the 4,485-square-foot Highland Hippo Hut will be used for special educational displays and private events.

SMU Tower Scholars Program

Highland Capital Management made a $2 million endowment gift to Southern Methodist University to create the Highland Capital Management Endowed Tower Scholars Program Fund. This program is designed to support exceptional undergraduates pursuing studies in politics and international affairs and stimulate an interest in ethical public service. Students selected as Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars receive study-abroad opportunities, exposure to public policymaking, access to key global leaders, and meaningful senior-year internships.

“Transformative education initiatives are a key focus of our philanthropy,” said James Dondero. “We have deep respect for the role that Southern Methodist University plays in the community. This program offers students extraordinary opportunities to interact with global and national leaders, influential policymakers, and top employers that call Dallas home.”

The exclusive, application-only Tower Scholars Program accepts students from all majors across SMU’s schools, with admission based on a competitive process that takes into consideration academic record, extracurricular engagement, and the relevance of public policy in students’ career goals, among other criteria.  Each year, ten sophomore students join the list of Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars. The scholars are immersed in the international political economy, domestic and foreign affairs, and national security. The specialized curriculum includes instruction by professors-of-the-practice and visiting diplomats.

“By focusing solely on undergraduate students, the Tower Scholars Program distinguishes SMU from peer institutions that offer this type of curricula only to graduate students,” said Hamon Foundation president Kelly E. Roach. “The opportunity to begin working with political, government and business leaders at this stage of their education nurtures leadership skills at a pivotal point in these students’ lives.”

Since the initial gift from Mr. Dondero and Highland, the program has graduated one class of Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars, who have gone on to achieve early successes, launching promising careers at the intersection of business and policy in many cases, and in others, continuing their education at leading law schools and other graduate programs.

Education is Freedom

James Dondero and Highland also support Education is Freedom (EIF), an organization that provides financial assistance for at-risk youth who are seeking a college degree. The organization offers professional development, standardized test preparation, mentoring assistance, and internships at some of Dallas’ most respected corporations and nonprofits.

EIF started out as a scholarship program, providing renewable scholarships to first-time college students. It soon became clear that more was needed to overcome the barriers to entry for some students. Thus, EIF created a comprehensive, school-based program in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD).

EIF also worked with the Mayor’s Office to create the Mayor’s Intern Fellows Program. This eight-week summer internship lets high school students work at some of the largest and most respected corporations and nonprofit organizations in Dallas.

Highland Capital Management has sponsored an annual job fair for the Mayor’s Intern Fellows Program for a number of years. In the weeks leading up to the job fair, EIF prepares the students with tips and training in the job application and interview process. At the job fair, the DISD students, mostly rising juniors and seniors in high school, are interviewed by human resource professionals and receive formal job offers. Students who are given job offers also receive intensive training from EIF before their summer jobs start. They participate in “Business 101” professional development training, Fellows Training, and Community Service Day.

In addition to sponsoring the job fair in the past, Highland Capital Management has sponsored interns for other charitable partners. While many participating Dallas businesses employ the interns at their own companies, Highland underwrites the cost of interns on behalf of some of the nonprofits it works with, providing paid internships for the students for 20 to 40 hours a week and providing capable talent for the nonprofits that might not otherwise have the budget to hire interns. The program is yet another example of Mr. Dondero and Highland’s unique ability to connect the organizations in Dallas that are doing the most good and maximize the impact of their work.

The Bush Center

James Dondero is a long-time supporter of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Highland Capital Management contributed more than $5 million to the Bush Center in 2012 and is among the Founding Benefactors that helped fund the development of the Bush Center facilities, which opened in 2013. The Bush Library and Museum holds historical records and artifacts that promote knowledge of President George W. Bush’s presidency. The Bush Institute is a nonpartisan policy organization that aims to develop leaders, advance policy, and take action to solve some of today’s most challenging problems.

Following the initial gift that helped establish the impressive facility in 2012, Highland made another major contribution to ensure the permanence of the Bush Center. Highland and Mr. Dondero committed $10 million to help sustain a series of public programs called “Engage at the Bush Center, presented by Highland Capital Management.” The series brings authors, thought leaders, and newsmakers to the Bush Center for lectures and discussions throughout the year.

“We are impressed by the Bush Center’s national influence and impact in our community,” said Mr. Dondero. “Events like the Engage Series foster important dialogue regarding pressing policy issues. Highland Capital Management is proud to support this work and be part of the Center’s long-term vision.”

The Bush Center leadership expressed their thanks for the recent gift, which helped kick off a major capital campaign to help ensure the longevity of the organization: “We are extremely grateful to Jim Dondero for his commitment and look forward to continuing our efforts to bring thought-provoking programming and national newsmakers to Dallas,” said Bush Presidential Center CEO Kenneth Hersh.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

James Dondero has also been a longtime supporter of the Perot Museum of Natural Science in Dallas. As with the Bush Center, Mr. Dondero and Highland were among the donors who helped fund the construction of the iconic museum building that we know today. The Perot Museum is a place for children to learn about science, math, and technology through hands-on activities and education. The museum has 11 permanent exhibit halls with themes such as innovation, energy, and engineering. In addition to their permeant displays, the museum also brings in traveling exhibits—an effort made possible by Highland’s contributions.

Highland Capital Management sponsored the recent Journey to Space traveling exhibition, which provided the opportunity for the Dallas community to learn about the extraordinary conditions, dangers, and rewards of human space travel. This hands-on adventure for all ages showed the advancements in spacecraft and spacesuit technology. Visitors could also explore rotating labs in a mock-up of the International Space Station Destiny module.

James Dondero said of the recent exhibit, “Journey to Space provided an exciting introduction, not just to our massive universe, but to the science and math at the core of it as well. Highland Capital Management is glad to help inspire our next generation of scientists through our support of the Perot and hands-on exhibitions like this one.”

Highland also sponsored the latest traveling exhibition at the Perot, Ultimate Dinosaurs, which opened in June and runs through January 2019.

Snowball Express

In 2014, James Dondero was inspired by the story of the Eckert family of Ohio. Myles Eckert, whose father was killed in active duty, saw a soldier who reminded him of his dad. The boy gave the soldier $20 he had found in the parking lot along with a note:  “Dear soldier,” he wrote. “My Dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service.”

The story was shared on Facebook and inspired a number of people to reach out to Myles and his family in a number of ways to offer support. Tiffany Eckert, Myles’ mother, began directing people to Snowball Express, an organization that supports children who have lost a military parent in the line of duty, known as Gold Star children.

“The Eckert family has demonstrated how a single act of kindness can inspire so many to do so much,” said Mr. Dondero. “The public response has been overwhelming and a blessing for Gold Star children.”

The Eckert’s dedication to pay it forward inspired Mr. Dondero to do so himself, and he looked to Snowball Express as the beneficiary to carry out that mission. The organization aims to provide hope and happy experiences to the children of fallen military heroes who died while on active duty. Each year, Snowball Express hosts a four-day event for Gold Star children, welcoming children and their families from all over the world for a weekend of sporting events, dances, amusement parks, and more, and helps connect them with others who have gone through the same experience.

“We believe every single one of us has a responsibility to help the children of our fallen military heroes,” said Mr. Dondero. “Not one of us can do it alone—not Snowball Express, not Highland, and certainly not the individual families—but together, we have the ability to do great things by creating a supportive environment for all of these children and honoring the memories of their parents.”

Highland Capital Management provided a $1 million dollar challenge grant that matched $1 for every $1 donated. In the end, the grant officially totaled $1.7 million in donations, a new record for the organization.

“The Highland Capital Management Challenge Grant was a resounding success and gave Snowball Express the ability to focus its efforts on serving the more than 8,000 Gold Star children who have lost a parent in the military since 9/11,” said Francis Kern, Executive Director of Snowball Express. “We are extremely grateful for what this grant has allowed us to do and on behalf of the entire organization, I’d like to extend our immense gratitude to James Dondero, Mark Okada, and the team at Highland Capital Management for making a commitment to these children and inspiring others to do the same.”

Capital for Kids

Capital for Kids is a network of investment management professionals who volunteer to assist children in need. Capital for Kids’ mission is to support organizations that educate, protect, and encourage at-risk children. The organization believes that every child deserves a chance to succeed. Through its network of beneficiaries, Capital for Kids provides quality education programs and other invaluable services for hundreds of low-income families in the Dallas area.

Highland Capital Management has regularly supported the organization and its main event, helping rally its industry peers to come together in support of a worthy cause. The organization’s mission is aligned with the work of Mr. Dondero and Highland’s charitable giving, making it a natural partner in making an impact in the community.

“It is critical to our community to help promote a strong environment for children to thrive and break the cycles of poverty and abuse. This work is not possible without the strong support of our sponsors,” said a recent co-chair of the Capital for Kids Main Event.

About James Dondero

James Dondero is the president and co-founder of Highland Capital Management, which he launched with Mark Okada in 1993. A graduate of University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, Mr. Dondero, began his career in J.P. Morgan’s analyst training program. He went on to join American Express as a corporate bond analyst and later became a portfolio manager. In 1989, Mr. Dondero left American Express to join Protective Life, where he teamed up with Mr. Okada to create a joint venture that ultimately became Highland Capital Management. The duo launched the company in Los Angeles, but quickly relocated to Dallas, Texas, where the firm has been headquartered ever since. Under the leadership of James Dondero, Highland has become a multibillion-dollar investment firm, operating a variety of strategies and vehicles across its diverse investment platform. With credit hedge funds, liquid alternative mutual funds, real estate vehicles, and ETFs, among other investment solutions, Mr. Dondero has applied his unique expertise to a number of different areas and grown Highland into the firm it is today.

About Highland Capital Management

The Dallas-based investment management firm was founded in 1993 by James Dondero and Mark Okada. Over the past 25 years, Highland Capital Management has grown into a multibillion-dollar global asset manager. Highland’s diversified client base includes public pension plans, governments, and high net-worth individuals. The firm is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and also maintains offices in Buenos Aires, New York, São Paulo, Singapore, and Seoul. Visit highlandcapital.com to learn more.

Follow James Dondero on Twitter to receive up to date information.

*Update*4.16.18 For more information on James Dondero check out this Patch.com article.

**UPDATE** 8.31.17 Find more information by following James Dondero on LinkedIn.

**UPDATE** 9.18.17 Read about James Dondero on www.barrons.com

**UPDATE**10.16 Learn more about James Dondero, here.



  1. It is indeed commendable that when James Dondero is still at the Protective Life’s GIC Subsidiary, he succeeded in turning the firm into a $2 billion dollar enterprise.

  2. Considering James Dondero’s dedication to his work, he also makes time to participate in charitable ventures, a bit surprising. He is a highly concerned citizen from the city of Dallas and has embarked upon many projects that were meant to make the city a much more pleasant place for its residents.

  3. Having donations toward the George W. Bush Presidential Library is notable. Applause to James Dondero with the Highland Capital Management for doing an admirable deed.

  4. I am one to give thanks to thanks to James Dondero. My kids love going to the zoo and one of the animals that they look forward to seeing are the hippos! 🙂

  5. Glad to know about the goodness of James Dondero. He really has a heart in education. It is very important to him that everyone gets the proper education. 🙂

  6. […] Another recipient of Mr. Dondero’s generosity was the Perot Museum of Natural Science. The museum opened its doors for the first time in December of 2012 and have since inspired and educated countless numbers of school children. James Dondero and Highland Capital Management issued a 1 million dollar challenge grant to the museum, and again was given naming rights in the building. After Dondero’s donation was calculated, the total donations to the museum exceeded 170 million dollars. Read more about James Dondero at Daily Forex Report. […]

  7. People who’ve acquired great education like James Dondero knows the importance of learning beyond the four walls of school. Thank you for helping out the Dallas Zoo and other notable educational centers where everyone can learn from it and take it with them as they walk further in their journey. I salute you!