When Miles Dickson was 16 years old, he got a job answering phones for Billy Walters’ small empire of Las Vegas golf courses. By the time he was 20, he had made himself into the company’s resident specialist in revenue management, developing customer profiles, creating special pricing programs and figuring out “how to make more money by doing what we were doing anyway.” To an old-school industry, where experienced people run the show on wisdom and instinct, the UNLV journalism major brought disciplined study of hospitality-industry models and a dose of science. At 23, he was making $80,000 a year.
Then he quit to go to law school.
Within a few months at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, he was, like first-year law students everywhere, demoralized and relatively certain that his soul was being sucked away by some malign force emanating from a civil-procedure textbook. He went out looking for an alternative to doing what he was doing most nights—“drinking,” he recalls with a weary smile—and visited the Three Square Food Bank looking for a chance to volunteer. For the next three years, he did policy research for Three Square. It didn’t help his grades much—after his fellow graduates selected him to give the convocation speech last May, he began with the words, “To be clear, I am not the valedictorian,” and then paused for their knowing laughter—but the experience engaged his preternatural skill for studying, understanding and connecting with people.
It also made him fall in love with the notion of serving his city.
Then, after a six-month externship working for super-lobbyist Sam MacMullen at the Legislature in Carson City, Dickson had a choice before him: Either pursue a position at a leading firm (he had a solid shot at one of the best) or listen to what philanthropy mavens Lindy Schumacher (director of the Dream Fund), Punam Mather (NV Energy’s vice president of employee and community engagement) and Julie Murray (the outgoing CEO of Three Square) had to tell him.
“They have a gift for making me believe that what they want for me is what I’ve wanted for myself all along,” he says.
And so Dickson, saddled with law school debt, decided not to take the bar exam and went into the philanthropy biz last summer. He joined Murray to launch Moonridge Group, a community-development consulting agency dedicated to linking would-be philanthropists with people who have the expertise to put their giving power into action. Dickson and Murray ask clients—ranging from Merrill Lynch Wealth Management to “one of the major gaming companies”—what it is they want to do for the community, and then they find what Dickson calls “an entry point” to make the vision real.
On top of this retail matching of dreamers and doers, this year Dickson and Murray are launching a nonprofit whose goal is to bring major national foundation money to Las Vegas. Here Dickson’s inspiration is Detroit, a city he says has spent the last few years “in triage” and has attracted billions of dollars in foundation grants to seed its future while its Sunbelt twin, Las Vegas, has been largely left out of the game.
Dickson envisions a sort of pincer approach on Las Vegas’ social ills, with national money aiding major initiatives, and locals adding their own dreams, creativity, manpower and funding on the home front.
For Dickson, a Las Vegas native whose family’s roots here go back to the 1930s, that local angle is a personal passion. He admires a Detroit program that is trying to attract 15,000 educated young households to the city by 2015 but points out that we are lucky enough to have young talent of our own growing up right here—we just need to keep them.
“A lot of my friends growing up were really high performers,” he says, “but everyone left. You can’t build a metropolitan community without creative, educated households. We’re trying to figure out how to change the tide in this community. But if all the smart people leave, nothing changes.”