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Former county manager returns to philanthropic roots at Harrah’s

If the name of the executive director of the Harrah’s Foundation sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. The socially conscious Thom Reilly was thrust into the public eye as the county manager of Clark County from June 2001 until August 2006.

He managed a multibillion-dollar budget and oversaw 11,000 employees in 38 departments including McCarran International Airport and the University Medical Center.

Never one to shy from the media, Reilly has commented on former commissioners and former county employees that he worked with who have run afoul of the law since his departure.

After a short stint as a university system administrator, Reilly returned to his philanthropic roots as executive director of the Harrah’s Foundation, the nonprofit charity arm of the world’s largest gaming company by revenue.

Having been on both sides of the aisle, the 47-year-old Reilly believes corporations should help governments address social issues in the communities in which they operate.

"Governance of community problems only works when you have all sectors of society involved," Reilly said. "Problems have to be defined in a way where everyone participates."

The foundation, which has a national and local focus, recently spent $1 million underwriting a Public Broadcasting Service special on aging, is the main sponsor for Meals on Wheels nationally and is behind the "Where you live should not determine if you live" campaign supporting Nevada Health Center’s Mammovan program in rural areas of the state.

In December, BusinessWeek magazine reported Harrah’s Entertainment was the "most generous cash-giver as a percent of pretax profits" among Standards & Poor’s 500 companies.

The company paid out $1.5 million per week, 9.2 percent of pretax profits, to various organizations in 2006.

Question: How did you transition from the head of a multi billion-dollar government budget to the nonprofit arm of the world’s largest gaming company by revenue?

Answer: Before my work with the county, I was an associate professor in social work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. My background has been in child welfare, nonprofit organizations. The chance to run a foundation, particularly with the resources Harrah’s Foundation has, is pretty exciting. Plus, it is national and international in scope. It is going back to where I started in the nonprofit, social services arena.

Question: How did you come to be hired by Harrah’s?

Answer: Jan Jones (a former Las Vegas mayor who is now a Harrah’s executive) approached me for an open position that dealt with social responsibility programs highlighting Harrah’s as a good corporate citizen.

Question: What is the job’s biggest challenge?

Answer: The biggest challenge is that there are so many needs out there. There are so many worthy organizations. The Harrah’s Foundation exists because of our commitment to be good corporate citizens. We operate in quite a few places nationally so we want to reinvest in those communities. When you go into those communities there is just an array of needs and identifying the organizations that fit our mission. It is difficult turning away organizations that are in need.

Question: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Answer: It is to be in a position where you can actually be a conduit to a large Fortune 500 company like Harrah’s and be an able part of the gifting of the resources to the community is a great job. People like to see you, unlike my other job.

Question: How is the foundation funded?

Answer: The foundation operates as a private charity, a 501(c)(3). We’re the nonprofit, philanthropic arm of Harrah’s Entertainment. We’re funded totally by the properties. Part of their proceeds actually comes to the foundation. Of the money they give, 70 percent comes to the foundation and 30 percent is kept at the property level. We have our strategic focus that can be national in scope but also give at the regional property level. Sometimes we match what the properties give.

Question: How does the foundation decide who gets funded and who doesn’t?

Answer: Developing our strategic focus has helped. Nationally it is seniors and education. That’s important because we could go in so many different arenas. But focusing on the senior population allows us to really make an impact nationally. If you look at the senior organizations within the nonprofit world, Harrah’s Foundation is a pretty prominent name. And it is sustaining. It’s not a one-time gift and then we walk away. We commit to the organizations.

Question: Has the economy affected funding?

Answer: With the slowing economy we have seen increased need. Many organizations are running out of funding or have lost funding sources. We’re a big supporter of Meals on Wheels, for which the cost of gasoline has increased significantly. On the flip side, as the economy affects the properties and they deal with their own struggles and remedies we could see it affecting the amount of revenue the foundation has to operate with.

Question: Why is it important to increase the profile of the Harrah’s Foundation through advertising?

Answer: When we go into the communities to operate a business, people want to know you’re a good corporate citizen, that we reinvest. We also set up opportunities for our employees to volunteer, whether it is setting up a march, delivering a meal or something else.

Question: What was your mission when the gaming company hired you?

Answer: The company wanted to make sure there was a real strategic focus and brand it and market it to let people know what the foundation does. It wanted to connect with other organizations and let our employees and the communities know what we’re doing. A lot of the people we’ve been involved with for a long time knew about our giving. I think that what was missing was that communities and our employees didn’t.

Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

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