Donors and Their Families Forum 2019

Donors and Their Families Gather for Second Family Philanthropy Forum


May 16, 2019 – The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, in partnership with J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Centre, brought together more than 100 donors and their family members for a forum focused on the dynamics of family philanthropy and strategies and approaches for making giving more meaningful and impactful.

The forum opened with a stimulating conversation with Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, a third generation member of the Sobrato family and president of the Sobrato Family Foundation, and Rick Williams, the foundation’s CEO, moderated by Bob Graziano, Managing Director and Vice Chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase.

Sonsini shared her family’s journey with philanthropy, starting with the Sobrato family matriarch, “Granny Ann,” who instilled in her children and grandchildren the importance of giving back to the community and fostering opportunity for the less fortunate.

According to Sonsini, navigating the dynamics of a family-run foundation has sometimes been challenging, but always worthwhile. “We really think there’s so much value to collectively come together as family in our giving, the joy that brings, the effectiveness and efficiency of working together and the impact that we can have,” she said.

The Sobrato family became the first multigenerational family to sign the Giving Pledge, but Sonsini said the family had decided to give away their wealth long before they received a phone call from Warren Buffett, one of the Giving Pledge’s chief architects and recruiters. She also noted that while the Giving Pledge asks families to give away a majority of their wealth, the Sobrato family has pledged to give away their entire estate, much of it while they are still living.

Williams came to the foundation in 2013 to further professionalize the family’s giving. He has helped them to focus programmatically, concentrating the foundation’s efforts on college completion, workforce development and the nonprofit ecosystem in Silicon Valley, which is the family’s home base and the source of their wealth from real estate. In addition, from a governance vantage point, Williams invited nonfamily members with deep experience in philanthropy and issues related to the foundation’s mission to serve as board trustees alongside the family.

The concluding plenary shined a light on philanthropic prizes and competitions, an increasingly frequent approach for encouraging innovation and impact. The plenary, moderated by Wendy Wachtell, President of the Joseph Drown Foundation, featured Robin Kramer, who leads the Smidt Foundation, and Nadine Watt, President of Watt Companies.

The Smidt Foundation’s Prize for Teaching Excellence, now in its third year, receives about 700 applications annually and gives away 18 prizes, totaling $1 million, to raise up the most effective high school curricula and teachers in skilled trade education. Kramer encouraged those considering prizes and competitions as a giving strategy to think about impact beyond the immediate dollars awarded to any single prize recipient. “The whole purpose of this is leverage. In our case, it’s to leverage the winning for the good of the students. We’re trying to learn, for instance, if the prize and the accompanying acclaim has helped teachers leverage the prize to get more funding for students in the classroom,” she said.

Watt talked about her family’s experience helping to fund and organize the 2018 L.A. Homelessness Challenge, designed to jumpstart new and innovative approaches to addressing homelessness in Los Angeles. The competition ended with 14 local nonprofits pitching their ideas to a group of judges, who ultimately awarded two of the nonprofits $200,000 each along with significant exposure to all the nonprofit competitors.

Between the two plenary conversations, attendees participated in small group discussions with leading experts on issues at the heart of family philanthropy such as engaging the next generation, family governance and vehicles for giving. Another set of breakout sessions focused on philanthropic strategies for greater impact, including leadership development for stronger organizations, impact investing by and for women and girls, and philanthropic collaboration for early childhood development.

In addition to the partnership with J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Centre, the Forum also received the support of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Annenberg Foundation and The Center’s Director Circle.

Watch the plenaries and learn more about the forum.