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Giving Spotlight… Susan Ford Dorsey

Riley McDermid and Jennifer Massoni Pardini

In Silicon Valley, philanthropy is “booming,” say Open Impact co-founders Alexa Cortés Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant in the executive summary of “The Giving Code,” their seminal 2016 report. The boom, of course, is never the whole story, and widening income inequality has become a significant theme in ours. To better understand local philanthropy’s roots, role and future, we talked to Susan Ford Dorsey and her Sand Hill Foundation about how to invite all local stakeholders to put some skin in the game when it comes to solving
the region’s problems. Here’s her sound advice for the next chapter in giving.

For Sand Hill Foundation, geography matters, both in terms of the very roots of the foundation as well as its driving commitment to the community. Susan Ford Dorsey established the Foundation in 1995 with her late first husband, Tom Ford, who — as a sustainability-minded real estate developer — was instrumental in the creation of Sand Hill Road as we know it today: Silicon Valley’s iconic artery of entrepreneurship, enterprise and collaboration.

“He was always very philanthropic and felt strongly about giving in the counties where he lived and worked. When I took on our philanthropy, that was very natural for me,” says Dorsey, who devoted her career to the healthcare sector after earning her master’s in public health. She currently sits on the board of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and is a co-chair for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Political Action Committee. Her husband, Michael Dorsey, serves on the Foundation’s board of directors.

The Foundation’s grants focus on health, educational and economic opportunity, the environment, sustainability and capital needs. Most recently, out of a concern for the mental health of young people in the community, the foundation launched its new grant, The Wellness Partnership: Improving Systems for Youth Mental Health. The proactive program aims to “improve the coordination and accessibility of prevention and early intervention efforts among local organizations that support young people,” according to the organization. “It’s promoting not just funding more therapists for more clinics, but trying to understand a whole system that can be more supportive of parents, the medical community and kids themselves.”

Dorsey, raised in Santa Cruz County as the second of four children, found her philanthropic values early on in life. Her father, an OB/GYN, and her mother, a homemaker, were both active in bringing to the county and put the empowerment and support of women high on their list of family values. Those included outreach in other ways, too, such as grassroots efforts to support the local migrant worker community.

“My earliest memory was of bringing Christmas gifts to the families of the Bracero program. These were Mexican workers who worked in the agricultural fields of Watsonville,” Dorsey says. “Seeing the looks on the parent’s faces as they watched their children open presents made a big impression on me and has definitely influenced my approach to philanthropy.”

That feeling, and the responsibility that comes with it, was something the Dorseys wanted to pass on to their son Tom, now 25, who spent his childhood deeply involved in philanthropy. “His first site visit was at the age of two and he has gone on more than he can count,” his mother recalls.

Above, kids frolic on the beach during an overnight trip in San Gregorio with Vida Verde Nature Education, a cause deeply supported by the Sand Hill Foundation.

Decades after Dorsey first visited those farming fields, the area’s thriving ecosystem of talent and ambition is becoming an increasingly excellent fit for philanthropic endeavors — a symbiosis needed more now than ever in a Bay Area region squeezed by growth, sky-high housing prices and the twin, increasingly brutal pressures of poverty and lack of opportunity. That’s where some of the world’s biggest thinkers come in, Dorsey says.

“The Peninsula is an amazing place to do good works for several reasons. First, the diversity of our community makes it so interesting and challenging. Second, we have such great minds in the Silicon Valley to engage in solving our local as well as global problems” she says, exalting in the region’s virtues. “Third, our needs are great and this is often masked by the vast wealth that has been created here. Fourth, the philanthropic community is sophisticated and strong. We have many thought and real partners in most of our efforts, which is very satisfying.”

She stops and then adds.

“And, I love my life here. It makes me so happy to feel like I am working to make it even better.”

Dorsey’s advice for people looking to get involved? Begin with a search of what issues most pull you in or weigh on you. Then, do your homework to become as educated as you possibly can on both the issue you are trying to address and the needs of the communities you are hoping to reach.

“Be open to adapting your initial interest to what might be more relevant and helpful to the community,” she says. “In a nutshell, my advice is to lead with your heart, learn all you can about the issue and get to know your community.”

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