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The Swig Effect

By Jennifer Raiser

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Swig name is synonymous with generosity. Locally, you would be hard-pressed to find a museum, school, nonprofit organization, arts venue or noble cause that has not been touched by the descendants of Benjamin Swig (1893–1980). Now into the fifth generation, the family is still putting a mark on causes large and small. How do they sustain that legacy of largesse? As third-generation scion Rick Swig says, “It’s simple. It’s in our DNA.” As we learned from speaking with a few of Ben’s heirs, it’s the example handed down from one generation to the next. While we asked these family members to speak about their causes, they were eager to point out their relatives’ good deeds, too.

Funding for much of the Swig family’s philanthropy came from prudent investment in real estate and hotels. But Swig considered the distribution of his good fortune to be his other life’s work. According to Rick, “My grandfather said the enjoyment of giving the gift was greater than anything he could ever have imagined. He was a great businessman and putter-together of people. His philanthropy was terrific because he didn’t care about money as money; it was about putting people together as ‘deals’ with heart. He did the same thing in business.”

Darian and Rick Swig by Drew Altizer Photography.

When Ben Swig moved to San Francisco in 1945, he had already made and lost two fortunes. His real estate acumen was well-honed when he purchased the iconic Fairmont and St. Francis hotels. Then he earnestly began to build the legacy of philanthropy in his adopted City by the Bay. Swig donated broadly to education, the arts, civic engagement, Democratic causes and religious organizations — although he followed Judaism, he was twice commended by the Vatican for his generosity to Jesuit education. He also encouraged others of means to give generously. Says his grandson Steve, “It was rumored they would lock the doors until you’d written a check.”

Ben Swig had three children, who had his ten grandchildren, who had his 26 great-grandchildren, who are raising the fifth generation numbering nearly 50. They carry the expectation that each will support something where they can make a difference. 

Volunteering always led the way, and the financial commitment came after. Rick Swig remembers his grandfather bringing him to the Columbia Park Boys’ Club. “It was very clear that the activities there were for those who maybe did not have the privileges that we had. It’s not like he said, ‘I give to this and therefore you should.’ It was, ‘These are really nice people, they do wonderful work, I want you to meet them.’ It wasn’t about charity, it was about community involvement. The first rule of philanthropy is follow your feet, and your wallet comes later.” 

Rick thrives on making connections. “It is finding threads that I am passionate about and seeing how these folks can get to know each other.” Rick works closely with Los Cenzontles, an East Bay community center and band that presents Mexican cultural heritage. He also supports Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which offers music outreach in schools throughout New Orleans. “I have a passion for Cuba because of their arts and culture,” he explains. “Horns to Havana provides opportunities for mutual exchange programs. I served on the board of SFJAZZ for years, and I still volunteer as a photographer for them.” Rick and his wife, Darian, are co-chairing the January 31  SFJAZZ gala; his mother, Cissie, is the honorary chair. It is no accident that the program will pay tribute the legendary Cuban singer Omar Portolando and feature Los Cenzontles and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  

Rick points out that many Swigs have chosen partners or spouses who are equally involved in important causes. Of Darian, he enthuses: “My wife is one of my inspirations — she is celebrating her 18th year on the international board of Human Rights Watch. And she is certainly not alone in her charitable work.” 

Rick’s cousin Steven Swig is focused on big-picture issues. Steven and his wife, Mary Green Swig, started Presidio Business School, which teaches sustainable business and uses venture capital and consulting to further its mission. They are currently working on “Freedom to Prosper,” an initiative to cancel the $1.5 trillion of student debt. He is passionate about economic empowerment.

Mary Green Swig and Steven Swig by Drew Altizer Photography.

“We need to realize the issues of the middle, to revitalize human capital and middle class buying power. This is where philanthropy merges into humanity.” He wants to encourage people at all economic levels to give, “to create a meaningful and sustainable future with more, smaller gifts.” He questions the disdain some critics have for so-called SF values, which he calls “actually pretty damn good values. What’s wrong with wanting to have good housing, education, health care, jobs and livable wages?”

Like so many of his siblings and cousins, Steven has served on a number of nonprofit boards. He loved sitting with his father and grandfather on the board of the American Jewish Committee’s Western Regional Conference in the 1960s. And he is equally proud of the direct hands-on generosity practiced by the family, including his daughter Samantha, who regularly offers modest donations to friends or strangers in need. “Her soul is other people,” he says.

Discretion is a family trademark. Most of the San Francisco Swigs had to be persuaded to speak about themselves. But they were eager to discuss their charitable passions. Rick’s sister Susan Swig says philanthropy is “the thing that makes me tick.” She supports the arts through SFMOMA, where she chairs the Civic and Community Engagement Committee, and is a founder and programming organizer of the FOG art fair, activating the modern art community each January. She mentions that her son Harrison Watkins recently organized his 30th birthday party as an urban hike and fundraiser. 

“What’s wrong with wanting to have good housing, education, health care jobs and livable wages?”

—Steven Swig

Susan’s cousin Patty Dinner remembers that grandfather Ben Swig “would scoop us up on Christmas and have us give out presents at Little Sisters of the Poor.” She adds, “My grandfather was a color-blind giver. He gave to the Jesuits, and to the Army. He didn’t have social norms holding him back in the area of giving. That has given us the freedom to give with our heart.” 

Dinner’s focus is grassroots, low-income advocacy, homelessness and education. She also devotes substantial time to her grandchildren, because, “if I can help raise 12 whole human beings, I will.” She recalls, “My grandfather was not attached to money. Although he owned the Fairmont and lived in the penthouse, he would make Campbell’s soup instead of ordering from room service on nights when the hotel was fully occupied so as not to overtax his staff.” She adds, “My grandfather was scrappy. He was good at raising money. He came into it for all the right reasons. He was just a magician at it, same as he was at buying real estate. It was an innate quality.” 

Rick’s  son, Ben, whose mother is Sari Swig, is named after his great-grandfather. He’s turned his passion into a business called Ready Responders, which brings urgent medical care to people who would otherwise call 911.

Adam Swig.

He was inspired by volunteering for EMS in college and graduate school. His father proudly notes that he was recognized twice as one of the 40 most influential people under 40 in New Orleans. Locally, Ben’s brother Adam Swig hosts events for religious organizations, including the Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Contemporary Museum. Most recently he organized a Hanukkah in Paris event at the Clift Hotel with Toys for Tots.

Patty Dinner’s son, Ben Heldfond, is rallying through the Swig Family Foundation. Funded with grants from the real estate holdings, the foundation is working with Scholar Match to offer scholarships for first-generation students, along with a “Need Fund” for crucial items that grantees cannot afford. Heldfond says, “I was lucky enough to remember my great-grandfather. What I wanted to accomplish in my generation is to keep that spirit alive.” The foundation enables an increasingly numerous and diverse cohort of family members to work together. “When we collaborate we keep that history of the family going,” he adds. “It can get lost if we don’t keep it fresh.” 

Nearly 40 years after his death, patriarch Ben Swig’s words and deeds still resonate. Every family member receives a copy of Bernice Scharlach’s 2000 book, Dealing from the Heart: A Biography of Benjamin Swig, which outlines his philosophy of “doing the work.” The tome affirms Swig’s delight in giving his money away during his lifetime because, as he put it, “There are no pockets in a shroud.” It’s clear his family is happy to share what is in their hearts, their pockets, and their very vibrant DNA, as well. 

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