Remarks from SVCF's 2017 Regional Meeting

Dr. Emmett Carson shared the following remarks at SVCF's Regional Meeting event on Oct. 12, 2017:

Emmett Carson
Emmett Carson
CEO and President,
Silicon Valley Community Foundation

A little over 10 years ago, the boards of Peninsula Community Foundation in San Mateo County and Community Foundation Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County made the bold and unprecedented decision to merge.They recognized that Silicon Valley, a community known around the world but that couldn’t be found on a map, a place where over 50 percent of its residents are born outside of the state and one-third are foreign born, needed a community foundation that would reflect its unique character and concerns. They envisioned a new community foundation that “would meet donor partners where they are and support their personal definition of building community—locally, nationally and around the globe.”

I was hired to help achieve that mission and neither the board nor I could have imagined what would be accomplished through the generosity of our donors. Last year alone, SVCF’s donor family contributed an astounding $1.3 billion in grants and they will likely exceed that amount this year. As Tom Friel, one of our former board chairs pointed out to me, this amount is nearly equal to the entirety of the community foundation’s assets at the time of the merger. To put this $1.3 billion grantmaking number in perspective, it exceeds the annual grantmaking of every private foundation in the US with the exception of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since our founding, SVCF’s donors have granted $4.3 billion with over half of this amount, $2.3 billion, going to local nonprofit organizations. The challenge is that the sheer size of our grantmaking has, at times, diverted attention away from what I believe is perhaps our most impactful work in public policy. 

SVCF believes that the most critical problems facing our local community — whether it’s housing, transportation, early childhood education or poverty alleviation — can only be solved through public policy solutions. Grants to nonprofit organizations providing essential services are vitally important but cannot create the lasting systemic changes that are necessary to solve the problem. Community foundations are unique in that unlike private foundations we can use our public voice and our resources to convene people around legislative issues and to directly lobby on behalf or against proposed legislation. 

Let’s look at housing as an example. Even if it was possible to direct all of our community foundation’s $8.3 billion in assets under management to focus on housing, it would not be enough to fill Silicon Valley’s critical housing shortage stretching across 54 local municipalities with widely differing perspectives on whether to allow more housing and, if so, what type of housing. 

SVCF is proud to have been a key partner in lobbying efforts to increase public funding for affordable housing through Measure A in Santa Clara County and Measure K in San Mateo County. These two measures will leverage hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help address Silicon Valley’s housing crisis. We are also proud that we were among the first to support California State Senator Weiner’s legislation, SB-35, that provides for a streamlined housing process for building affordable housing in local communities that Governor Brown signed into law two weeks ago along with several other housing bills. Notwithstanding these victories, there is much more to be done and it will require strong public will to convince local and state legislators to act. 

On Nov. 15, SVCF will host On the Table which will create a regional discussion across San Mateo and Santa Clara counties over mealtimes to discuss our housing crisis and potential solutions. The discussion can be over breakfast with coffee, over lunch with pizza or at dinner with Chinese takeout. It doesn’t require fancy, it requires participation and conversation around a simple set of questions that we will provide for you. We will use the information from hundreds of discussions to understand the solutions that would be acceptable to all of us and use that information to help create legislative solutions across local boundaries. We are thrilled to have NBC Bay Area and the San Francisco Chronicle as our media partners in this effort. 

My ask to each of you is threefold. First, that you agree to host a mealtime discussion. Second, that you ask an organization that you are connected with — a place of worship, corporation, yoga club, nonprofit organization — to host a mealtime discussion. And third, that you help us promote the event on social media. Will you commit to helping us? We have information about On the Table in your packets and there is a booth in the reception area for you to learn more and to sign up.

SVCF remains deeply concerned that the youngest among us do not get all the supports they require to ensure that they have every opportunity to be successful. Fifty percent of all 3rd graders in San Mateo County and Santa Clara County do not read at grade level. People are often shocked when I tell them that California doesn’t require that children attend kindergarten much less provide pre-K schooling or early childhood development opportunities. In fact, Gov. Brown vetoed a bill that would have made kindergarten mandatory for all children. 

Can any of you image a child showing up for 1st grade without any prior preparation and being successful in school? While we are proud of our support of the Big Lift in San Mateo County and other literacy efforts, we are only touching a fraction of all of the kids who need help. This is why we are also working on the public policy front. SVCF and our nonprofit partners, including Children Now, have scheduled candidate forums with each gubernatorial candidate to ask for their views and commitment to early childhood education. Through this process, we hope that the next Governor of California, regardless of party affiliation, will have the vision and commitment to sign legislation supporting early childhood development. We ask that you join us at these Gubernatorial forums and you can find out more about Choose Children 2018 at a booth in the reception area.

Finally, many of you have asked me what should be expected of the community foundation over the next ten years. SVCF’s future success will not be measured by how much we are able to grow assets or even by how much SVCF is able to grant to nonprofit organizations. Our success in the future will be measured by our ability to engage our local community in building consensus on the big public policy questions affecting out quality of life. To do this will also require SVCF to recognize and respond to the external decisions at the state and, occasionally, the national level that can hurt or help the quality of life in Silicon Valley. 

As Kevin Zwick, CEO of Housing Trust Silicon Valley and I wrote in a Mercury News editorial, federal cuts to various federal housing programs for low-income residents will have a disastrous impact on Silicon Valley’s already inadequate housing market and escalating rental market. 

If Silicon Valley Community Foundation is to do all we can to address our housing crisis, we must build public will locally, and then lobby on behalf of those interests in local municipalities, county and state government offices and selectively in Washington, DC. 

Another example is SVCF’s successes with our nonprofit partners in passing 14 local ordinances restricting payday lending which was being undermined due to internet payday lenders. Due to this concern, SVCF brought together 58 other community foundations to lobby the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and last week, the CFPB finalized a ruling that requires payday lenders to determine an applicant’s ability to repay before issuing a loan. This is a major victory that will help low income families here in Silicon Valley. We have all seen how support at the local level for undocumented immigrants or transportation can be put at risk by policies at the state and federal level. All of this is to say that the staff at SVCF constantly remind ourselves of John M. Sobrato’s words:

“Our objective never was to be the biggest foundation. It’s not size for size’s sake, but size for the credibility and advocacy strength it can give you.”

The future is to find new ways to use our influence and resources, combine it with those of our individual and corporate donor partners for the purpose of making the quality of life here in Silicon Valley better! Yes, I realize this is a big vision, never attempted by any other community foundation. I also know that we are located in Silicon Valley where we are expected to dream big and to learn from failure. To do less, when we have the capability to do more would be an abdication of our responsibility to this community.

In closing, I want to thank all of our donors, corporate, nonprofit and government partners for travelling on this incredible journey with us. I want to thank the board members, past and present, for the unique privilege of serving as the CEO of this special institution. And, I would like to thank all of the staff, past and present, for their commitment, dedication and hard work. I believe that in them we can be proud to have the best team in philanthropy. Thank you!