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Philanthropy’s Secret Weapon: Our Voice

Thursday, November 2, 2017

By Cole Wilbur, Trustee Emeritus and Former President, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

In her remarks to the Peninsula Philanthropic Network on September 29, 2017, Congresswoman Jackie Speier noted that the Redwood City area is a version of “A Tale of Two Cities,” reflecting on her own experience visiting a mobile home community that has spiraled into severe disrepair despite its location mere miles from new luxury developments. 

The critical shortage of adequate and appropriate affordable housing in the region is of concern to the Packard Foundation, the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (for which Congresswoman Speier and I both serve as board members), and many of the other funder representatives who gathered to hear the Congresswoman.

When David and Lucile Packard established the foundation in 1964, they believed that foundations could play a vital role in advancing the social good – complementing government efforts by fostering innovative solutions to pressing social issues. This still holds true in 2017 as it did in 1964. Often in partnership with government, philanthropy has pushed the envelope in fostering emergent ideas that have later taken root in public policies and programs, laying the groundwork for advances in children’s health, education, climate change, reproductive health, sustainable fisheries, innovative science, and more.

However, there is a common misconception that philanthropy can pick up the slack when there are cuts to the public sector. This is not true. Philanthropic dollars cannot replace government funding for critical infrastructure and programs to support our most vulnerable communities. Congresswoman Speier remarked that California is at risk of losing billions of dollars under the Administration’s proposed federal budget, and thus it is more important than ever to counter this misconception. For example, she said, almost 37 percent ($105.0 billion) of California’s 2017-18 budget comes from federal funds – more than 70 percent ($78.1 billion) of which supports health and human service programs for California’s most vulnerable individuals including children, seniors, and low-income individuals. By contrast, philanthropic dollars invested in California total around $16 billion annually; a significant amount, but by no means equal to federal funds received by the state. 

Northern California Grantmakers (NCG) has an opportunity to educate legislators about the value and role of philanthropy – as partners to government efforts, not replacements for government funding.  With a unified voice, we have the chance to showcase the breadth of philanthropy in our region, highlight contributions to our communities, and demonstrate the value of our partnership. Illuminating philanthropy’s potential will open possibilities to address the issues most pressing for our communities, such as the need to work together to increase the supply of affordable housing–the issue and opportunity for partnership that Congresswoman Speier passionately advocated for in her address to NCG members.

As NCG fosters relationships with policymakers on behalf of its members, we look forward to participating in these important conversations.

We encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to contact the NCG Policy Team: Emily Katz at or Cecilia Chen at

About Cole Wilbur:

Cole Wilbur joined the David and Lucile Packard Foundation's Board of Trustees in 1999, following a 23-year tenure as the president of the Foundation from 1976 to 1999. During his 38 years of combined service as a trustee, the Foundation’s president and a trusted philanthropic advisor to David and Lucile Packard and their children, Mr. Wilbur guided the Foundation through periods of unprecedented and sustained growth in assets, grantmaking and staff. Among his many contributions, Mr. Wilbur provided critical leadership to establish and build the China Sustainability Energy Program, one of the Foundation’s most important investments to address climate change. He enthusiastically traveled the world to work with grantees and represent the Foundation to in-country and global leadership. He was particularly focused on building relationships to advance the reproductive health agenda within the Foundation’s priority geographies. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mr. Wilbur was the executive director and chief executive officer of the Sierra Club Foundation. Mr. Wilbur continues to serve as an advisor to a number of philanthropic organizations, including the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers and the Council on Foundations.