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Be That Bridge: Developing The Conrad Prebys Foundation's Mission through Community Listening

Our Purpose and Mission

Over the past seven months, I have had the privilege to spend much of my time learning from members of this community about what makes it a special place and what they hope The Conrad Prebys Foundation will contribute in the years ahead. I have long appreciated the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind, the idea that we are most open to new possibilities and insights when we set aside what we think we know. As a newcomer to San Diego, I have to say that last part has not been difficult for me, since I have had so much to discover. I am grateful to all the many people and groups who have welcomed me and shared their observations, experiences, and wisdom so generously, and who continue to do so today.

This foundation has had a similar learning opportunity and has been on a similar journey. Of course, our founder knew this community incredibly well. He loved it so much that he bequeathed virtually the entirety of his wealth to an independent private foundation intended to celebrate and strengthen the stunning expressions of human creativity, insight, and compassion that can be found here.

It was an exceptionally rare and generous gift that deserves an exceptionally thoughtful response from those who have been charged with translating Conrad’s big-hearted intent into an ongoing force for meaningful impact in San Diego. It has been a joy for me to work these past seven months alongside a board of directors and growing staff who at every step have demonstrated how well they understand that.

This is a group driven by mission. Together we get to build an institution for the benefit of an entire community, and every one of us recognizes there is no simple or uniform playbook for that. It is an occasion for humility, for listening intently, for thinking expansively, and for recognizing that this foundation itself is a beginner, launching on a journey that is sure to outlast all of us.

Since my arrival earlier this year, we have been engaged in strategic planning and will be through the end of the year. But instead of waiting until then to share where this process has led us, I think it is important to share now how we have already sharpened our sense of mission and purpose. Over the next few months, I will continue to share more information about our progress as we put more details in place.

Conrad’s charter for this foundation focused on the visual and performing arts, medical research and treatment, and other work in San Diego consistent with his giving during his lifetime, the most notable aspects of which were youth and institutions of higher education doing exemplary work to advance those other interests.

As we talked with organizations across that spectrum and throughout San Diego in recent months, it was not difficult to identify a common thread that ran through all of them. What Conrad left as his philanthropic legacy was a powerful vision for community well-being. He imagined a San Diego made stronger and better for everyone through creativity, innovation, learning and health.

Community well-being is easier to define than it may sound. We all know it when we see it. As we found in our research but even more in our conversations around San Diego, genuinely healthy communities are ones in which each of us can find a purpose, enjoy the opportunity to contribute and prosper, and feel a sense of belonging and respect. Purpose, opportunity, and belonging are at the core of community well-being, and the evidence suggests that the future belongs to communities that figure out how to share those three essential elements as broadly as possible with everyone.

That understanding has led us directly to how we now envision our purpose as a foundation, which is to create an inclusive, equitable, and dynamic future for all San Diegans. That’s our vision, that’s our work, because in so many ways that is San Diego’s work. It is what will define us as a truly great community in the decades ahead.

As many of you have already recognized, no one group or organization will be able to achieve this vision on their own. It will take all of us working together, each adopting it in our own ways, as many of you already have. Our contribution, which we now view as our mission, will be to invest in groundbreaking institutions, ideas, and people who share our goal of advancing excellence by sharing opportunity more broadly.

At least three measurable things will happen if we are successful. More of our neighbors will be financially secure, healthy, and empowered. Our many communities—not just some but all, and not just geographic but in the many ways we define ourselves—will be more uplifting and connected. And the institutions, organizations and systems that serve us will do so equitably and fairly.

As a foundation, our way of pursuing these outcomes will be through our focus areas. We will invest in the visual and performing arts, medical research and health treatment, and youth agency—all of it in or for the benefit of San Diego. That’s our wheelhouse, and it’s a good one.

But we also understand that many of the challenges and opportunities in this community transcend lines drawn on maps and rough categorizations of human activity. We are interested in the intersections and merge points between issues, the places where many factors come together to demand new thinking and to spark innovation. In particular, we will pay attention to how the work we support connects with efforts to address climate change, leverages our special character as a border region and home to the Kumeyaay nation, and nurtures the sort of robust civic life needed to advance a shared vision for our community.

We will have more to share in the months ahead about specific strategies and initiatives we will adopt to implement this framework. For now, I simply want to share the direction we are setting for the foundation and my excitement about what we hope it will mean for San Diego. I may be new here, but I already see vast potential in this town and consider it an immense privilege to be doing this work here.

What I see with my Beginner’s Mind, and what this foundation sees, is a community that has sometimes viewed itself as an island—between the sea and the desert along one axis, and between the border and Camp Pendleton along another. But we are really a bridge.

Here we connect nations. Here we connect civilians and military. Here we connect people and nature. Here we connect inventors and artists. Here we connect over and over and over again, and once we choose to truly embrace that as our strength—for everyone’s benefit—we will be a bridge to the future not just for ourselves but for a country and planet desperate for models of what can work.

Let’s be that bridge. We look forward to working with you.

--Grant Oliphant

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