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Building Foundations: Charting a New Path at Prebys Foundation

Reflection from the CEO

Headshot of Grant Oliphant

At this time of year many of us find our mailboxes filling up with those holiday newsletters from family and friends recounting the highlights of their years. This blog is a bit like those newsletters—a tad too long, fun to write, and possibly nice to read if you have the kind of connection with us that I hope many of you do.

My year started with a bang—literally. I was walking home from a workout in Mission Hills when a driver who hadn’t seen me in the bright morning sun ran into me as I crossed Washington Boulevard. In shock, I kept asking the EMTs who trundled me into an ambulance and rushed me to UCSD Hillside why my legs hurt so much. “Well, I’m no doctor,” one said, “but it might have something to do with just having been hit by a car.”

I roared. His humor was just what I needed, and despite the injuries and weeks of recovery that ensued, I came to view the accident as a kind of rough blessing. It reminded me that transitions are hard, even for an experienced CEO or a large foundation. They ask us to reframe our expectations, open our minds, and get clarity on what we really want.

More than once during the painful weeks that followed, I wondered whether my wife and I had made a mistake coming here. That’s just human. But I was reminded of something the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch wrote in his famous “Last Lecture,” that barriers are put there to test how much we really want whatever lies on the other side. This place was already home—I could deal with an obstacle to climb.

The Prebys Foundation has had its own rites of passage and growing pains in its early years. As happened with my accident, they have only made the foundation stronger and given it greater clarity about its purpose and unique role in this very special community.

What is that purpose? In so many ways, 2023 was the year in which that came into abundant focus.

Nearly a decade ago, long before I knew I would move here to lead the Prebys Foundation, I flew in to deliver a talk at the invitation of my friend Nancy Jamison. I focused on how important it was for communities like San Diego and the philanthropists who cared about them to think big and model the type of can-do spirit that seemed increasingly hard to come by in an era of increasingly complex global challenges and eroding faith in national institutions and politics.

A decade on, that is still the theme that guides me, and in our work at the Prebys Foundation, it feels more relevant than ever. We are here to stay. We are fully committed to this community. And, more than anything, we are devoted to helping San Diego live up to its awesome potential as a place of community care, creativity, and exploration.

A man kneeling and smiling up at a woman with dancers in the background doing the same
Photo courtesy of PASACAT

Because Conrad was so extraordinarily generous in his lifetime, people tend to think of this as an old foundation. But really, we are still young. Just now we are completing our third year of grantmaking, and the first under our new community-informed strategic plan.

There are so many ways we could tell the story of this year:

We could point of course to the money, and certainly the money was important. We made 214 grants totaling $57.6 Million across the arts, health, medical research, and youth development. We opted to exceed the 5 percent payout that foundations typically adhere to because we felt the community needed more from its largest private foundation in these early days. We made a $100-million commitment to invest our assets, not just our grantmaking, in community impact. We made our first program related investment, a million-dollar commitment to helping childcare providers keep operating in San Diego by expanding access to affordable real estate.

Or we could point to the incredible people who make this foundation go every day. This year, we moved to an office in Little Italy where we could meet with organizations from around the County. We grew our staff to 14, so we could be in closer relationship with and better serve the community and the organizations we support. Starting late last year, we added 5 new members to our board, all women, to form a group of 9 thoughtful and informed civic leaders who, like our staff, have deep roots here in the greater San Diego region. We were fortunate to have Dan Yates, one of San Diego’s most civic-minded business leaders, step into the role of board chair. I cannot imagine a finer group of board or staff colleagues, and I am deeply grateful to every single one for the gift of their time and talents.

Or we could point to the people who inspire us every day. We rolled out our new strategic plan to literally hundreds of nonprofit leaders and partners in community meetings across the county. We featured deep conversations with a dozen inspiring leaders in our new podcast, Stop & Talk. We heard from over a thousand more at our Belonging workshops, in responses to our regular newsletter, and through our nominating process for the Leaders in Belonging Awards (we have chosen our 5 recipients and will announce them in January). As we launched our grantmaking initiatives, we heard from countless artists, doctors, researchers, and nonprofit and civic leaders about their hopes for San Diego. We benefited from a long roster of supportive partners—especially other foundation heads and philanthropists, most notably the generous wisdom of Irwin Jacobs, the experience of Robert Price, and the smart delight of Dan and Phyllis Epstein.

Or we could point to the work we launched through our initiatives this year and are supporting in partnership with so many of this community’s nonprofit heroes. The artists, arts advocates, and nonprofit leaders who understand just how vital the arts and culture are to the life of a truly great city, society, and country, never more so than at a time of so much divisiveness. The healthcare providers working to make great care available to everyone in this county who needs it, and to help our young people become the workforce that will continue to drive the success of this cornerstone of our economic, social, and personal well-being. The medical research facilities supporting the groundbreaking work of women researchers who are making science and cures better for all of us by bringing fresh perspectives and studying overlooked diseases. The leaders and organizers and advocates striving to connect young people with a future they can believe in and shape.

Or maybe we could simply say this. In 2023, we organized our work around the themes and ideas that we heard from so many of you are vital to San Diego’s future. Well-being. Purpose, opportunity, and belonging. Inspiration and innovation. Community and connectivity. Our vision is to strengthen a network of relationships across various fields, communities, and perspectives, building trust and sparking new ideas that will illuminate the path to a more prosperous future for all of San Diego—and the absolute determination to get there.

What we have started to do this year is to weave together a dynamic story about what more is possible here, at this intersection of nations and peoples, between the desert and the ocean. Yes, sure, we have problems, as every community does, but they do not define us. As the writer Raymond Williams said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” I moved to San Diego from a place that, through its darkest days and the most crushing of blows, somehow held onto its identity as a city of champions. Here, there are champions everywhere, literally imagining a better future into being every single day. Yet, somehow, we still struggle with embracing that. It is time to own our capacity to be a place that makes hope possible.

As this year comes to an end, thank you to all of you whose spirit, joy, and commitment have infused our work this year and impel us forward into 2024 eager to do even more. On behalf of our board and staff, I offer our well wishes for a peaceful holiday season and a new year filled with joy, health, friendship, and prosperity.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Until 2024,

Grant Oliphant

CEO, Prebys Foundation

692 views3 comments


I love the nod to well-placed humor and I'm glad you're okay!


Aleta Barthell
Aleta Barthell
Dec 21, 2023

I want to thank you, Grant, and your entire staff for connecting us with each other and prompting us to dream big. Looking forward to 2024 with you all.


Aleta Barthell


Alan Sorkin
Alan Sorkin
Dec 21, 2023

Thanks for a thorough, thoughtful analysis of 2023 Grant, and I look forward to working with you in 2024.

Best regards,

Alan Sorkin

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