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Place of Wonder: Philanthropy and the Future of San Diego

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Last week, our CEO, Grant Oliphant, discussed The Conrad Prebys Foundation’s vision and mission

with the San Diego Rotary Club 33. We appreciate the invite and wanted to share Grant's remarks with you as we hope they will inspire ideas and further inform you of where we are going.

Video Presentation

PowerPoint Presentation and Remarks

Slide 2: Love of San Diego

Maybe a good place to start is this. Here I am at 12. Don’t judge; everyone had that shirt in those days. And look at all that hair…

I spent a glorious month here when my family considered moving here from Denver. We had moved to America from Australia 9 years earlier, hoping to come to California but missed it by a thousand miles landing in a place I never lived, as far from my beloved ocean as we humanly could. But I fell in love with San Diego, instantly and immediately, with the sea and the sun and the people. I learned to sail here. Mostly I fell in love with an idea. San Diego answered my question about who I wanted to be: I would live by the sea and fulfill a childhood dream of becoming an oceanographer.

The following year my family moved to DC, all that vanished in the Beltway haze. My life took a different course. But the idea of San Diego still lived in me.

Slide 3: Re-Cap Of Our History

What finally brought me here was the opportunity to build this foundation into something worthy of its potential–and to contribute to a still-growing tradition of philanthropy in this community that I had loved from afar for decades. Conrad made an unbelievably rare and generous gift to this community, and he deserves it to be incredible.

Over our first two years, we prioritized giving much-needed funding to organizations doing great work in San Diego during the pandemic. Building on that, as the foundation expands its staff and deepens its relationships in the community, we are moving into a more deliberate and interactive way of operating that leans heavily into partnerships and the wisdom and expertise that lives in our communities.

What I want to do today is talk about why we’re doing that and what I think San Diego and a robust regional foundation like ours can accomplish together.

Slide 4: Beyond the Money

A friend likes to joke, “The answer is money. Now what’s the question?” In philanthropy, we get that all the time. Money is what we all focus on. But I have learned from long experience that money is just the beginning.

There are three ways that I think a foundation like ours can make a difference beyond the money:

  1. We can help our community ask new questions

  2. We can invite new thinking and new possibilities,

  3. We can support new ways of getting there.

And what I want to share with you here is how we are approaching those tasks.

Slide 5: Ask New Questions - Mark Twain

Let’s start by asking new questions. I’m always wary of foundations and philanthropists who arrive with ready-made answers. So often, what gets in the way of progress–for foundations and communities–is what we think we know. Luckily for us at Prebys, we are a VERY new foundation, so we could feel free not to have all the answers. We set out to find out what we knew and what we only thought we knew. This exploration led us on the journey of the last year…

Slide 6: Ask New Questions - Part 2

We engaged more than 100 organizations and hundreds of leaders and people in the community. We asked them what they needed, what challenged them, and what inspired them. We also asked them their greatest hopes–not just for their work and organizations, but for San Diego.

Slide 7: Ask New Questions - Part 3

And what came back was powerful. In every conversation we had across this county, we heard about the incredible assets that San Diegans are proud of and their great hopes for this region and their lives in it. They told us this community is an extraordinary place. Not a special place, not a fine place–but extraordinary. It is a place of wonders.

We are a bridge between the desert and the sea. We connect nations, cultures, and peoples. We invent the future here. And we have shown we can build soaring spaces worthy of our dreams. In a very real way, our wonders are all about transitions, coming together, and connecting across whatever separates us from each other and our goals. There is so much power in that.

Slide 8: Ask New Questions - Part 4

But they also told us that wonders alone aren’t enough, even the exceptional wonders we find here. The Italian writer Italo Calvino captured a truth about all great communities that too many city builders and brochure writers tend to forget. They offer wonders; make no mistake. But they also offer avenues of possibility for their people.

In other words, it is not just the wonders that distinguish a place. What truly distinguishes a place are the many opportunities it creates for its people to find what they seek, the answers to their questions.

Slide 9: Belonging

That leads us to a new, bold vision for our work as a foundation. The questions all of us want to answer in our lives revolve around three things:

  • A Sense of Purpose which is all about individual contribution, civic voice, and agency;

  • Opportunity is about whether each of us can find a pathway to success here; however, we may define that;

  • And most fundamentally, Belonging is that essential feeling of being in a community and engaging with it, of being invited in and heard, of being embraced and accepted for who we are.

What became apparent to us is that this is San Diego’s defining opportunity. Suppose all of our wonders are about leaping across divides and coming together in spectacular ways to create a magnificent place. Why shouldn’t that also be true of our aspirations as a community?

By asking new questions, we discovered something that can be difficult to see amid our everyday lives–we learned that, all around us, there is a thirst in our community to raise our sites for what’s possible here.

Slide 10: Invite New Possibilities

Let me just tell you what I love about the Aztecs, Wave, and Padres- - It’s not just that they’ve had a great run or are poised to make another one. It’s that they didn’t seem to get the small-town memo. They don’t buy into small ambitions. Each of them seems to believe that they can be the best by working as a team.

At this moment, there is an opportunity to redefine what greatness looks like in San Diego. We can reshape and build upon past regional visions, current experiences, and the needs of now and tomorrow–and make something spectacular.

Slide 11: Invite New Possibilities 2 - The Arts

When you start thinking that way, new possibilities emerge everywhere. Why, for example, in the arts, shouldn’t we have the best ecosystem for creativity anywhere–or at least one worthy of the rich human, economic, cultural, and ecological diversity here?

What opened up for us was thinking about the arts as so much more than a collection of institutions. Those deserve support, especially as they strive to reach or reconnect with audiences in a new age. But we must care, too, about the artists who create here and give voice to the questions of our many people and our times, and about young people as they strive to find meaning, purpose, and voice through creativity, and who will become the artists and audiences of the future. Like a team or an ecosystem, we realized it’s a virtuous cycle, each strengthening the other.

Slide 12: Invite New Possibilities 3 - Healthcare

In healthcare, why shouldn’t this region be the best place in America to find care, no matter who you are? Again our region is blessed to have many excellent healthcare institutions, and those deserve our support.

But access to quality care remains a challenge for too many, and finding healthcare workers, especially those competent to bridge our many cultures, threatens the future of healthcare everywhere. So those, too, must become our touchstones for excellence.

Slide 13: Invite New Possibilities 4 - Medical Research

We are already one of the best places in the world for medical research. And to stay there, we must continue to support our world-class institutions–especially as they seek ways to collaborate and build on their shared strengths. But those institutions themselves told us they, like science itself, would be made even stronger by bringing more perspectives–especially of women and women of color–into leading roles in their research labs.

And by widening the aperture on who gets studied and which populations matter. Different people ask different new questions–and the more varied the people, the better the answers for everyone.

Slide 14: Invite New Possibilities 5 - Youth Success

And young people–why shouldn’t this be the best place in America to find your path?

But for that, we will need a shared vision to address the many challenges and amazing opportunities unfolding before our youth. We want to support that vision. And young people will need more opportunities to connect with work and the types of jobs that will sustain them. And most of all, we need to invest in their health and well-being.

Slide 15: Support New Pathways 1

And I believe we can do that. Asking new questions and imagining new possibilities brought us to the foundation of a new sense of our purpose. Belonging means we will work in everything we do to create an inclusive, equitable, and dynamic future for all San Diegans.

Slide 16: Support New Pathways 2

It also means that we will work at the intersections of hard and important issues.

Three that leap out at us have to do with our unique character as a border region, our vulnerability to climate change, and the importance of strong democratic dialogue to decide our future. And what better way to engage artists, young people, researchers, and healthcare professionals than on those issues?

Slide 17: Support New Pathways 3

We want to partner, explore, and invest our time and resources into our 4 program areas and three issue areas because we know that in San Diego, we are on the edge of resilient greatness, and there is so much more potential to be leveraged if we partner well and invest well. If we behave like the Padres and the Wave.

Slide 18: Support New Pathways 4

Through a newer approach to strategic philanthropy – one where we lean on community wisdom, co-grant making, partnership, and using every tool at our ready (advocacy, investments, etc).

For decades, foundations have given to passion projects, partners, and friends near and dear to our hearts. Many believe money solves everything. It does solve some challenges. But we have learned that our regional nonprofits want to be in a relationship with funders. They want us to convene, connect, and consult where we do have expertise or networks that are helpful to them.

Beyond that, we believe through a partnership, strategic philanthropy can better partner with communities to address health inequities, the need for medical treatments centered on BIPOC communities, investments in Youth Success and inclusive art for everyone from San Ysidro to Oceanside, to the tribal nations.

We plan to learn with the community while we co-create grants, partner with communities, and advocate for OR against things that support or harm San Diegans' ability to belong, have purpose, and seek opportunity.

Slide 19: Conclusion

Belonging Pays Dividends for Everyone Better Medical Research and More Innovation Better Healthcare and More Healthcare Workers A More Creative and Dynamic Community Healthier and More Engaged Young People

Slide 20: Closing

A place not just of wonders, but of wondering, and an entire community that shares in the answers

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