We recently spoke with Valerie Jacobs from the Jacobs Family Foundation on Clubhouse about the history of her family’s approach to philanthropy, how this shaped her own values and actions and also how her family’s investment in Southeastern San Diego came about.
For those unaware of the Jacobs work in Southern California, this was a great conversation about seeding transformative change through philanthropy with the goal of building opportunity, wealth and collective powers for those they serve.
Valerie is a board member of the Jacobs Family Foundation and Chair of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and is the founder of Valerie Jacobs Consulting, dedicated to providing direct consultation support to individual philanthropists and family foundations. In addition, Valerie is a nationally – known speaker and has created a series of workshops for women of wealth and wealthy families dealing with both philanthropy and family dynamics.
She has been a licensed psychotherapist since 1979, specializing in the effects of wealth on relationships and personal well–being, and has worked in the field of philanthropy since 1994.
Valerie holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in physical anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Masters of Education degree from California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.
I have known Valerie for a number of years and have worked with her through a development committee that I staffed at San Diego Grantmakers. She always struck me as a big picture thinker with a strong sense of pragmatism that ensures topics are moving forward while the larger sector works out how to act/react. The work of her family’s foundation and that of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (of which we covered in depth in the interview) also features as a chapter in my upcoming book Future Philanthropy – The Trends, Talent & Tech Defining New Civic Leadership.
Valerie kicked off the conversation with some historical context about what influenced her parents philanthropy and much of that centered around them growing up poor and the opportunities for economic mobility derived through entrepreneurship. It was the Jacobs Engineering Group, based out of Pasadena that provided that financial security especially when it went public in 1970, rewarding employees with stock options and maintaining control of approximately 40 percent of the stock so the company could retain the atmosphere of a family-run business.
After experimenting with their approach to philanthropy it was in 1988 that their formal foundation became frustrated with the fact their dollars were only resulting in incremental progress not the big transformative change they imagined.
The family saw that being a place-based funder was the best approach to make a difference, identified a long neglected 20-acre lot in the Diamond Neighborhoods of South Eastern San Diego of which they purchased with the goal of having its residents own the future community assets, have them be financially sustainable, and to then have local leaders continuing this momentum long after the land was due to be transferred to public ownership 30 years later.
Valerie mentioned at this point that they were about 3-5 years away from this happening and that they had onboarded 3 people from the community to serve on the board and that for the first time in their history would soon be transitioning out of the chairperson role. While they were still working out what the final makeup of the board would look like they were encouraged by their progress.
SCAFFOLDING FOR SHARED SUCCESS
The strategy and community engagement components of this audacious project (of which was pivotal to its eventual success) fell at the hands of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Part philanthropic steward and part program manager, the JCNI was charged with developing the project’s newly expanded 60 acre parcel into a vibrant and economically sustainable destination.
And they had some big wins right out of the gate including a successful Community-Development Initial Public Offering (IPO) for ‘Market Creek Plaza’ a commercial and cultural center which was the first project of its kind in the U.S. and saw the community invest $500,000 for 20% ownership and a further 20% owned by the resident-led Neighborhood Unity Foundation.
We also discussed food deserts and how the Market Creek Plaza became the catalyst for the first major grocery store (Food 4 Less – owned by Kroger) introduced to the area in 30 years and the communities first sit-down restaurants established. The community didn’t want any liquor stores or convenience stores as part of the plan as they wanted the project to tackle disparities on a multi-generational level. It was this community buy-in that no doubt saw Food 4 Less become the top performing store in San Diego County.
The home of JCNI also became home to a conference center, community meeting spaces and the homes of a number of innovative nonprofit organizations including Accion, Mainly Mozart, Kitchens For Good and Paving Great Futures, all of which have had a leading role in ensuring the community continues to grow despite the ongoing fog of COVID and the compounding inequities of which it has laid bare for a number of low-income communities nationwide.
THE PROMISE OF HOUSING
2016 saw a milestone moment for the project and the activation of new funding and funding partners in the form of a Promise Zone designation from the Obama Administration. That announcement shared that “The San Diego Promise Zone (SDPZ) comprises three of the City’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, roughly bounded by the San Diego Unified Port District to the west; downtown San Diego and State Route 94 to the north; National City to the south; and the City of Lemon Grove to the east. The Zone is characterized by high unemployment, low educational attainment, insufficient access to healthy foods, concentrated poverty, rising crime, high rates of youth unemployment, and the least affordable housing in the nation. Recent rezoning, vacant land along high traffic corridors, and a central location that is well-served by public transit are assets that the SPDZ will build upon to bring economic vitality to these underserved communities. The City of San Diego and its partners will, among other goals, work to address the severe problem of 40.1 percent unemployment rate among youth ages 16-24, rising crime and lack of affordable housing.”
Valerie acknowledged that this really shifted the momentum from chasing support (when they couldn’t get construction loans back in the earlier years and putting up their own collateral) to being chased down by partners across all sectors. Not only spurring economic development but also infrastructure funding for this often overlooked area, with the city of San Diego now expanding its Complete Streets program to the Diamond neighborhoods to support aging underground infrastructure, beautifying the area and building new median strips.
We talked about gentrification, both in real terms and it’s perception given the funding approach, but that would’ve been counter to the family philosophy of giving people the opportunity to build real wealth.
To paraphrase JCNI CEO Reginald Jones who obviously espouses the families values himself, ‘we aren’t looking at low income housing for this project, we are looking to build affordable housing so our residents can begin building wealth’.
With housing offered at below market rates, the goal was to keep the community in the community and with a projected 400 people to be employed by new government offices in the area soon, walking to work will be an attractive reason to stay.
WEALTH SHARING > SUNSETTING
Since Jones was installed in 2012, we finally got to see what the end game would look like through the Town Center Master Plan which provides extensive details of how the remaining 37 acres (of 60) would be transformed to increase jobs, housing and access to educational and recreational opportunities.
Valerie was particularly excited by the Connect All program which ‘offers ambitious and diverse local entrepreneurs access to the support they need to transform their businesses, themselves, and their communities into something remarkable.’ This was particularly fascinating because it shows that this program isn’t just about bringing in extra services to support an underserved community but ensuring there are opportunities that exist for an underestimated community too.
The fact that the Jacobs story was born out of entrepreneurship and that it’s legacy will have entrepreneurship woven into its ongoing DNA is just another layer for this exciting story. It wasn’t lost on me and surely won’t be lost on folks that will be telling this story for years to come.
Valerie concluded this part of the discussion by stating that sunsetting in the traditional sense was when a Foundation hands out their last grant. Her goal is to ensure that there is a true wealth transfer and that this comes with a commitment to ensure that eventual event comes debt free.
THE FUTURE OF PHILANTHROPY
When moving into the open discussion part of the chat, Valerie shared some wisdom around grantmaking, especially when it came to making assumptions on community need, instead encouraging folks to listen and come forward with the needs and solutions on how philanthropy can help their communities. She shared an example of how they wanted a new childcare center for the area, but instead found there were a number of smaller centers and in-home options that had openings and needed broader support in the form of education around licensing, business planning and administration among other things. Lessons learned from the community helps you better understand the need and how to form partnerships that lead to trust and community buy in.
Valerie then shared her take on the current trends of the sector noting there was a paradigm shift in where we fund not how we fund. There is a well deserved anger around philanthropy and much of that centered around wealthy folks holding on to money and that it supports a system of inequality. The focus should be on a wealth transfer not celebrating new funding mechanisms that protect a foundations corpus. This is part of the evolution of philanthropy, sourcing additional funding to fight social injustice, but it can’t be the gold standard. We must do more. We must be more.
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