Guessing Game: Who's the Anonymous Donor That Just Showered Millions on Oakland?

Who doesn't love a good mystery involving anonymous money? And by "good," we don't mean another boring gift to an Ivy League university by a WASPy donor trained since birth to serve with humility. Nor do we mean a giant but forgettable gift to a hospital by a busy billionaire who doesn't want a line of grantseekers forming outside his door. 

No, a truly exciting mystery donor is one who veers well off the beaten path, shelling out big bucks for a cause that rich people usually don't backand does so out of the blue, with a sense of fierce urgency seldom found in the slow-moving world of major gifts, where cultivation often happens in slow motion, over years (and even generations). 

Such a donor, it seems, is now loose in the Bay Area. Grab your binoculars, because this is one interesting bird. 

The story starts a couple days ago, when we got wind that the San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) would be announcing an eight-figure grant to benefit Oakland. Now, that in itself is unusual. Oakland may be located in a region rolling in riches, but the big money usually doesn't find its way to the city, which is majority non-white and has long struggled with poverty and other problems. 

So we waited with wide-eyed anticipation to find out more about the mega-grant. Who could it be from? Is it a corporate funder or a wealthy entrepreneur? Or maybe a local family foundation?

Well, we never got an answer to those questions because the donor delivering the windfall—$34 million—is remaining anonymous.

Clearly, though, the donor cares a lot about improving life in the East Bay, and the money came with a few stipulations and goals, which included creating 700 new affordable housing unit and 2,500 new jobs. 

Those sound like reasonable enough goals, especially with TSFF overseeing the giving. As we've reported, the foundation has really bolstered its firepower in recent years, recruiting a new leader, Fred Blackwell, who has a long history working to boost low-income neighborhoods, and also a new program director, Judith Bell, who previously was president of PolicyLink, which focuses on promoting equity.  


No doubt the mystery donor has been impressed with TSFF's new high command, but just how did this gift come about? 

Well, back in February, Blackwell got a call from the donor, who offered up this massive donationcontingent upon the money hitting the streets of Oakland by summer. Blackwell said it was the first “cold call” of this magnitude that he’d ever received, so he and his team kicked into high gear. And considering that it’s mid-July now, it seems they pulled it off without a hitch. With such a strong connection to the City of Oakland, where he previously served as interim city administrator and assistant city administrator, Blackwell was the perfect recipient for that cold call.

Reportedly, the donor did not pick out individual nonprofits to fund, but rather, Blackwell and his staff chose the recipients based on their understanding of where the greatest local needs are—within the parameters of the donor’s broad wishes, of course. And it looks like every grant topped the million-dollar mark.

Oakland Public Schools came out on top with a $6 million grant, which will go toward early childhood education, restorative justice initiatives, and other programs.

Fred Blackwell said that the massive sum of money is intended to help people “with the greatest barriers to employment.” Lots of different kinds of people have trouble finding work in Oakland, so these funds could extend to low-income entrepreneurs, immigrants, single mothers, former prison inmates, women in tech, new college grads, and others too. 

The tech scene is huge in the Bay Area, but has bypassed Oakland to a large extent. This donor aims to change that with lots of tech sector grants, like the $4 million gift to Qeyno Labs. Seven other organizations also received $4 million grants to boost the tech skills of Oakland youth.

The anonymous donor apparently believes in the community-building power of arts and culture organizations, so arts groups weren't left out of the mix, either. For example, the Destiny Arts Center received $1.3 million to relieve its debt and expand youth programming. Nonprofit debt relief funding—now there's something you don't see every day.

Okay, now on to the fun question: Who's behind this gift? 

Hah—I wish we had some concrete clues. But our best guess is that it's a family foundation that had to get rid of a bunch of money fast to meet its mandated payout requirement and avoid a tax penalty. Here are a few reasons to think that:

First, there's the element of the ticking clock, with the stated need for the money to hit the streets by summer, a deadline that also coincides with the end of the fiscal year on June 30. 

Second, the funds were dispersed across several areasa pattern that tracks more with how family foundations operate. They often have varied program interests, by contrast with how individuals donors think. Anonymous donations by individuals almost always go to a single institution.

Third, there's the focus on Oakland itself and the needs of its struggling residents. This is the sort of priority more likely to be embraced by wealthy progressive heirs than by a new tech billionaire, and the nature of the grants is a further tipoff in this direction: Most of the living donors we track wouldn't be keen to shovel $6 million into the Oakland public schools. They'd give it to some nonprofit ed group instead. 

OK, so next question: Name a family foundation that might be rolling in more cash than it can handle, has progressive priorities, and has a record of focusing on Oakland?

We can only think of one: The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which is based in Oakland and has been ramping up in recent years, absorbing large gobs of money from the estate of Kenneth Rainin, an entrepreneur who died in 2007. (It received $112 million in 2013 and $56 million in 2012.) The foundation has been expanding its staff and programs, but perhaps it just couldn't move fast enough and turned to TSFF for help.

If so, why the anonymity for an otherwise transparent foundation? Because portions of the grant money via TSFF are going to areas that Rainin doesn't normally support, and the last thing it wants is to have to explain that over and over again in coming months and years.  

Nice theory, right? Yup, but probably all a bunch of hooey, too. Really, who knows? There's a bunch of other possible suspects—like, say, Mitch Kapor.  

If you have your own guess on the mystery donor, weigh in below, in the comments section.