Sobrato Family Foundation: Bay Area Grants

OVERVIEW: The Sobrato Family Foundation was established in 1996 by a Silicon Valley real estate mogul who remains dedicated to Santa Clara, San Mateo and Southern Alameda counties. It backs human services and critical needs causes, mostly in the form of two-year general operating support grants (nice!), and even provides support for coveted office and conference center space. 

FUNDING AREAS: Education, health, human services, employment training, youth development, housing, capacity building agencies, early literacy

IP TAKE: This is a metrics-driven foundation with a real estate investment mindset. Keep in mind that your foundation must have a three-year average income of $300,000 to be eligible for a grant and that grants are made for one to eight percent of a three-year average income.

PROFILE: Founded in 1996 with a dedication to Santa Clara, San Mateo and Southern Alameda counties, the Sobrato Family Foundation is a place-based grantmaker that funds millions of dollars each year in general operating support, donates land and buildings to community nonprofits, and provides rent-free office and conference space to Bay Area organizations in three Nonprofit Centers. In 2013, the foundation revamped its mission and started making responsive and strategic grants. In 2014, SFF designed four grantmaking program areas focused on community impact.

21st Century Education and Pathways for Success are the responsive grantmaking programs and the primary strategic ones too. This funder is concerned with early academic language, quality school alternatives, charter growth and facilities, and new teacher and school leadership development. Meanwhile, the Pathways for Success category targets "programs that develop career ladders to middle-skill jobs, and organizations that work with industry employer partners to expand the number of middle-skill jobs available to our workforce."

The foundation has also awarded office space grants and conference center grants to help nonprofits access quality, affordable workspaces in Silicon Valley, where costs are among the highest in the nation. Real estate and development are Sobrato’s business. John A. Sobrato, Founder and Principal of The Sobrato Organization, was one of the most successful private real estate developers in California. In his 70s, he’s worth an estimated $6.7 billion.

Rick Williams stepped into the role of foundation CEO in 2013. “My job is to set the vision for the foundation, to keep my ear to the ground of the community and to be responsive, Williams told Los Gatos Magazine. “To do that, I am in a lot of meetings, on calls and at events, day and night, listening and learning. It’s been great.” He leads a small staff of about four grantmaking professionals at the foundation office.

SFF committed nearly $11 million in general operating support grants in a recent, which was spread across 93 Silicon Valley-based nonprofits. That year, approximately two-thirds of the foundation’s grants went toward work in human services, with 22 percent going towards education, 9 percent towards health, and two percent to public and societal benefit organizations. Between 1996 and 2013, the Sobrato Family Foundation had contributed $107.7 million to 442 local organizations. When you factor in individual family giving and land and buildings donated directly to local nonprofits, the Sobratos’ cumulative community investments totaled $315 million at the end of 2014.

In a past grant cycle, the foundation announced $2.4 million in grants going to 17 Silicon Valley nonprofits, including InnVision Shelter Network, JobTrain Inc., Hands on Bay Area, and Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. By the end of a recent year, SFF approved $525,000 to support projects that address homelessness in the Silicon Valley.

"We've prioritized [general operating support] grants for years, recognizing that unrestricted support is essential to the stability, livelihood and growth of our community's organizations," said Williams. "This long-term, single-region focus means we've built trust in the community and deeply understand our region's needs."

SFF was one of the first foundations in the area to focus its grantmaking portfolio on general operating support for critical services, opting for two-year commitments that take inflation into account and have no restrictions on reapplying. “Philanthropy is like venture capital for social programs,” Williams says of his metrics-driven approach. “You have to make the investment decision that does the most good.”

To be eligible for a grant, you must run a 501(c)(3) independent organization and have a minimum renewable private cash contributed (locally raised) income three-year average of $300,000. More than half of the people you serve with your education, health, or human services program must be economically, physically, or emotionally challenged and reside in the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo, or Southern Alameda. SFF tends to reject programs that support the arts, the environment, mental health, medical research, disease treatment, public libraries, individual schools, and government agencies.

Interestingly, SFF doesn’t really care to know how much money you want for your organization. If a grant is approved, the foundation typically awards operating support in the range of one-to-eight percent of an agency’s three-year average renewable private cash contributed income figure (excluding unique one-time gifts, bequests, capital campaigns and endowment contributions). The foundation also provides two years of unrestricted conditional support to ensure funding stability during nonprofits’ strategic planning and budgeting cycles. But because SFF doesn’t required any time off between grants, you could be fortunate enough to receive continuous funding.

To get started, take SFF’s six-question Quick Eligibility Questionnaire. General questions about the grantmaking program should be directed to


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