Meet Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, a Driving Force Behind the Sobrato Family Foundation

We've been looking into the philanthropy of the Sobrato family lately, and here are three things we can say for sure about this clan, which made its fortune in Silicon Valley real estate:

First, they rank among America's richest families, with a net worth currently estimated at $4.6 billion. 

Second, in their Giving Pledge letter, family members have said that the vast majority of that money will eventually be committed to philanthropy.

And third, Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, the daughter of family patriarch John A. Sobrato, has been a driving force in scaling up and professionalizing the family's philanthropy over the past 18 years. 

Lisa is the one who established the foundation in the first place back in 1996 to unify Sobrato grantmaking across multiple generations. Lisa serves as the foundation’s board president, and the foundation has grown tenfold in both assets and annual giving under her leadership. (Read Sobrato Family Foundation: Bay Area Grants).

So who is Lisa Sobrato Sonsini?

By profession, Lisa is an attorney, receiving her J.D. from Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley. She previously attended UCLA and earned a B.A. in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Business Administration. Although Lisa isn’t practicing law these days, she did work for five years as a corporate associate at the law firm of Brobeck, Phleger and Harrison.

On a personal note, she’s married to Matthew W. Sonsini, who quit his job at the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati law firm in 2008 to join the Sobrato family business and step into the role of Chief Investment Officer. The Sobrato Organization’s real estate division and its investment division provide continuous support for the family’s philanthropic endeavors. Matthew serves as the foundation’s Board Secretary and is also a trustee. Lisa and Matthew have three children and reside in the affluent Bay Area town of Menlo Park.

Not every billionaire's daughter devotes herself to philanthropy. Many are too busy leading the good life. So why is Lisa so passionate about giving and what issues is she most interested in?  

For over two decades, Lisa has fought for the rights of abused and neglected children and youth in the Bay Area. She became a court-appointed child advocate after learning about the opportunity early in her law career. While in her mid-20s, she became an appointed advocate for Rita, a 12-year-old girl who was removed from her home, and spent about a dozen hours each month with her.

She’s also passionate about getting emerging Silicon Valley leaders involved in civic engagement, encouraging them to sit on nonprofit boards and helping them pave the way for their own philanthropic pursuits. “I think there’s untapped potential with the younger generation in terms of potential board candidacy, Lisa said. “And there are leaders who haven’t necessarily served on a board but have the capacity, through orientation and modeling.”

Here’s a woman whose heart and grantmaking focus lie along the San Francisco Bay. Sobrato Family Foundation grants are restricted to the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Southern Alameda. Bay Area children are an obvious top priority for Lisa, and she's deep into education issues, serving on the advisory board for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. Lisa also currently serves on the Board of Directors for KIPP Bay Area Schools, Silicon Valley Children's Fund, American Leadership Forum Silicon Valley and Silicon Schools. 

The Sobratos’ cumulative giving totaled over $238 million between 1996 and 2012. And as a driving force behind foundation operations, we wonder if Lisa will steer grantmaking toward even more education and youth development organizations. Nearly a quarter of Sobrato grants have been going towards education, and in early 2014, SFF awarded a total of $3.5 million in local grants to support its 21st Century Education initiative.

As for her broader approach to grantmaking, Lisa is clearly in tune with what nonprofits need most, which is reliable general support. And the Sobrato Family Foundation gives exactly that: "Instead of giving program grants, we support general operating expenses, such as salaries," she told The Almanac.

“Our approach hasn’t really changed," Lisa explained to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. "We’ve stayed as one of the few very locally place-based funders and have continued to provide general operating support by listening to the needs of the community. We don’t foresee changing that: it’s been a core part of what we do, and will continue to be.”