With annual giving nearly doubling to $43 million since taking shape in 2013, Heising-Simons is an emerging force in education, science, and climate. President Deanna Gomby tells us where the young funder is headed.
Since donor couple Elizabeth Simons and Mark Heising formalized their philanthropy a few years ago—they started a foundation in 2007 and started hiring professional staff in 2012—the Heising-Simons Foundation has moved fast, building a team of 23, setting up a 10,000-square-foot office in Los Altos, and making a splash in some niche areas. It’s a lot like another type of fast-growing enterprise, in fact.
“We’re in Silicon Valley, so I view this as another startup,” says CEO and President Deanna Gomby, who took the helm in 2012 following a run at Packard Foundation and then worked as a consultant. “And there’s an exhilaration about being in a startup.”
The funder awarded $23.5 million in 2013, up to $42.8 million last year, anticipating another increase this year. And there’s no signs of slowing down, as the couple just announced they’ve signed the Giving Pledge.
Driven by active donors and leadership hailing from some West Coast philanthropic heavyweights, the foundation is bringing that enthusiasm of a new project to some daunting issues—education, science research, and climate change—and trying to find fresh approaches that are rooted in the latest research.
You can get a sense of the foundation’s ambition just by looking at the chosen programs. In 2015, about half of its grantmaking went to education, a quarter to science, 12 percent to climate and clean energy, and the rest to trustee or other emerging interests.
Those are some booming, challenging, and even controversial philanthropic causes—not the easiest to crack into. But the funder brings a lot of firepower to bear.
For starters, there’s a family legacy of huge philanthropy, as Liz Simons is the daughter of Jim Simons, who, with his wife Marilyn, oversees the massive science research foundation that bears their name. Her brother Nathaniel Simons has carved out his own role with a large-but-stealthy climate funder the Sea Change Foundation. These philanthropies operate independently, Gomby says, but the family is very close. The Simons Foundation and Heising-Simons partnered recently to fund a $40 million observatory.
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Liz Simons is a former teacher with a master’s in education from Stanford who has been involved in early childhood education programs for some time and plays a big part in that program. Mark Heising’s background is in computer science, holding a master’s from Berkeley and six U.S. patents. He’s currently managing director of Medley Partners, a family private equity firm. The next generation, Caitlin Heising, has worked at communications firms and got involved in philanthropy early on, recently joining the foundation’s board.
Their relatively new team boasts Gomby’s 30-year track record in philanthropy and education, Cyndi Atherton coming over from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to run the science program, and other staff bringing experience from research, philanthropy, and the private sector.
In its first few years as a staffed foundation, Heising-Simons has been finding its role in its chosen subjects, and unsurprisingly, given family and professional backgrounds, relies heavily on research to guide all areas of giving.
”Policies and practices are better, can be better, should be better, if they’re informed by research, and I think [the trustees] believe that,” Gomby says.
“In the science program, it’s fundamental research, it’s basic research. But in the education program, it’s a lot of applied research. And in the environmental work, there also is an appreciation for understanding what the science says, and then crafting … pragmatic policies that are built on science.”
It could be daunting for a new funder to enter a huge philanthropic space like education, dominated by 800-pound gorillas like the Gates and Walton families.
Heising-Simons has approached the challenge by following research toward points of entry where funding at its level (let’s call it big, but not super big) can have an impact. In education, they’re focusing on early education.
To find the right points of entry, Gomby says they make it a priority to listen for new opportunities. Even though the website discourages unsolicited proposals, they take calls and emails, and try to be out in the field as much as possible.
“When I walk down the halls, the offices are not always filled with people at their desks,” she says. They frequent conferences and welcome new ideas from potential grantees they come across.
“It’s incumbent on us to make sure the staff is out and about and listening and understanding the field, and actively seeking people who are doing the best work.”
Typically, after an idea for a potential new initiative is identified by trustees or staff, the team will hold a series of roundtables at the foundation, assembling experts from one area, or maybe disparate fields that might have a connection, to exchange ideas and start figuring out where their funding could be of use.
One example of a specific niche the funder has given a lot of attention to: funding for early math education. This initiative came about in response to studies linking early math skills to later academic achievement. Heising-Simons is building capacity in this field, supporting grantees for research, family support, professional development, and policy. Another such emerging area of education funding the foundation is pursuing is support for dual language learners.
When they drill down on such an area, the result can be some serious backing. Heising-Simons has given more than $27 million with around 67 grants to early math education.
When it comes to the foundation’s science research giving, Heising-Simons goes almost entirely after areas of physical sciences that may nab the occasional headline surrounding mind-boggling discoveries, but don’t draw nearly as much funding as life sciences, for example.
So the funder backs astronomy and cosmology, fundamental physics work, and climate science, the latter being relevant to the climate and energy program. One area in particular it’s invested heavily in is the search for axion dark matter.
Very, very briefly, the universe is eerily made up almost entirely of dark matter and dark energy—only 5 percent of it is the ordinary stuff made of protons, neutrons, and electrons that we can detect with our earthly instruments. We know the rest exists, but we can’t see it. One theoretical particle that could be a building block is the axion, and Heising-Simons has made this relatively small field a big priority.
Another interesting and relatively new science niche is in paleoclimatology, a field that looks back millions of years to build better models of how increased warming and levels of CO2 affect the planet.
Both of these subjects are examples of how the foundation finds important, but relatively small ponds of work and cannonballs into them, providing research grants that can top $1 million and last up to five years, to shake something loose.
Keep it Clean
When it comes to climate, Heising-Simons places a familiar premium on research, mainly funding work related to advancement of clean energy.
“The aim is to take information as best as we know it at this time, and we invest in research and analysis to share that knowledge … with the hope that that transforms the power sector,” Gomby says.
The foundation’s climate and clean energy program works closely with Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based firm run by Hal Harvey, founder of both ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation. With the group’s advising, the foundation is currently backing a few key strategies, including energy policy analysis, work with public utilities commissions, increasing energy efficiency standards, and communications. Last year, the family partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies in a big $48 million give to help states implement new EPA rules to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector.
Those rules are controversial, but Heising-Simons’ climate giving has a certain pragmatism to it, leaning on hard evidence and trying to stay out of the political fray. It makes sense, considering Mark Heising serves on the board of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the couple has supported Mike Bloomberg’s bipartisan effort to organize the business community around climate.
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So while they don’t fund much in the way of grassroots action, the foundation does have its own play for winning over the public. The focus on strategic communications is funding Climate Central to build climate change education into weather forecasts.
The Heising-Simons Foundation has come a long way in just a few years, but one thing is certain—this is only the beginning. The funder currently has assets of $404 million, and while foundation staff couldn’t pin down the pace for future growth, with the signing of the Giving Pledge and the family’s formidable wealth and investment savvy, we could be looking at a much larger player in years to come. (Jim Simons is worth over $15 billion and made $1.7 billion last year alone.)
“We believe there’s going to be continued growth. The family is really committed to the work that we’re doing, they’re committed to the foundation,” Gomby says.
And while funding so far has stuck mostly to these three key areas, it won’t necessarily stay there. The foundation is exploring new giving in human rights, with about 5 percent of 2015 funding heading in that direction.
That would be yet another huge problem for the upstart to take on. If they do go all in, it will likely happen in a very pragmatic, even scientific way.