Scaling down, ramping up

From ecology to entrepreneurs, Leichtag Foundation is farming the Jewish future

As the funder looks to shut its doors in coming years, its leaders look to spin off successful initiatives and generate new collaborations

Until Dec. 20, 2012, the 67.5-acre Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., was known as one of the world’s leading producers of poinsettias. But for the past decade, it’s been a producer of Jewish expression, creativity and care for the earth.

The ranch, now known as Leichtag Commons, has provided an opportunity to physically realize the strategic areas that the Leichtag Foundation had been supporting since 2007. The commons is home to Coastal Roots Farm — which, over the past decade, has become a go-to destination in the San Diego area for kids’ activities, Sukkot celebrations and a food forest festival — and a coworking space called The Hive, which serves about 25 nonprofits, as well as Impact Cubed, a consulting and advisory outfit meant to eventually supplant the Leichtag Foundation, which is on track to scale down its operations in the coming years.

The foundation’s late founders, Lee and Toni Leichtag, were children of immigrants, raised in poverty with minimal formal education. When the Leichtags’ company hit it big in the pharmaceutical industry as the first producers of generic Ritalin, they launched their private foundation in 2007, Charlene Seidle, who has served as executive vice president of the organization since 2008, told eJewishPhilanthropy

The Leichtag board had originally planned to spend the foundation’s millions by 2025, but now plans to “transition from its current form to a more sustainable model that encompasses several different organizations and initiatives supported by the community,” Seidle said, instead of a traditional “sunset.” Leichtag’s leadership is therefore now looking at the metrics and milestones of projects that are running, to assess which ones are moving toward independent sustainability and which ones would require a bit more investment. 

Coastal Roots Farm, for example, once entirely funded by Leichtag, is now only receiving a third of their budget as Leichtag funding. The expectation is that the farm will need less and less over the next two years, as they move toward self-sustainability.

“We obviously have a responsibility to the donors who bear the name, whose resources made this possible. So we’re very much in the midst of figuring out the ways that the property can continue for decades to come,” Seidle said.

The Funders

According to Seidle, the Leichtags were fascinated by entrepreneurs “looking at the world differently, looking at intractable societal problems differently, and coming up with new ways to approach them being highly pragmatic and iterative, being very risk-tolerant.” 

The Leichtags founded several businesses and achieved financial success before the family was struck by personal loss: first, their daughter Joli Ann — who they expected would lead the foundation after them — died of cancer in 2007; then Lee himself was killed in a car accident three months later. Grieving this loss of her daughter and husband, Toni, who was in poor health herself, resigned from the foundation leadership, but was involved in its work until her death in 2009 at age 96. 

Like many family foundations, Leichtag didn’t have a mission statement and a strategic plan when it first began. And with the infusion of resources from its founders’ estate, it was positioned to become one of the largest Jewish foundations in the county. So the board members — all of whom had a personal relationship with the family but not much formal philanthropy experience — drew on their knowledge of the Leichtags’ giving record, trying to identify giving strategies that would be in line with their legacy.

At the time, Seidle was working at the Jewish Community Foundation as president and CEO, and helped to facilitate this process for the board. In 2021, Seidle told eJP that the goal was to have the Leichtag Foundation’s portfolio be fully “mission-aligned” and impact-driven. One of the things the board decided was to give more where the needs are greatest, she said; they drew from Lee’s principle that “philanthropy is the risk capital of social change,” Seidle said, “as long as you’re iterative and you’re course correcting and you’re learning from it.”

Leichtag Commons & Coastal Roots Farm

Jim Farley, Leichtag’s former business attorney, who became the foundation’s CEO when Lee died in November 2007, told eJP he thought of Leichtag Commons as “an agriculturally inspired laboratory for Jewish life and community development.” For example, he said, Coastal Roots Farm generates produce that is sold at a “pay-what-you-can” farm stand, providing access to organic and nutritious bounty regardless of a person’s economic state. Farley said that while the produce is “spectacular,” and reaches more people in need than ever before, “the most important thing the farm grows is the children,” he added, referring to the farm’s programs for kids that are meant to connect them with their food and their environment. These programs are also meant to pull back the curtain of the U.S. agricultural system and show them that real farmers are working hard to grow food for people who need it, he said. 

“In 50 years, if we’re [still] using this place Jewishly, it will be a home run,” Farley said.

The Commons has seen a boom since the arrival of COVID-19, Farley said, because of its open-air spaces. “People do feel much better and safer and healthier outdoors. And they want to be outdoors together,” he said.

The Hive: Coworking toward collaboration and connection

When the board set 2025  — 18 years after the Leichtags’ deaths — as the deadline for closing the foundation’s doors, they made it their mission to first provide the next generation with needed resources. This desire, along with a high tolerance for risk and a belief in the educational value of failure, became one of the founding ideas behind The Hive, a coworking space that encourages cooperation and discussion among its members. The idea is that allowing creative people to interact in a shared space will generate great ideas and fruitful collaborations.

The Hive provides about 65 people — representing some 25 organizations — with access to workspace. Over the Hive’s history, about 55 different organizations have benefited from the arrangement. Some have private offices (rates starting at $550 per month) and some have “hot desk” space (access to one of several unassigned desks, open for member use, starting at $200 per month). 

Approximately 40% are Jewish organizations such as Moishe House’s international headquarters. the other 60% are a mix of local organizations, like Produce Good, which gleans unused produce from area farmers markets and orchards and donates it to the emergency food system, and smaller branches of national/international groups, like the San Diego chapter of Blue Star Families, which assists relatives of U.S. military personnel. 

Jenny Camhi, Leichtag’s chief talent officer, said that Hive members are generous in sharing spaces. For instance, Moishe House is on a hybrid work schedule and doesn’t always have staff in the office, so when they’re not present, they and Hive permit other organizations to have meetings in their space.

In addition to the natural cross-pollination of these busy bees, a virtual Friday meetup — Fundraising Fridays — allows members to share information about grant opportunities and to bring questions about funding or any other related topic. The calls started during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with organizations sharing technical support advice, resources and strategies around engaging donors. They have not only continued but expanded since then, with participants hailing not only from the San Diego area, but from Washington State, Oregon, Hawaii, and other locations. The calls attract 40-50 people per week and have reached more than 1,000 unique participants in total, Jessica Kort, director of communications and strategy, told eJP.

“In addition to people wanting time to talk, we long knew that professional development, marketing, so many things in the nonprofit world are under-resourced,” Sharyn Goodson, Leichtag’s VP of philanthropy, said about the calls. “Then COVID happened, and it was put on steroids,” she said, with Fundraising Fridays serving to connect people and feel less alone. 

Impact Cubed: Consultation with a Leichtag Connection

Impact Cubed is a separate 501(c)(3) initiative started by the Leichtag Foundation that will eventually replace it as a successor organization, Kort said, that will increase the field of philanthropy in the areas on which Leichtag already centers. Impact Cubed also consults on giving circles and helps facilitate giving circles of all scales and sizes.

It’s about leveraging philanthropy and enhancing nonprofit sustainability, Goodson said.

Impact Cubed was started as a public charity so that it could receive grants from private foundations, many of whose bylaws stipulate that they can’t issue grants to other private foundations, Goodson said. “We felt it was really important to get this 501(c)(3) public charity to have the highest amount of transparency,” she said.

Impact Cubed has already worked with local municipalities in their grant-issuing efforts. For instance, it is currently finishing a grants program for the nearby city of San Marcos, she said. The city received $3.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and planned to grant that to nonprofits in their area to benefit COVID-impacted residents, but wanted to maintain some distance from the process, Goodson explained, so Impact Cubed became the entity through which they did that. 

Impact Cubed doesn’t have a separate staff — Seidle, Goodson and Kort all are Impact Cubed consultants, with salaries paid by Leichtag. Additionally, Impact Cubed’s consulting revenue helps to support workshops and other programs, like the Hive’s Fundraising Fridays. 

Kort said Impact Cubed also prepares giving guides and advises on best practices for grant-making in crises and disasters. For instance, when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Impact Cubed built a relationship with grassroots responders on the ground in Europe, who were evacuating people and delivering supplies. 

“Getting people out and [sending] supplies were two areas that were not being reached by larger organizations,” Kort said. “In our own response, we really wanted to support the bigger organizations and some of the smaller grassroots ones,” she said, adding that she and her team were able to help two individuals “leverage networks and Jewish networks to serve everyone who needed help in Ukraine.” About 300 donors supported the efforts, Kort said, “because they wanted to do something that was very direct, immediate and tangible and reaching people that they knew really were kind of the most vulnerable and harder to reach.”

Camhi, who has been working for the foundation for almost nine years, and before that was herself a Hive member, said that with the purchase of the Paul Ecke Ranch property in 2012, Leichtag hoped to attract Jews to California’s North County by creating strong Jewish connections and to counter any assumptions that local Jewish life was lackluster. With the growth of the farm as a touchpoint for local Jewish communal activities and with the Hive serving as a magnet for bright and creative minds, Camhi said, that hope has become a reality. 

“The pendulum swung,” Camhi said. “We were trying to make the case why it was beneficial [to live in North County] at first. Now, people seek it out, [saying] ‘that’s where I want to be.’”