Six Lessons in 10 Years of Operating as an Independent Foundation

The Farmhouse at Leichtag Commons.

A Letter of Reflection and Gratitude to the Community
November 2017 / Kislev 5778

By Jim Farley and Charlene Seidle

This month we marked the tenth yahrtzeit of Leichtag Foundation co-founder Lee Leichtag, z”l and the eighth yahrtzeit of co-founder Toni Leichtag, z”l, as well as a decade of operating as an independent foundation. According to Jewish tradition, we commemorate the anniversary of a deceased loved one’s death and not their birthday because the deeds of their lives are so profoundly important in assessing their impact. Lee and Toni’s generous deeds and their final act of leaving 98 percent of their wealth to improve the quality of life for their neighbors and community members are powerfully transformative even a decade later.

Lee and Toni Leichtag

Lee’s death in November 2007 prompted the evolution of the Leichtag Foundation from a family foundation to an independent foundation where no family member is on our board or staff. Commemorating a decade of operating beyond Lee and Toni’s direct involvement has us looking back on these ten years with immense appreciation. Jewish tradition teaches that the act of expressing gratitude includes intentionally considering what we have, and then acknowledging all there is to appreciate. We’re grateful to highlight six milestone experiences of the Foundation’s independence. We share these with the utmost humility knowing that we have learned many lessons and have much still to learn. Our successes have been considerable as have our failures, and through it all we have been awed and humbled by the Leichtag legacy.

1. The formative stage of our independence was strongly influenced by those who knew the family best.

Toni z”l was with us through 2009, and while she had stepped away from daily operations, she still strongly informed our thinking. Jim Farley and Shep Scharlin z”l, longtime friend, accountant to the Leichtags and Leichtag Foundation board member, frequently spoke with her and visited her.

We continued to learn from the Leichtags’ friends and family, including Lee and Toni’s granddaughter, Heather Greene; Toni’s brother Bill; and our dear colleague Dianne Tatum, the Leichtags’ beloved secretary.

We met with leaders of organizations the Leichtags had supported and about which they cared deeply to further understand the family’s values. We were informed by the wisdom of so many who the Leichtags impacted.

2. We learned to become urgent grantmakers through the process of articulating the strategic framework, the evolution of working with the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, and experimenting around grants at a time when the country and the world were experiencing a severe recession.

When some other foundations were significantly reducing their distributions – and community members were suffering, even becoming homeless and being forced to choose between basic needs – the Foundation expanded its grantmaking from $1.7 million in 2008 to $3 million in 2009, and to $10 million in 2010.

We understood that we needed more philanthropic experience on the board and recruited Murray Galinson z”l. His warmth, extensive relationships and giving experience had an indelible effect on our work.

We got up and running as a fully staffed foundation through our relationship with the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, and we endeavored to establish the capacity to be thoughtful, transparent, and strategic in addressing community need.

3. In order to transform the impact of the philanthropic legacy, we decided that the core value of the Foundation was as a change agent rather than a check writer.

We learned about the elements of field building, using all resources at one’s disposal to effect social change.

We developed “Tools for Giving” that remain a core part of our strategic framework and inspire us to serve as cause champions and conveners, leading us to purchase Leichtag Commons, start Coastal Roots Farm, establish what led to the Hunger Advocacy Network, convene the Jewish Community Farming Field Building Initiative, launch the Jerusalem Model and seed the International Office of Jerusalem Partnerships, among other activities. Building on these experiences, we hope for more opportunities for further learning and transformation.

4. We purchased Leichtag Commons to serve as a physical platform for our four strategies.

The Commons has become one of the most prominent embodiments of the Leichtag legacy, especially in leveraging ideas, supporting community initiatives, and nurturing talent.

Establishing The Hive (previously North County Hub), currently home to 35 mission-aligned organizations and establishing the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship were manifestations of the potential the Commons holds to be a place where creative social entrepreneurs thrive. We are honored to work among the professionals and leaders who keep The Hive abuzz.

We’ve learned a lot about what a Jewish community farm is and can be. We remain excited about the possibilities and know that there is more to learn.

5. We’ve witnessed an evolution of how those whove visited us from around the world see Leichtag Commons.

The Paul Ecke Ranch purchase was an atypical move for a foundation. Yet, the community helped us understand its potential as a physical platform for our strategies, a campus of social enterprise, a revenue generator, a place for talent incubation, a Jewish community farm, and more.

Though we anticipated a learning curve (for us and for the community), we underestimated how unusual a move this was. While many joined in our excitement over the acquisition, the purchase also revealed anxiety and doubt. Over time, visitors, including many thought leaders, have enhanced their understanding of Leichtag Commons – and so have we! The campus is continually developing to provide community connection points and showcase multi-pronged approaches to social justice change. We appreciate all our many neighbors and friends whose engagement with the Commons has grown as the activities at the property have.

We estimate that our staff have collectively led at least 3,000 tours of Leichtag Commons! If you have not yet visited, or it has been a few years, please let us know and we will be happy to show you around.

6. The opportunity for further connections and influence has developed and become profound.

Our growth and learning have greatly relied on trusting relationships with our peers in philanthropy nationally, members of the North County Jewish community, Encinitas and North County leaders, Jerusalem leaders, the mayor of Jerusalem, grassroots activists in both North County and Jerusalem and more.

We have gained expertise in areas as diverse as urban farming and community farm design, best practices for philanthropic succession, agricultural science and Israel giving.

We have an important opportunity to put these diverse skill sets and trusting relationships to work in ways that have a multiplying effect. We are compelled to be network connectors and weavers, matchmakers, thought leaders, trendsetters and futurists. Otherwise, we will not be taking full advantage of the gift that has been entrusted to us.

We think about Toni and Lee’s sacred legacy every day. We strive to honor their lives and the marks they left on this world with humility, excellence and a profound debt of gratitude.

There is so much more to do that it can be overwhelming. There is so much more to learn that it can feel massive. We know we have both success and failure ahead. Yet we are more resolute from ever and learn from the words of our Sages: “It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We will work hard each and every day to make the Leichtags’ dream a reality – and we are comforted by and incredibly appreciative of the partnership, friendship and support of so many.

We look forward to continued learning in the next decade!

Jim Farley is President & CEO, Charlene Seidle is Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation.