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Corporate philanthropy

Donations from business leaders have improved local health care, research and industry

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Several San Diego-area business leaders have targeted very specific causes and given gifts that have made a significant impact in the community.

There has been a considerable jump in charitable gifts of more than $10 million in the last 15 years.

Local philanthropy has driven growth and research in the health care, biotech and wireless health industries, and funded hospital programs for uninsured and ill children, top-notch engineering and business schools, public radio and television, arts and culture, and a future specialty hospital.

Gary and Mary West recently set up a $100 million health investment fund to help reduce skyrocketing health care costs.

Through the Gary and Mary West Foundation, they support the West Wireless Health Institute (WWHI), a nonprofit research organization focused on innovation in wireless health care that can reduce costs and increase access to care.

The institute was set up with $45 million in funding in 2009 and the Wests gave another $45 million last year, to help recruit top-notch talent and expand facilities.

The foundation also supports seniors’ wellness and independent living, work force development for high school graduates and service animals for severely injured Iraq and Afghan war veterans.

Shelley Valentine, the foundation’s president, said Gary West was a hospital administrator for a while and understands the gaps in health care.

“The Wests chose health care because we’re simply on an unsustainable trajectory and rising health care costs are eventually going to bankrupt this country,” Valentine said.

The health investment fund is aimed at filling the funding gap for young companies.

“We want to get them through the valley of death. We’re interested in helping companies who can significantly move the needle in lowering health care costs,” Valentine said, adding that the phone has been ringing off the hook since the fund was announced in October.

It will not function like a typical venture capital fund, but will plough profits back into nonprofit research and the WWHI.

“In order to be successful, we’re going to have some short-term outcomes and some long-term outcomes. That’s a balance that’s essential,” Valentine said, explaining how the foundation is assessing its work till date.

WWHI has been successful in advocacy efforts and has worked with stakeholders in Washington, D.C. to identify problems, and is now trusted as a knowledgeable broker of information, Valentine said.

“I have the privilege of working for a philanthropist who is generous but is not known for his patience, so the innovative products we’re working on now will come to market in the next 18 to 24 months,” said Don Casey, CEO of the WWHI, speaking about the wireless fetal health monitor and low-cost systems for high-risk, chronic diseases that the institute is working on presently.

Another business leader who makes decisions and expects results quickly while being generous with his time and money is Ernest Rady, a financial services and real estate magnate.

Rady founded American Assets 40 years ago, a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns, manages and develops commercial properties in California, Hawaii and Oregon.

He also began Insurance Company of the West, a financial services firm, in 1971.

He gave $30 million to the Rady School of Management at University of California, San Diego in 2004 and $60 million to Rady Children’s Hospital in 2006.

“His gift enabled the creation of a world-class school of management, but that was just the beginning, said Robert Sullivan, dean of the Rady business school. “Ernest is very involved with the school and is a regular figure on our campus, always approachable and friendly to students, staff and faculty.”

Rady delivers guest lectures for the MBA program and encourages students to find their passion and follow their dreams.

Through Rady’s relationships with people at Wells Fargo, the bank gave $5 million to the school to expand its campus.

“Ernest is a man who is deeply committed to his family, community, business and philanthropic endeavors, and those around him find this commitment an inspiration. I am certain that the legacy he has created on this campus will have an impact in San Diego and beyond,” Sullivan said.

Rady was on the board of the Children’s Hospital from the early ‘80s and he took part in a mini-internship where trustees shadow a physician, on rounds and surgery.

“It had a big impact on him, it was hard for him to see kids who were ill. He wanted us to be available for every child and knew we needed more space,” said David Gillig, senior vice president and executive director of the Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Rady’s $60 million gift went partly to support programs that underwrite hospital care costs for uninsured and under-insured child patients, helping ensure that no one is turned away.

“We’re the safety net for San Diego," Gillig said. "We provide care for 84 percent of San Diego’s kids. More than 50 percent of them don’t have any insurance.”

Part of Rady’s gift also enabled the completion of the new acute care pavilion, with a cancer center, neonatal unit and surgical suites.

The pavilion cost $265 million and spans 285,000 square feet.

Rady was also instrumental in inspiring others to give, indirectly helping the hospital raise $80 million for the new facilities.

The balance was financed through bonds and Proposition 61.

“The size of the gift added prestige to the hospital and set the image of the Rady family’s philanthropy," Gillig said. "When we announced the gift, it was palpable then -- and still is now -- for our staff and physicians, that someone would recognize the work we’re doing.”

Thank you letters from doctors, staff and the families of child patients poured in for weeks after the gift was announced.

The hospital now has twice the number of surgical suites, so there’s no more postponing surgeries because of lack of space.

There have been many benefits as a result of the new building.

Fresh Start, a Carlsbad nonprofit that offers free plastic surgery for children with deformities, uses the new surgical facilities to perform operations.

“Ernest is a brilliant businessman with a passion for business and kids. He’s approachable and very down to earth, despite being a fast mover,” said Gillig, who has known Rady for 18 years.

Over at Torrey Pines Mesa, the hub for biotech research, Malin Burnham’s philanthropy and his friendship with T. Denny Sanford, of South Dakota, has enabled more than 850 scientists to focus on cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other diseases.

The Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute received $10 million from Burnham and an anonymous donor.

Burnham was instrumental in bringing in Sanford, who has given $50 million to the institute that bears both their names.

Burnham recently gave $5 million to set up the Malin Burnham Center for Civic Engagement.

It will focus on finding out what San Diegans want the region to look like in the coming years.

A native San Diegan, he was involved with John Burnham & Company Insurance and Burnham Real Estate since 1949. Cushman & Wakefield bought the latter in 2007.

Brent Jacobs, executive director of life sciences at Cushman & Wakefield, said Burnham’s interest in biotech research springs from his concern for the community.

“He wants to ensure San Diegans have access to cutting edge medical research and lifesaving treatments for years to come,” Jacobs said.

The impact of Burnham’s gift and commitment in medical research is far-reaching.

“Malin, along with Denny Sanford, has expanded the institute’s intellectual resources by supporting the recruitment and retention of the brightest and most creative scientists," Jacobs said. "Their generosity will help the institute carry out important research and speed the search for new treatments and medical discoveries that will improve human health.”

The city’s “philanthropist-in-chief” -- as the San Diego Union-Tribune dubbed him -- Irwin Jacobs, with his wife Joan, has focused on a range of causes and committed more than half of their wealth to charity.

The Qualcomm founder’s net worth varies, depending on how the company’s stock does, but their philanthropy could amount to roughly $600 million.

Last year they joined the Giving Pledge -- which was initiated by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates -- and consists of roughly 40 American billionaires who pledged to give away at least half their wealth.

The Jacobs give equally to the Jacobs School of Engineering at University of California, San Diego and the San Diego Symphony -- about $120 million each -- in addition to $75 million for UCSD’s future specialty hospital and $20 million for a new central library downtown.

They’ve also given significant gifts to the La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD Foundation and San Diego Natural History Museum, apart from their alma maters, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

About 75 percent of the couple’s gifts have been to San Diego-area institutions.

Jacobs used to teach at UCSD, and his gift helps create grants and scholarships for deserving students, in addition to supporting faculty.

It’s one of the largest individual gifts to an engineering school.

He also gave $1 million to KPBS to strengthen multimedia journalism, in addition to funding its new studios and programs over the years.

The Jacobs focus their giving on areas where they see need and that appeal to them from an art, architectural or engineering standpoint.

Jacobs sponsored an engineering study to build an underground parking garage at Balboa Park and remove parking from the central Plaza de Panama, and after considerable discussion and opposition from preservation groups, he unveiled detailed plans last month for the parking structure which he will help fund, in time for the 2015 centennial celebration of the park.

While there are others who have given to worthy causes in San Diego, the range of impact of the gifts given by these titans of industry will no doubt leave a legacy.

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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