Philanthropists step up in COVID fight: Los Altos foundation surpasses $500M in targeted giving

This is the first in a two-part series highlighting the work of the Heising-Simons Foundation and its expanding focus amid the global health crisis.

The Heising-Simons Foundation, based in Los Altos and San Francisco, has awarded more than $500 million in grants since 2007 but doesn’t usually fund health enterprises. That has changed since the coronavirus pandemic.

Courtesy of Heising-Simons Foundation
Heising-Simons Foundation board vice chairman Mark Heising and chairwoman Liz Simons launched the foundation 13 years ago. The married couple both grew up in environments that emphasized the importance of giving.

The family foundation recently granted UC San Francisco $2 million to establish a COVID-19 Response Initiative at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. The money will fund improved transportation, testing, patient care and therapy development as a part of the foundation’s larger effort to mitigate the spread and impact of the coronavirus, according to the foundation’s website.

While funding such an initiative is new to Heising-Simons, its support of the community and beyond is not. The foundation is known for providing awards and grants to leading researchers and pioneers in the fields of climate and clean energy, science, early education and human rights. The foundation’s website reports that Heising-Simons awarded more than $113 million in 2019 and has surpassed $522 million since its inception.

Philanthropic roots

Board chairwoman Liz Simons and vice chairman Mark Heising started the foundation 13 years ago. The married couple both grew up in environments that embraced giving.

“I had parents who were very interested in helping me see the larger world,” Simons said. “(In Bogota, Colombia) I got to see poverty in a way that I hadn’t seen it before … and it made a big impression on me. And it just made me realize that the world is large, … people live in very different ways (and) there are things that we can do to help people have better lives.”

After earning her master’s degree in education from Stanford University, Simons became a Spanish-bilingual teacher and later founded an early-childhood education program. Heising worked as a chip design engineer after earning his master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences from UC Berkeley, where he met Simons in 1979.

In 1994, Simons’ father and stepmother, Marilyn and James Harris Simons, started the Simons Foundation, focused on funding research in mathematics and the basic sciences. More than a decade later, Heising and Simons followed in their footsteps by launching the Heising-Simons Foundation.

“My father’s and stepmother’s philanthropic work in basic science, math and autism excites us to dream of what can be possible,” Heising and Simons revealed on their website. “Our parents were also the kind of parents who talked to us about inequities in the world, and the need to give back.”

The foundation focuses on making an impact domestically.

“As I got older, especially in the context of my being a teacher – and I worked in some communities that are definitely under-resourced – I saw how much there was to do right here,” Simons said.

The concentration of philanthropic foundations in and around Los Altos has led to collaboration. Heising-Simons last year co-created the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a group of early-childhood funders that also includes the Ballmer Group, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development and the Stranahan Foundation.

Although the Simons Foundation served as a model for the structure of Heising-Simons, the two differ in areas of focus. Heising-Simons focuses on the interests of its founders: Simons on early education, Heising on science and climate. Early education and basic science research are relatively underfunded areas in philanthropy, Simons said.

After their daughter Caitlin Heising joined the board in 2014, the foundation expanded its work to include her passions: human rights and criminal justice reform.

“We’re following our passions but also thinking about what we can do that will make a difference in the world,” Simons said.

According to its website, the foundation works to “advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people” under the leadership of president and CEO Deanna Gomby.

The foundation doesn’t accept unsolicited grant proposals. Instead, its staff and directors of program areas look for organizations, researchers and people excelling in their fields who can help the foundation meet its goals.

Part 2 in the series will focus on the impact of the Heising-Simons Foundation’s philanthropic giving.

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