Making a difference: Los Altos foundation's Rapid Response Fund supports communities

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


Mark Heising and Liz Simons, founders of the Heising-Simons Foundation, based in Los Altos and San Francisco, have awarded more than $522 million since 2007 to initiatives supporting clean energy, education, scientific research and human rights.

They believe that the more directly involved a community is in making its desired impact, the better.

“We think about supporting communities to be empowered to be able to decide how (they) want to address issues that affect them,” Simons said. “Anytime you are working within a community, it’s incumbent upon foundations and people doing any kind of work to make sure ... that the community is on board, and that it’s helping them.”

A look at the foundation’s website, which documents the work it has supported, shows that Heising-Simons is making a difference.

The foundation funded a four-year, $6 million project in 2019 to thoroughly monitor Helheim, one of Greenland’s largest outlet glaciers. With drills, seismometers, autonomous laser scanners and moorings up and down the fjord, researchers can sense hidden fractures, measure added mass and examine the behavior of the glacier as it responds to climate change. Such work could clarify Greenland’s future role in sea-level rise.

In the realm of basic sciences, the foundation established the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship in 2017 that annually provides financial, academic and career support to postdoctoral scientists looking to research theoretical, observational and experimental aspects of planetary astronomy.

The foundation also supports organizations such as the Civil Rights Corps as part of its Human Rights program, focused on protecting individuals from systematic injustice within the U.S. legal system. For example, one branch of its work challenges the wealth-based discrimination within the money bail system by suing precincts and justices that impose outrageous bail, funds or fees.

In its Community and Opportunity program, the foundation awards the American Mosaic Journalism Prize to freelance journalists who report on underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups. Established in 2018, the award supports journalists through an unrestricted cash award of $100,000 per recipient.

Heising and Simons signed the Giving Pledge in 2016, joining their parents and becoming the first family to have two generations appear on Forbes’ list of America’s 50 Top Givers. The foundation last year awarded $39.5 million to education, $25.3 million to science, $21.9 million to climate and clean energy, $17.5 million to human rights and $8.7 million to community and opportunity.

Response to coronavirus

The foundation has responded quickly to the coronavirus pandemic to help both its grantees and the local situation. The foundation allocated $400,000 in rapid response funds to cover grantees’ unanticipated costs associated with the coronavirus, and is offering leniency on the timing, purpose and deliverables of previously awarded grants.

Surge granting allows the foundation to provide additional resources to organizations and individuals whose work is particularly affected by coronavirus. For example, the foundation supports Sacred Heart Community Services, a nonprofit that provides safety-net services for low-income individuals in Santa Clara County.

Tackling the indirect impact of coronavirus, the foundation granted $500,000 to Home Grown’s Home-Based Child Care Emergency Fund and $1.13 million to Parents as Teachers National Center.

Meanwhile, the focus has shifted from looking for new grantees to maintaining and supporting current grantees, according to Holly Kreider, program officer for the Community and Opportunity program and member of the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund team. New grants center on addressing and containing coronavirus.

Because the recent efforts have required funding outside of the allocated emergency grant budget, the foundation is changing other programs’ budgets to pool enough funding to address the immediate situation’s needs.

“We all just dropped everything to say, ‘How can we do our grantmaking differently – and even beyond the dollar support?’ … And so everybody is working nonstop on this new big problem,” Kreider said. “It’s really beautiful to see people do things really quickly, which is what you have to do in an emergency, and it’s also really inspiring to see people come together across program areas to work together.”

The collaboration among program areas is one of the foundation’s many adjustments, alongside working from home.

“It’s a weird paradox, that the distance has brought people more together,” communications officer Nondas Paschos said.

The foundation is exploring other grant possibilities outside of its main program strategies that directly relate to COVID-19.

Personal impact

Giving back has also helped the founders and employees grow as people, Simons said. Those working at the foundation reflect a similar sentiment.

“It’s a great privilege to work in philanthropy, but also great responsibility to help recommend how resources are allocated, when there’s so much need, ... so much opportunity out there and so many worthy organizations and causes,” Kreider said. “There’s a certain kind of humility to this work, … a certain kind of dedication to quality and a certain striving to always do better by our grantees and the communities they serve.”

Both Kreider and Simons emphasized the importance of humility. 

“I feel very lucky that we can do some of this work, but I also think that we have to do everything we can to live by the values that we have, and to remember to be humble,” Simons said. “(We have to remember) to continuously be learning and listening to the people around us, particularly to the people whose work we’re trying to support – make sure that we are doing it with great respect and humility. (We must) understand that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will. We have to keep learning.”

For more information on the foundation and its COVID-19 response grants, call 887-0277 or visit

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