Nurturing new philanthropists

Head of incubator recognized for decades of contributions.

By Ret Boney

Ever since Elizabeth Bremner watched federal budget cuts begin chipping away at nonprofits in the early 1980’s, she has worked to regain the lost ground.

Now Bremner is head of the Foundation Incubator, a Silicon Valley group that supports new philanthropists by providing facilities, training and peer-to-peer networking for the new generation of donors.

She’s also the recipient of Women & Philanthropy’s Leadership for Equity and Diversity Award for her work in supporting women and girls and for stressing the importance of increasing diversity within the philanthropic sector.

“I felt awkward about being singled out,” she says of the award. “The work I do is no more than what so many others do.”

As head of the incubator, Bremner is working to cultivate and strengthen a new generation of philanthropists, many of them young business people who made their fortunes in the high-tech sector, helping them understand how philanthropy works through a process she calls “guided peer learning.”

“Its primary purpose is for peers to come together and learn from each other and experts,” she says. “To get the tools they need to be most effective and strategic in philanthropy.”

                 Elizabeth Bremner

Job: President, Foundation Incubator, Palo Alto, Calif.

Education: B.A., English, University of California at Davis; M.A., management, University of Redlands

Born: San Mateo, Calif.; age 48

Family: Partner, Karen Crow

Hobbies: vegetable gardening, backpacking, hiking, reading

Recently read: “The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones; “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell

Inspiration: “In this work, I am inspired so frequently, constantly awed and humbled by the people I interact with.”

The Foundation Incubator, modeled after the business incubator trend that fueled Silicon Valley’s tech boom, has 47 members, representing a variety of types of philanthropy, from foundation trustees and staff, to individual donors, Bremner says, six in 10 of whom have been involved in the sector for less than seven years.

“We are working with a much younger philanthropic crowd,” she says. “They are new to philanthropy, but they are bringing tremendous business skills. More if it is learning philanthropy so they can apply the skills they already have.”

The incubator, with a staff of four and a budget of $1.6 million, provides a variety of services to its members, including coaching, workshops, roundtable discussions, referrals to experts in various fields, use of reception services and meeting rooms, and helping develop mentoring relationships with experienced philanthropists.

“Our field has moved from the legacy foundation to active, living donors,” says Bremner. “When we look at foundation development, what is the healthy way for a billion-dollar founder to stay involved in their foundation?”

Not only are the new donors younger than their predecessors, says Bremner, they are more diverse, more hands-on and more likely to use a business approach.

And one of their primary goals is effectiveness, so the incubator helps them identify best practices and set high standards they can build into their giving strategies from the beginning.

“One of the biggest challenges is how fragmented the philanthropy industry is right now,” Bremner says. “It’s hard to discern where they can get the information they need. So you need some kind of navigator to the whole scene.”

Bremner’s experience with the nonprofit sector started with planting vegetable gardens in low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles with the Common Ground Garden program, which she did while studying for her master’s in management.

During that time, she witnessed the effect of federal budget cuts on the nonprofit sector and decided to focus her thesis on starting a women’s foundation in the L.A. area.

“The administration began the cutbacks of these wonderful new activist approaches,” she says. “The reason I got involved was I felt it was so important that these projects have advocates and sources of funds.”

She went on to co-found the L.A. Women’s Foundation in 1985, which she ran for 6 years, making grants to reshape the status of women and girls in society.

She then took over the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 1993, where she was able to be an activist, she says, creating a children’s summer camp, developing a technical-assistance program and publishing a volunteer guide for the community.

Bremner also helped start the Lesbian and Gay Funding Partnership at the community foundation, an effort she says stretched the community and, ultimately, made the foundation stronger.

“It’s a real culture shift when a community foundation is really willing to embrace the entire community,” says Bremner. “It was very courageous for the board to undertake this.”

She was recruited away from Santa Fe in 2001 to start the incubator, which she says was an opportunity to be part of transformational change within the sector.

“There’s an explosion of new dollars, new donors and new approaches coming into philanthropy,” she says. “Organized philanthropy doesn’t just mean foundations any more.”

As the growth continues, Bremner is hoping to see the incubator model replicated around the country, giving emerging and established donors the opportunity to work together and learn from one another.

“They are working on the really hard, deep-rooted issues,” she says of the new generation. “They expect to take risks, to fail and learn. I want them to get the tools they need to provide the greatest social benefit.”

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