Richard Sandler: A philanthropic life

In 2007, when philanthropist Stanley Gold was asked to become board chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he knew he would need an effective partner to accomplish the reinvention of Federation he envisioned. 

Gold met with Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, and though the two men had known each other only in passing before, and though Sandler wasn’t yet actively involved in Federation, Gold knew he had his guy. They agreed that the old model of “give because it’s Federation” was dying, that they needed to reinvigorate both its lay and its professional leadership and that Federation needed to find new ways to connect with the community and its donors to say relevant in the 21st century.

And Gold saw in Sandler not only the know-how, but also the steady demeanor to offset his own more strident style. 

“I am more confrontational, and Richard is more collaborative,” said Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings and Federation chair from 2008 to 2009. “And if you look at our terms together, in the beginning we needed to be confrontational to break the logjam and to turn things around, and in the end we needed collaboration to rebuild.”

Gold, with Sandler as vice chair, shook things up during his tenure — he restructured both how money is collected and how it is allocated and hired a new president and CEO in Jay Sanderson, whom many viewed as an unconventional choice because his success was with Jewish Television Network and not the Federation system. Sandler, who took over as chair in 2010, has expanded and solidified the changes Gold set in motion, but in a thoughtful, vision-driven manner that has earned him a reputation as a leader who is not only supremely effective, but also kind.

Last year, the board voted to amend Federation’s bylaws to allow Sandler to serve two consecutive two-year terms. At 64, Sandler is now about to complete the first year of his second term.

“Richard came in at time when there had been a lot of upheaval,” Sanderson said. “There was a new executive, the board has been pared down from 145 to 45, and a lot of the agencies in the community were angry or felt disconnected from Federation. Just by Richard being in the room, and being in conversation, he helped turn things around.” 

Sanderson said he trusts no one in the Jewish community more than Sandler. 

“I’ve never met anyone like Richard. He’s thoughtful; he can consider all points of view, but when necessary he’s decisive,” Sanderson said. 

Sandler, a native-born Angeleno and attorney, is fit with smile lines set deep into his face. His even drawl, perhaps a hint of his father’s Oklahoma upbringing, gives an air of reliability when he serves as the public face of the organization.

Sanderson asserts that Sandler has made Federation more Jewish, while also affirming its role as an effective force locally and nationally, and upping the institution’s professionalism. He has reached out to young people and begun a deliberate transformation of how Federation connects to its donors and constituents. 

These changes are all in service of Sandler’s overriding mission: To help Jews choose to be Jewish.

Sandler said he is dismayed by how many Jews are opting out of Jewish lives, because he understands the meaningfulness Jewish connection can offer.

“I believe that our value system teaches us responsibility to make this world better, to give back, to do the best you can do while you are here,” Sandler said. “And those are values that come from the Torah, and that is what drives me in doing this job. I believe we have to take those values and teach them to our children, so they can decide who they are and where they are going.” 

He believes Federation is best situated to leverage community resources to create as many pathways as possible to Jewish meaning. When he talks to donors or to constituents, he is not just selling Federation, but his commitment to his passion for the Jewish mission.

Richard Sandler’s role with the Milken Family Foundation includes visiting Jewish day schools as part of the Jewish Educator Awards. Photo courtesy of Richard Sandler

“It isn’t about Federation is the only way to go; it’s about Jewish continuity is the only way to go,” said Julie Platt, chair of the Federation’s strategic initiative on Ensuring the Jewish Future. “So he is willing to use his leverage and to partner with whoever it is who will move forward his mission to have more people choose Jewish.” 

Sandler spends between 10 and 40 hours a week on Federation business. He lives in Brentwood with Ellen, his wife of 42 years, and the two have dinner together every night. He works out regularly and plays golf on the weekends. He talks to his three children every day, and spends time with his three grandchildren. 

Sandler’s father, Raymond, was the son of Latvian immigrants who came to Oklahoma when his father was 6. 

“My grandfather was a very devout Orthodox Jew who studied every day, but he taught my father that it was more important to live by Jewish values than to follow all the ritual requirements of Judaism, because he felt in the United States you might not be able to do all of that,” said Sandler, the second of four brothers.

Sandler’s parents moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1950, where his father was a founder of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, which Sandler still attends and where he served as board chair before turning his focus to Federation. His parents were involved in Federation and American Jewish University (then University of Judaism), and Richard Sandler is on the board of that institution as well. 

He also supports the University of California, Berkeley Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is a strong backer of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach organization that he believes is highly effective in bringing Jewish values and inspiration to people previously untouched by Judaism.

Sandler’s mother, Helen, ran a backyard camp for neighborhood kids for years. Among those children were two boys, Lowell and Michael Milken. Lowell and Richard met in first grade at Hesby Street Elementary School, and they continued together through Portola Junior High, Birmingham High School, UC Berkeley and UCLA Law School. 

After partnering with his father in a law firm for 10 years, in 1983 Sandler formed a financial consultancy service that primarily advised Lowell and Michael Milken in their investments. In 1986, Sandler was suddenly thrust into the position of being a white-collar criminal defense attorney when Michael Milken was charged with insider trading and securities fraud. 

Eventually, Michael Milken pleaded guilty, but Sandler said he does not believe he ever committed a federal crime.

“I grew up believing that if our government was investigating something, there must be a good reason for it, and at the end of the day they were seeking truth and fairness and justice. I came to learn that that is not true at all,” Sandler said recently. 

Sandler said he saw young prosecutors who wanted to boost their careers and scared colleagues who gave in to their pressure. 

“A lot of people I knew were put into positions they never thought they would be in in their entire lives — including myself. It was interesting to see those people who just did the right thing and told the truth, and those people who were trying to protect themselves and didn’t necessarily do the right thing.”

Today, Sandler runs day-to-day operations at the Milken Family Foundation, which supports Jewish, medical and educational initiatives. He also sits on the boards of the other nonprofits and for-profits that operate out of the Milkens’ building on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, and he is a partner in Maron and Sandler, a small law firm.

Lowell Milken said he admires his close friend’s integrity and ability to bring people together.

“I always value his guidance. We’ve been through some of the most satisfying and productive times, and we’ve been through some of the most difficult and challenging times, and his loyalty and advice has always been incredibly valuable throughout. When you find yourself in challenging circumstances, he is ultimately the person you would want to stand side-by-side with,” Milken said.

Sandler said his involvement with the investigation helped him develop a levelheaded determination that has served him well at Federation.

“It made me understand what is really important and what loyalty means,” Sandler said. When issues erupt at Federation, Sandler is known for keeping his cool. “I know what real aggravation is, and this isn’t it. These are all people who care about something, and that is a good thing. Then it’s just a question of how do we get people to channel that energy in a positive way.”

Sandler tapped into that equanimity early on in his tenure at Federation, when he made clear to lay leaders that it is the professionals who run the organization, and lay leaders must support that work. 

“In the past, lay leaders would be the driving force, and staff were more administrators than partners,” said Lori Tessel, senior vice president of major gifts at Federation.

Tessel said, Sandler has been “an ambassador” for staff. He often attends working meetings and knows her staff and committee members by name. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever served under someone who has been so clearly appreciative of what I’m doing,” said Platt, a volunteer.

Some lay leaders initially felt shunted by Sandler’s emphasis on professionalism, but Sandler smoothed the transition by responding to every phone call and e-mail and took countless meetings with lay leaders of all levels to explain the changes, according to Sharon Janks, campaign co-chair.

Sandler required lay leaders to bring professionals on fundraising calls — a system Janks says gets more information, and provides more connection, to donors.

“The donor sees that we care enough about their gift, that we want to educate them and make them feel good about what they give to Federation,” Janks said. 

This year the campaign hopes to raise $50 million and is about 75 percent of the way there, she said.

New donors are being cultivated, and long-time donors are being turned on to whole new areas of activity to invest in. It’s all part of Sandler’s approach of building a connection that goes beyond the once-a-year solicitation.

“Because, at the end of the day, this is an awesome responsibility. If the Federation is as important as I say it is — and I believe it is — and if we’re bringing in more than $40 million in community money, we’re responsible for that. That is a lot of responsibility. But it’s a good responsibility.”

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