From public education to jewish life, the Gilbert Foundation encourages collaboration over competiti

The seeds of the Southern California College Access Network (SoCal CAN), an alliance of more than 60 organizations working to support college access and completion among the region’s disadvantaged students, were planted more than a year prior to the organization’s founding in 2005, when the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation brought together roughly 30 organizations working in education for a day of discussion and learning.
January 6, 2016

The seeds of the Southern California College Access Network (SoCal CAN), an alliance of more than 60 organizations working to support college access and completion among the region’s disadvantaged students, were planted more than a year prior to the organization’s founding in 2005, when the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation brought together roughly 30 organizations working in education for a day of discussion and learning. 

Guided by Tessa De Roy, manager of the foundation’s college access and success initiative, the group met on a quarterly basis throughout the following year, at which point the Gilbert Foundation provided an initial $50,000 grant to formalize the partnership. 

Collaboration made sense in this field. Janis Minton, senior adviser to the Gilbert Foundation, said the organizations told her, “We could do so many things more cost effectively and have great impact if we worked together.” 

“I really give the foundation a tremendous amount of credit,” said Alison De Lucca, executive director of SoCal CAN. “These organizations could have perceived one another as competitors for scarce dollars, but the context they set was one of collaboration.”

Although the foundation also went on to fund projects at many of the individual organizations that participated in the first meeting, an emphasis on shared success became central to SoCal CAN’s mission, De Lucca said. 

In addition to meetings focused on particular issues, SoCal CAN advocates at both the state and local levels on behalf of students. One recent project brought together 15 organizations to develop a program called Level Up to guide first-generation college students through their initial year of college, when dropout rates are exceedingly high, by bringing them together. 

“By bringing together students from different parts of [the Los Angeles region] that have this common thread of being first in their families to go to college, they really realize they have links with each other … and are not in it alone. SoCal CAN has helped by bringing kids together from different organizations,” said Ford Roosevelt, founding member of SoCal CAN and president and CEO of Project Grad, which works in high schools in the north San Fernando Valley. Project Grad is also a grantee of the Gilbert Foundation.

Recently, SoCal CAN celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a party honoring the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation. Although many other foundations now also help support SoCal CAN, the Gilbert Foundation has continued to be the network’s most consistent funding source.

Over the past 12 years, the Gilbert Foundation has quietly and deliberately embedded itself in Los Angeles’ nonprofit world, building ambitious portfolios in seven arenas: college access and success, Israel, health care, Jewish life, arts education, UCLA and UC Berkeley. 

In Israel, the foundation works with a wide range of organizations dedicated in different ways to the country’s economic development, including the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund (KIEDF), the Jerusalem Business Development Center and the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, as well as with organizations and university programs devoted to college access and retention. The Gilbert Foundation provided early financial support to KIEDF for a microloan program, founded in 2006. 

In the area of Jewish life, the Gilbert Foundation has taken a two-pronged approach, funding established programs such as Hillel and the Skirball Cultural Center, as well as new ventures that target a younger generation, such as Moishe House, which helps support group residences for Jews who then provide programing to their peers. The Gilbert Foundation was one of the early funders for Moishe House in the Los Angeles area. 

At UCLA, the foundation endowed a chair at the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, and at Berkeley, it provided funding to help launch the Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy, and Society. The foundation has endowed three other academic chairs at UCLA and UC Berkeley. 

The Gilbert Foundation also supports small Jewish communities in Europe through The Westbury Group, an unofficial affiliation of more than 20 foundations and organizations working to strengthen Jewish life on the continent. 

Real estate investor Richard Ziman and attorney Martin H. Blank Jr., both longtime friends of the Gilberts, have served as co-trustees of the foundation since it was established at the bequest of its namesakes after Sir Arthur Gilbert’s death in 2001, at 88. Knighted in 1999, Arthur Gilbert had suffered from cancer and diabetes. His wife, Rosalinde, died in 1995 of Alzheimer’s disease. An original third trustee resigned early on.

Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert immigrated to the United States from England in 1949, where she had been a designer of fine ball gowns and eveningwear and he was the salesman. In Los Angeles, Arthur Gilbert invested in real estate, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he used much of his wealth to amass an art collection focused on 18th-century gold boxes, 17th- and 18th-century English silver and “micromosaics” — works in which the individual fragments are so small as to require a magnifying glass to discern. The collection is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

When he died, Arthur Gilbert left no legal direction for the foundation, so Ziman and Blank retained Minton as an adviser and began charting a course. Since 2002, the foundation’s assets have increased in value from about $100 million to more than $180 million today. 

Currently, the Gilbert Foundation has between 125 and 150 open grants in its current funding period, some 17 to 20 of which are in the area of college access and success. This year, Ziman said, the foundation will give away more than $8.6 million in grants. Its grantees include small and large direct-service organizations, as well as researchers and organizations dedicated to larger systems change.  

Most of The Gilbert Foundation’s advisers and program managers, including Minton and De Roy, are not staff, but are on long-term retainers in their areas of expertise. 

Ziman and Blank have provided the program managers with a lot of personal discretion to do due diligence, which staff from Project Grad and SoCal CAN said makes their relationship with the Gilbert Foundation staff more collaborative than with some other funding sources. 

Although Blank and Ziman say they like working with other funders on projects, they are also willing to go it alone.

About nine years ago, the Gilbert Foundation discovered that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used by colleges to assess needs of students, had become a key stumbling block for students who are the first in their family to go to college. The education nonprofits they were funding spent upward of 30 percent of their staff time during the college application period working on FAFSA forms. 

To mitigate this problem, the Gilbert Foundation funded the Bay Area-based Institute for College Access and Success to work with the Department of Education and the IRS to develop a button to digitally import tax data the federal government already has. 

“On numerous occasions, both in this country and in Israel, we have been the venture capital, the initial support. We want partners, but we are willing to take the risk,” Blank said. 

More recently, Project Grad, which has received funding from the Gilbert Foundation since 2004, approached De Roy with an idea for addressing the high rate of students who require remedial education in mathematics. 

According to the office of the California Legislative Analyst, as many as 85 percent of incoming community college students require remedial coursework in math. In the California State University system, the number varies widely by campus, but is typically more than half. The likelihood that a student will graduate drops precipitously if they are placed into remedial coursework.

If a student at Cal State Northridge fails remedial coursework in their first year, they are “stopped out,” which means they have to go to community college to improve their standing. Only one in 10 of these students make it back into the Cal State system.

“Clearly it is a crisis across the state and across the country, we all know that. And we are looking at jobs for the 21st century that require math and science skills,” Roosevelt said. 

In 2012, Roosevelt and his staff met with De Roy and a few other funders. “I threw out this weird idea and said, ‘I don’t know where this is going, but remediation is a problem,” Roosevelt recalled. De Roy responded positively and told him to stay on it. 

About a year later, Roosevelt met with the provost of CSUN and then-Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy to discuss the problem. CSUN agreed to put money on the table for Project Grad to work with the chair in developmental mathematics at CSUN to develop a 10-week afterschool course for high school seniors to prepare kids for their Cal State placement exam. The Gilbert Foundation provided funding from the start. Among kids who took the course, the pass rate rose from 22 percent to 37 percent in the first year. 

“We thought then, we are on to something. So our next call was to Tessa [De Roy],” Roosevelt said. 

With additional funding from the Gilbert Foundation, Project Grad worked with LAUSD and CSUN to develop a yearlong course for high school seniors that would meet the University of California’s elective standards. The Gilbert Foundation has so far provided $200,000 over three years to the program.

In the 2014-2015 school year, about 240 kids enrolled in the course, which was taught at four high schools in the northeast San Fernando Valley. The pass rate among kids who took the course rose to 55 percent. 

About 350 kids are currently enrolled in the course, and discussions are ongoing regarding how scalable the program is. 

Its success is just one reflection of the Gilbert Foundation’s mission. “What creates impact for this foundation,” Minton said, “is that the theory of change starts with listening to the voices in the community and being fluid, nimble and flexible to evolve over time with how needs in the community change.”

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