Talking with Ron Gallo about his job is inspiring. This is a man who is still pulsing with passion and purpose about his work after more than three decades in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership — the last four as president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation.
“I can’t imagine wanting to do any other type of work than being involved, as I like to say, at the intersection of money and ideas and people’s passions,” he said.
A native New Yorker, Gallo credits his interest in nonprofit work to his modest upbringing.
“I was the recipient, many times, of philanthropy without knowing it,” he said. “Whether it was the camp scholarship, whether it was the free medical care I got when I had a major operation at 5, and so many other kinds of things. ... I didn’t know that.
“It wasn’t until I got a full scholarship to college that I began to ask in innocence ‘What’s behind it?’” he explained. “They told me it was private money. And that’s when I learned about philanthropy, about people who have the motivation and the desire to help others either through volunteerism, dollars, or both.”
Gallo takes a big-picture view when it comes to the Santa Barbara Foundation’s mission, emphasizing that discretionary grant giving is just one piece of the foundation’s role.
“Our value to this community has as much to do with building philanthropic capital, not just for the foundation but in general,” he said. “We use the word ‘sell,’ to sell the notion of philanthropy and how important it is to our democracy and solving problems, and to strengthen the nonprofit sector.
“We have a collective obligation to be candid in how we identify what the important issues are and in finding solutions.
“Always in cooperation,” he hastened to add. “We never pretend that we’re doing this alone.”
Gallo is a firm believer in the promise of what he calls “true citizen engagement,” viewing it as the solution to many of the vexing issues society faces.
“That’s what community foundation work is all about,” he said.
Gallo notes that he, like many Americans, is tired of partisanship, not only in politics but in the tendency to dismiss out of hand those with whom we disagree. Discussion, he asserts, is the key.
It’s not necessary to have total agreement or avoid conflict, he says, but it’s vital “that people come out saying, ‘I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I need to think about that more.’”
“If we can rekindle and nurture that in all ways — in our families, in our casual interactions — there’s no problem we can’t tackle,” he said.
Gallo’s office at the Santa Barbara Foundation’s headquarters is adorned with his degrees from Connecticut College, Columbia University and Harvard University — where he earned both a master’s and a doctorate — as well as memorabilia from his other passions: his family, opera and New York Yankees baseball.
Prior to moving to Santa Barbara in 2008, he spent 15 years as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, R.I. He says he and his wife, Andrea, an artist and docent at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, love their new community.
His work — and that of the foundation — is far from finished, however.
“Santa Barbara is paradise, but there are many in our county who live in the shadows of paradise,” he said. “We have poverty in much larger measures than anyone can imagine.”
Gallo points to education as an example.
“We have poor school performance if you take in all of the county,” he said. “Of course, we have some very high-performing districts and schools and students, but we have far too many that aren’t, and too many of those less successful students are clustered in poverty or are low-income Latinos.”
For Gallo, the Latino population is increasingly a bellwether of the community’s health.
“Latinos ... are growing and will be the majority of Santa Barbarans in the not-too-distant future,” he said. “In a way you can almost say as go the success and the development of the Latino population, so goes the future of Santa Barbara. ...
“We (at the Santa Barbara Foundation) are justifiably proud that we’re focusing more on how we can really bring success — and I mean real data-driven success — to certain things that we know will determine the future.”
According to Gallo, the elements are kindergarten readiness, literacy by third grade, algebra by eighth grade and “quite simply graduating high school with a good plan for yourself, whether that’s college or some kind of good apprenticeship.”
“If you look at those four dials in Santa Barbara County,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot of work to do. And there are some wonderful efforts afoot that we are investing in that are really impressive.”
Among the Santa Barbara Foundation’s advantages, Gallo said, are its expertise and resources as a partner in philanthropy for locals, as well as donors and organizations from outside the area. Now in its 85th year, the foundation can help figure out tax issues and serves as a connection to innovative ideas.
“We’ve had some extraordinary success with that in the last few years,” he said. “People have set up funds and still maintain a certain amount of influence, but they’ve added almost $2 million to our grant making.”
Businessman Michael Towbes and his family were instrumental in helping establish such a fund for the arts, Gallo said. Another source was a surprise: “Highland Financial in Dallas,” he laughed.
“We are about to distribute about $680,000, mostly in the education sphere here in Santa Barbara, because we were able to work creatively with them on some of their taxes,” he explained.
First and foremost, Gallo said, community foundations must pursue knowledge, continuously learning and stretching as organizations.
“When you’re more aware, you’re also aware of what you don’t know,” he said. “We’re constantly feeling like every time we learn something, now we know another thing but there are five other things that suggests that we don’t know about. So it’s challenging.”