If there’s one word that comes to mind when describing incoming Santa Barbara Foundation president and CEO Ron Gallo, it’s “optimistic.”
“I’m very optimistic, no matter what the newspapers say on any particular issue, that we can rise to the occasion and use the nonprofit sector to really engage in our lives,” Gallo said in an interview with Noozhawk.
It’s not the kind of optimism that world-weary cynics reserve for the young and naive. Gallo has earned a right to it: Starting out as a fundraiser for programs that benefited young adults with drug rehabilitation in 1979, he became the head of Rhode Island’s only community foundation, which, among other things, created a program that in five years ensured that 98 percent of the children in the state received adequate health care.
Along the way, he has led the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund, which specializes in issues affecting the South, where he took on housing and minority education.
It’s that positivity he hopes to build on when he starts his new job Dec. 8, when longtime Santa Barbara Foundation CEO Chuck Slosser hands over the reins to one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations.
Gallo’s first order of business?
“First, I want to not have even a hint of hubris that someone from 3,000 miles away is going to immediately understand the nuances of life in Santa Barbara,” said Gallo, who is grateful for the “great opportunity” to head up the Santa Barbara Foundation.
There are, however, issues common to nearly all communities in the country, he said, such as environment vs. development, and what he calls the “we/them” tendency of people that excludes those of different social classes and ethnicities.
“I’ve noticed that even though there is obvious wealth and beauty in Santa Barbara, there are homeless people on State Street,” he said. “I’ve heard about a growing gang violence issue in the area.”
Even the foundation’s $300 million endowment is not going to solve any single issue without community involvement, and that, according to Gallo, is where one of the strengths of a successful community foundation lies.
“I think the real issue for community foundations going forward is that they can play an even greater role in civic leadership … they can be much more than a strategic grantmaker, they can really take on the role of galvanizing the community around the things that are important to the residents,” he said.
Gallo intends to develop relationships with other philanthropic groups, such as United Way of Santa Barbara County, which is working to gauge the area’s biggest needs.
He cautioned, however, that just because a community foundation can take a greater role in civic leadership doesn’t mean it should try to supplant the public sector. Rather, organizations such as the Santa Barbara Foundation work best in the role of the “agile servant,” able to work with a mix of structure and flexibility to adapt to changing community needs.
As he steps into Slosser’s huge shoes, Gallo will have the extra challenge of steering the foundation and its grantees through tricky financial waters. Even an organization as well-endowed as the Santa Barbara Foundation ought to be feeling the pinch of the current economy, let alone the nonprofits that rely on the foundation’s funding.
It can be done, he said, with the right amount of energy.
“If you can get people to get passionate about something,” he said, “the dollars will flow, the commitment increases and I think one of my prime responsibilities is to get people passionate about their community, about solving the problems through innovation and working together in partnership.”
If done well, philanthropy at its best can reach into the community for leaders in places not typically looked to for leadership and present opportunities for people to stay engaged with the system instead of feeling left out, he said.
“I’m truly of the belief that the instinct of Americans is to build community,” Gallo said. “We’ve been doing that for 400 years, and we’re not going to stop now.”
Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.