New endowment fund chief takes on economic challenges

Last year Mark Reisbaum, then director of grants for the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, was named the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Staff Person of the Year.

So what did he do for an encore?

Reisbaum accepted the offer to become the agency’s chief endowment officer, which makes him top dog at the S.F.-based JCEF. The job opened up when JCEF Executive Director Lisa Gurwitch stepped down in September.

Mark Reisbaum

Having the title may be gratifying, but what really excites the long-time Jewish community activist is having the opportunity to help people in need. With the economy nowhere close to full strength, Reisbaum says the need remains great.

“We went through a period of very dramatic growth,” Reisbaum says of the JCEF, “and then a more dramatic economic downturn. Now people are taking stock, and we have an opportunity to engage with donors and help them plan how they want to be involved in philanthropy.”

Reisbaum and his JCEF colleagues oversee more than 900 donor-advised funds and 70 supporting foundations, many of which seek to build Jewish community institutions in the Bay Area and beyond.

In his 12 years at JCEF, Reisbaum has seen the endowment fund’s value increase from around $400 million to nearly $3 billion. He credits his mentor, former JCEF Executive Director Phyllis Cook, for much of that success, but he also salutes the foundation’s donors for wanting to build a stronger Jewish community.

“One of my joys is working with families, as many as five generations at a time,” Reisbaum says. “The inter-generational family dynamic can be challenging but rewarding. How do you honor the legacy of your grandparents?”

At JCEF, the best way to do so is funding Jewish community institutions. And despite a sputtering economy that saw charitable donations shrink and fund levels drop, Reisbaum says his agency still allocated $147 million in grants for the fiscal year ending in June.

Moreover, the recently launched $7 million Catalyst Initiative of the JCEF and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation injected additional emergency funds into the community, helping institutions and individuals weather the crisis.

“Having the unrestricted reserves enabled us to respond to the dramatically increased needs in a significant way,’ Reisbaum adds.

His passion for Jewish community service stretches back to his childhood. The grandson of French Holocaust refugees who went on to co-found the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Reisbaum grew up watching his parents and grandparents participate actively in Jewish life. The L.A. native also benefited from a broad Jewish education and attending Jewish summer camps.

After graduating college, Reisbaum went into investment banking, serving 10 years with CitiCorp in Hong Kong and New York. Despite his success, he remembers wishing he could do something more meaningful with his professional life.

He moved to the Bay Area, “where I knew there was a vital nonprofit sector,” Reisbaum says. He got a certificate in nonprofit development, then a master’s in nonprofit administration at the University of San Francisco.

In 1997 he joined the JCEF, serving first as a grants manager and program officer. He says he is especially proud of the work the endowment has done as an early funder of important capital projects in the region, from Rhoda Goldman Plaza to the several new Jewish community centers ringing the Bay Area.

While the economy has hurt nonprofits across the country, Reisbaum sounds bullish about future of his organization. 

“The year prior was a very slow time for new gifts,” he says. “Now we’re seeing an appreciation of assets, and we’re putting a portion toward charitable purposes. We’re looking at how donors can be more strategic with their grantmaking, and engaging with younger generations in family philanthropy.”

Whatever challenges may arise, Reisbaum believes he and the JCEF staff are ready.

And he should know. He’s worked with them a long time.

“We have a deeply committed and passionate staff,” he says, “many of whom have been with the organization for many years. Ultimately our staff is deeply committed to doing this work, and we derive a lot of joy doing this.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.