“Do not lose sight of your dreams, even if the problems seem insurmountable. Keep going in any event. If you want to do something, go do it.” Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller offered that advice to her grandchildren in a book of reflections about her life. “And by doing so maybe, just maybe,” she wrote, “someone, somewhere will be the better for it.”
This is sound advice from a woman who has followed her interests and passions and ended up making a significant impact on the lives of countless people in the region, around the country, and in Israel.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire and give back. It is never too late to give back to the community and to make the world a better place,” Diller, now in her 80s, said in a recent interview from her home in Woodside.
The Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, is known by many Bay Area Jews for the various programs it has established since its inception in 1999. There are the International Diller Teen Initatives, which include the Diller Teen Fellows and the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards (2013 nominations are being accepted at www.jewishfed.org/diller/teenawards). There are also the Helen Diller Family Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education, as well as a Diller-endowed Jewish Studies program at U.C. Santa Cruz, and an endowment for a visiting Israeli scholar at U.C. Berkeley. Many young families recognize the Diller name from the Helen Diller Family Preschool at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
In addition, the family foundation has looked beyond the Jewish community to the San Francisco community at large, with a particular focus on the arts and medical research. It sponsors the annual Helen Diller Family Israel Antiquities Lecture Series at the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, and it gave $5 million to build the entrance courtyard of the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. In 2009, the foundation granted $35 million to build the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. More recently, it paid for a major renovation of the Dolores Park playground, as it did previously for the playground at Julius Kahn Park in the Presidio.
In all, the Helen Diller Family Foundation has granted more than $200 million to date.
With years of experience as Northwest president of the American Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Bay Area chair for Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, among other positions, Diller felt in 1999 that it was time for her to have a greater role in developing philanthropic projects.
“I wanted a hands-on approach, where I just don’t give out funds,” she said. “I wanted to have my own programs, where I could originate the ideas — it’s challenging to come up with the ideas.”
In particular, Diller wanted to create leadership opportunities for motivated Jewish teens. “There were already all these programs for college-aged people and older, but there was nothing for the 13- to 19-year-olds,” she recalled.
“She really recognized the potential for the huge impact that can be made with and by high school students,” said her daughter, Jackie Safier, who serves on the foundation’s board. Diller also felt strongly about the benefits of linking area teens with their peers elsewhere in the U.S. and beyond. The Diller Teen Fellows, which began with just five participants in its first cohort, now has hundreds of participants in eight North American communities and eight partnering communities in Israel.
Since 2007, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards have recognized Californian Jewish teens who are outstanding role models in their communities. And, as of this year, Jewish teens from the entire U.S. are eligible to be nominated for the $36,000 prize.
“These young people are amazing,” said Diller. “They come with these unusual ideas for helping the world, and they’ve gone on to the finest universities and they continue on with their projects. It’s really interesting and very inspiring.”
A native of San Francisco, Diller credits her immigrant parents as role models for her as she was growing up. “She got from them the responsibility to do the best you can with what you have, and to give back,” said Safier, who is the president of Prometheus Real Estate Group, the Diller family’s real estate development and management company.
Diller recalled the days when she and her husband, Sanford, whom she met when they were undergraduates at U.C. Berkeley, lived simply when they were first married and he was in law school. Once their company began doing well, their wealth grew and their children were grown (there are now seven grandchildren among Safier and her brothers Brad and Ron, the latter living in Israel), it felt natural to Diller and her husband to focus on philanthropy.
Aside from her family and foundation, her other deep passion is art. “I loved the challenge of building up an art collection,” she said. She favors contemporary art, and has had the opportunity to meet the artists whose works hang in her home.
Next week, Diller will be recognized with an award for Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy from the Golden Gate chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Safier is not surprised by this or the other honors her mother has received.
“My mother is probably one of the most positive people you will meet in your life,” she said. “People love working with her because she is so positive and encouraging when it comes to the causes she is advancing. And she leads by example; ‘Show, don’t tell’ is her philosophy.”