Overseeing the distribution of more than $65 million annually to worthy
causes in Marin and the world. BY JIM WOOD • PHOTOS BY TIM PORTER
MAKING SURE $65 million is dis- tributed each year to the most worthy causes is the job of Thomas “Tom” Peters, presi- dent and CEO of the Marin
Community Foundation. The foundation’s goal
is “to make a difference in the lives of others
through thoughtful and effective philanthropy.”
Sounds noble, doesn’t it? — especially during
this season of giving.
What follows, in a nutshell, is how the Marin
Community Foundation, with assets of $1.6 billion, came into existence, where that more than
a billion-and-a-half dollars came and continues to come from, and how Peters, a native San
Franciscan with a doctorate in psychology and
health science from the University of Minnesota,
came to lead California’s second-largest community foundation (the largest, no surprise, is the
Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with $6.5
billion in assets). Most important, we’ll find out
where some of the annual distribution winds up.
The story starts in 1975, when Ross resident
Beryl Buck died and left an estate of nearly $10 million to “benefit the people of Marin County.” When
most of that estate turned out to be stock in an
obscure oil company later purchased by Shell Oil,
and its value increased significantly, San Francisco
managers claimed the amount was too great to be
spent all in Marin. The case settled in 1987, and
the Marin Community Foundation was created, as
were three other entities that would serve not only
the residents of Marin but also “all of mankind.”
These are the Buck Institute for Research on Aging,
the Buck Institute for Education, and Alcohol
Justice, a San Rafael–based nonprofit.
That bequest launched a foundation whose
funding mostly comes from two major sources,
the Buck Family Foundation (grants from this
entity benefit Marin causes) and an aggregate of
funds commonly called “donor advised funds.”
The latter grouping is composed of approximately 500 individuals and families, from Marin
and beyond (these funds can go any where in the
world, but more than half go to Marin nonprofits and schools). Each entity has assets totaling
approximately $800 million.
With a doctorate in medicine and psychology from
an out-of-state school, how did you progress to
presiding over a foundation with $1.6 billion in
assets? I’m a Bay Area guy. I grew up just outside
the city and graduated from San Francisco State.
Then I headed to University of Minnesota, drawn
by its stellar reputation and the fact that there
were six major hospitals on campus. For me the
move from the Bay Area was a physical as well as
an existential shock. I think I provided comedic
relief for people. Here comes this western boy
full of hippie spirit — and I nearly froze to death.
It was 32 degrees below zero and the oil in my
little Renault froze up. But the campus kept me
there for five years. As soon as I finished I got
back in my old Renault and drove almost nonstop
back to San Francisco. About a year later, it was
1974, I took a job with the City of San Francisco
Health Department. In the ‘80s, I was fortunate to
become chief of staff, overseeing some 6,000 staff
members as we dealt with the earliest years of the
HIV/AIDS epidemic, a billion-dollar budget, S. F.
General and Laguna Honda hospitals, paramedic
services and five large community clinics.
When did you arrive in Marin County? It was in
1991, when I was named director of the county’s
health and human services department. I served
in that position — continuing to really enjoy public service — until 1998, when the directors of the
Marin Community Foundation came knocking
on my door. So I jumped the fence from the public
to the private sector.
In the ’80s, I was fortunate to
become chief of staff, overseeing
some 6,000 staff members as
we dealt with the earliest years
of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In Marin / CONVERSATION