Not so new after all: The origins of West Coast philanthropy


Asher Orkaby and Tim Mueller


On February 11, 2024, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers 25-22 to capture the franchise’s fourth Lombardy trophy, becoming the NFL’s first back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the ‘03-04 New England Patriots.

A record 123.4 million viewers watched a contest between two veteran coaches who had built their individual careers around a football strategy known as ‘West Coast Offense.’

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and his 49ers counterpart Kyle Shanahan powered their high-octane offenses by relying heavily on quick passes to control the ball, spread the defense, and open lanes for their backs and receivers.

Bill Walsh, assistant coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, is often credited for popularizing this scheme and then exporting it to the Bay Area as head coach of the 49ers during the 1980s, eliciting the moniker West Coast Offense. Since then, aspects of Walsh’s offensive system have been adopted and modified by coaches and teams around the league. Walsh’s pioneering approach is no longer confined to the West Coast and continues to evolve.

Like West Coast Offense, the origins of ‘West Coast Philanthropy’ are not native to California. While organized charitable activity in the state dates to the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, the advent of the modern philanthropic foundation was an early 20th century East Coast and Midwest phenomenon. Though its dominance has faded over time, New York remains home to some of the wealthiest and most influential grantmakers.

After WWII, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford’s example inspired a new generation of philanthropists, foremost among them the Hewlett and Packard families, who set up their private foundations on the West Coast. In the ensuing decades, the Hewlett and Packard foundations adopted but also modified their predecessors’ philanthropic schemes, forming the bedrock of an emergent philanthropic tradition.

The charitable giving of the latest generation of West Coast philanthropists – Skoll, Chan Zuckerberg, Moskovitz, Tuna, and others – is recognizable to, and inspired by, legacy funders, yet has also pushed the concept to new heights. And like West Coast Offense, its current applications are no longer restricted, nor have they ever been, to philanthropic players concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While the protagonists of West Coast Philanthropy are easy to pinpoint, its distinctive features are not. Can an interested onlooker readily identify West Coast Philanthropy the same way a devoted NFL fan can attribute a short horizontal passing play to Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense? And, how does a sophisticated understanding of West Coast Philanthropy help in navigating the contemporary philanthropic playing field?

This question is at the center of our multi-year research project into the rise of West Coast Philanthropy, featuring interviews with dozens of philanthropic leaders from both legacy foundations and new funders, who have left their mark on this regional sector over the span of six decades. Each interviewee was asked to define West Coast Philanthropy. Their answers helped materialize the concept in expected and unexpected ways.

West Coast Characteristics

In the quest to identify long-run forces and short-term trends shaping West Coast Philanthropy, it became apparent that historical thinking was more widespread among interviewees than previously assumed. The former Facebook motto of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ appears to be the exception rather than the norm.

Far from discarding the past so as to make room for the present and the future, many interviewees were keenly aware and deeply appreciative of predecessors and precedents. It is perhaps because of their heightened historical sensitivities that some interviewees questioned whether the experience of one organization can, indeed, be indicative of wider regional, national, or even international developments. The refrain, ‘When you know one foundation, you only know one foundation,’ was oft repeated.

In contrast to both East Coast Philanthropy and the federal government, West Coast Philanthropy has been alternately described as entrepreneurial, innovative, and experimental. It is seen as driven by a willingness to take risks and overturn the status quo, coupled with less bureaucracy and fewer commitments to existing institutional arrangements. West Coast Philanthropy was also viewed as more strategic, outcome-oriented, focused on solving problems, and organized around ends not means.

Some interviewees detected a link between their personal and professional focus areas and the geography of the West Coast. Environmental concerns, especially land and marine conservation as well as climate protection, were considered ‘Western’ in orientation. Were it not for the expansive scope of the Hewlett and Packard foundations’ environmental programs, for example, which have extended across the Western Seaboard, including occasional forays into Canada and Mexico, our concept of the West Coast would surely have to be downsized to that of Silicon Valley.

That is not to say that Silicon Valley does not loom large in the background, sometimes in quite unexpected ways. The speed and manner with which the tech tycoons of America’s second ‘Gilded Age’ accumulated mega fortunes is now mirrored by the speed and manner with which they have pressed ahead with their philanthropic agendas. Business and start-up inspired approaches towards giving, from strategic to venture philanthropy, an obsession with innovation and metrics, and an aura of invincibility that emboldens some funders to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges facing humanity, are as much part and parcel of West Coast Philanthropy as are its more subdued elements.

Regionalism Resurrected

West Coast Philanthropy, as it turns out, comes in and out of view depending on how finely one calibrates.  A close-up view of the philanthropic scene in 2024 reveals more commonality than differentiation across the board than at any other point in history.

Advances in technology, practices of collaborative giving, the unimpeded movement of people and knowledge between foundations, and the prioritization of borderless issue areas (climate and racial justice), have made it difficult for incoming philanthropoids on either coast to readily notice organizational, let alone regional, idiosyncrasies. The popularity of new giving vehicles may have eroded the very boundaries separating sectors altogether. Perhaps more than any other factor, ‘metric-mania’ has spread like wildfire across philanthropic geographies.

And yet, knowing the differences between originators, offshoots, and imitators yields other advantages. Individuals and organizations on the receiving end of philanthropic largesse can reimagine their relationships with foundations by using a regional lens to spot synergies.

By understanding their roots and founding values, funders and grantmakers can attract grantseekers and employees who represent a better cultural fit. West Coast Philanthropy, like West Coast Offense, is more effective when it sports a qualifier denoting its origins, especially if it spurs reinterpretation and experimentation as well as strategic reflection.


Asher Orkaby,  an international historian and Middle East expert, is a research associate and instructor at Harvard University.

Tim Mueller is the founder and Managing Director of Chester & Fourth, a Canadian advisory firm specializing in strategy, innovation, and institutional knowledge.

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