Altruism Repays Its Debts

By Peter Brill   |   September 26, 2019

What really matters in life? What experiences shape our journey? How is today a reflection of our journey and what we have learned and experienced along the way? And mainly, what causes a person to dedicate their life to philanthropy?

I have been writing about community, change, and capital for months now and I thought I should talk to someone who has spent and does spend the majority of his life dealing with those three concerns.

Ron Gallo is a high-energy, intelligent, and charming man with a great sense of humor and who is passionate about effective philanthropy and giving back to society. He is the President and CEO of Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF). SBF is as central to philanthropy in Santa Barbara as central can be. I wondered how he got into philanthropy. What were his greatest accomplishments along the way? What was his model of how things change? What had he learned along the way? And finally, where does impact investing fit into philanthropy and change? I hope you find his answers to these questions as interesting and meaningful as I did.

Ron grew up in an “economically stressed neighborhood.” His high school had 5,000 students; most didn’t go to college and a number went to jail. Because of the size of the school, you only saw the college counselor for one half-hour meeting. She said he might make it into a women’s college that had just started accepting men because that had resulted in establishing lower standards for the men to try and attract them. He almost failed his first year in college due to the cultural shock and that would have ended his full scholarship. He felt so out of place in terms of sophistication and style; for example, he showed up for class dressed like Saturday Night Fever instead of in standard college attire.


So, this is where the story changed and where the life-long inspiration toward philanthropy really began. The college assigned Ron a mentor to help him improve in school. The mentor was a physics professor who had also grown up poor in a small neighborhood. This professor used tough love on Ron, reminding him that he couldn’t fool him because he had been there. Ron was receiving the Harkness Scholarship and wanted to contact them to thank them. He was told he couldn’t because the last of the Harkness family that had given the scholarship had died 50 years ago. The legacy of someone doing good that carried forward through time inspired him. Philanthropy was giving back, and that good had touched his life and others to follow. What could be more meaningful?


After receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University in Social Work Policy, he went on to earn an EdD in Leadership and Social Policy from Harvard University. He was living on $23,000 a year and was raising a family so wanted a higher paying and bigger job. That’s when he went to work for a private foundation. He went from program officer to CEO in 4 years. The biggest limitation of a private foundation was that “you would fly, meet the people, give money and fly out. You didn’t have to live with your results.” Wanting place and accountability to matter, he became the CEO of the Rhode Island Community Foundation. “When you run a community foundation you live with the results, good or bad.”

Ron’s greatest accomplishments included his effort to create affordable housing in Rhode Island. He spent 10 years on the issue, studying the problem and working with non-profits. They needed something much bigger to make a dent in the problem. He had to convince the state legislature to add a proposition that put a $100,000,000 bond issue on the ballot. It involved coordinating with government, clergy, health care workers, and others. He learned how to get people to work together. The bond passed by 70% and they added 13,000 units. It was not one big project, but a lot of small projects, in a lot of small cities. “Sometimes they were just two to four person units.”  

Model of change

It was at this time that he had a major learning experience. It was how important civility is. “Civility doesn’t mean consensus. Everyone has to be heard and not feel run over.” Think of how long change can take. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. had to persist in uniting others through civility, persistence, and belief in human goodness. They faced endless setbacks but they maintained their civility. 

Since coming to Santa Barbara, Ron’s greatest achievement leading the Santa Barbara Foundation has been the Food Action Plan. Today, 99% of what is grown in our country is exported, and 98% of what we eat is imported.  This, while one in four people in the country are food insecure.  This means that 146,000 of our neighbors struggle between putting food on the table and paying for rent, caring for their children and loved ones, and other expenses. The team at SBF, along with key partners like the Community Environmental Council and FoodBank of Santa Barbara County, were able to bring together ranchers, farmers and others to create a comprehensive plan for food system reform. The group made 16 recommendations across the spectrum. The Plan is online to view. He is very proud that “the most doubting person still had their name on it at the end. It was an honest project.”

Ron believes that in order to bring about real change, you have to:

a. Be curious and meet people where they are: to have real system change, you have to change hearts and minds;

b. Learn about the problem;

c. Build coalitions; and

d. Document change – it must be numbers driven.


“Well, I am going to sound a little bit soft. What matters is integrity, love, and community. Wherever you are, it is important to build connection. We need to take the last leap of empathy where we see all humans as being from the same species. We have been basing it on faith communities or geographic communities. This is not just about the risk of climate change; we also face the risk of viruses and pandemics. Also, I have learned to be humble. I have learned to ask and be less definite with people. I used to think that 100 things were important, now I think there are just three or four. Love, empathy, truth on many levels. I am past getting impatient waiting for the elevator.”

Where Does Impact Investing Fit In?

He said he started this interview with the story about the scholarship which was the best model of philanthropy at the time. “Philanthropy needs to change, it needs to be more thoughtful, it needs to be accountable and it needs to be bold.” He notes that we must remember that people give money voluntarily and that they must be inspired to want to do it. He went on: “In 2019, in order to satisfy those criteria, it will not look the same. There are new tools available to us. Solutions don’t come in one package called ‘non-profit.’ Young people are more entrepreneurial, more challenging. They don’t believe in the old way: you make your money in one place and give it to another, like Andrew Carnegie. The majority of millennials see no reason why they shouldn’t solve great problems while making a financial return. It really is part of the maturation of capitalism. By doing this you can draw on a larger cross-section of donors and have more capital to use for good. It’s the logical next step.”

I welcome all questions and comments and can be reached at 


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