Stephen Dobbs leaves Marin foundation to write books

He left the foundation Dec. 31.

Among the avenues for Dobbs' rechanneled energies are three books he plans to write, including a study of Jewish philanthropy to be co-authored with Gary Tobin, a Brandeis University professor and well-known demographer.

Over the next two decades, it is speculated that Americans will inherit some $8 trillion to $10 trillion from their parents. Dobbs and Tobin plan to investigate how much of this wealth will filter into the Jewish community.

Jewish philanthropy is a subject the 54-year-old Dobbs knows well.

Before joining the Marin foundation, the longtime Jewish community activist served as chief executive officer and executive director of the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, which awards major grants in both the Jewish and secular worlds. He is the son of Jewish community leader Annette Dobbs, former president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

At the Marin Community Foundation, the third largest organization of its kind in the country, he continued to oversee grants made to the Jewish world.

The foundation's first benefactor, Beryl H. Buck, "had strong religious interests," Dobbs noted. "Our trustees have interpreted that to include support for the religious community."

The Marin Community Foundation granted $3 million to build the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. It also supports the MJCC's CenterStage performance series, as well as the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services and the Koret Synagogue Initiative at Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar. That program supports creative synagogue programming aimed at attracting and keeping members.

"The connections and crossovers are such that when I did leave Koret, I didn't leave the community entirely," said Dobbs, a past president of Brandeis Hillel Day School who recently agreed to join the school's strategic planning committee.

That's the kind of activity he looks forward to tackling now that his time will be his own.

In part, he left the Marin foundation seeking freedom from high-stress 14-to-16-hour workdays, as well as evenings and weekends filled with foundation-related meetings and networking.

"It was time to move on and get some relief from that," he said. "I have been an organization man for 30 years."

Free of the structures of organizational life, at least temporarily, "am I going to become a couch potato? Do I have plans to sleep 11 hours a day? No," he said.

Rather, he plans to spend more time with wife Victoria and their sons Joshua, 12, Gabriel, 9, and Noah, 5. He has an older son, 26-year-old Aaron, from a previous marriage.

And there will be the books. In addition to the Jewish philanthropy study, he plans to write a volume on leadership in the nonprofit community and another on the history of art education. Published widely throughout his career, Dobbs will do the research for the latter project as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, where he did post-graduate work in the late '60s and later served as a visiting professor in education.

As he moves ahead toward the next chapter of his life, Dobbs looks back with pride on his tenure at the Marin Community Foundation.

"During the seven years I have been here, the foundation has distributed between $150 million and $200 million," he said. "It has enabled hundreds and hundreds of projects to take place."

He is proud of helping to expand the foundation's role from that of grantmaker to a force for positive community discussion and change.

Through seminars, for example, the foundation offers technical assistance to nonprofit agencies, helping them hone skills in such areas as board development and working with the press. The foundation has established awards recognizing unsung heroes in several fields.

It also serves as a venue for community forums, including an ongoing program aimed at tackling hate-inspired violence. The Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Community Relations Council and Marin Interfaith Council are among the organizations participating in the forum.

"That's an example of how a community foundation can take the initiative to make something important happen in the community without putting people through the whole grantsmanship game," Dobbs said.

Working at the helm of the foundation has not always been easy. The organization and Dobbs himself have withstood their share of heat, with critics dubbing the foundation unimaginative and lacking in vision.

On two occasions, Dobbs was accused of treating employees unfairly because of race — one accuser withdrew her charge; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated the second charge and cleared the foundation of wrongdoing.

Dobbs sees such bumps as part of the territory.

"We are under constant scrutiny; we are probably the most public and visible and accountable foundation in the country," Dobbs said. "We are expected to not make any mistakes."

That added a particular stress to the job. There were other challenges, as well.

"One of the difficulties and hardships of working in this field is a sense of frustration at being unable to do more," he said. "People come in. They have great ideas and great projects, but they don't fit our guidelines. I regret that so many worthwhile and admirable ideas have to be turned away."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.