When David Dornsife picked out the perfect spot to build his new home in the hill country of San Ramon Valley, Calif., just east of San Francisco, he wanted to help cool it with breezes that streamed down through a mountain pass nearby. Knowing which way the prevailing winds blew would tell him how to orient the house so cooler air would flow into the back windows and out the front. To make sure the job was done right, he pitched a tent on the property, listening to coyotes and sleeping under the stars while monitoring the winds himself.
The story points up traits that Dave and his wife, Dana Dornsife, ’83, bring to their philanthropy. In 2011, Forbes put them at No. 7 on its annual list of the “Most Generous People in America.” That was the year they gave $200 million to name the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California, where Dave is a trustee and alumnus. But their generosity goes well beyond writing checks, reaching to a readiness to sweat the details and get their hands dirty.
“They’d better do it right, or they’re going to have a very unhappy donor,” Dave says of the water-drilling projects that he and Dana fund in remote African villages.
The Dornsifes understand how to use the power that big donors wield, but they also know it’s not enough to throw big money at big problems, especially when people’s lives are in the balance. Doing it right is what drives them to master the nuts and bolts and technical details that go into their giving, as well as the social ramifications that flow out. It’s not enough to mean well. Establishing relationships, planning carefully, integrating what worked and dismissing what didn’t, holding partners accountable and monitoring outcomes are, to them, part of a hard-nosed business plan for changing the world through philanthropy.
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