How Much of Sobrato’s $5 Billion Fortune Will Find Its Way to His Foundation?

The Sobrato Family Foundation is a funder that we pay close attention to in the Bay Area. But just maybe this will become a bigger story. 

Silicon Valley real estate mogul, John A. Sobrato, channeled his wealth to establish a family foundation in the late 1990s to support nonprofits in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Southern Alameda counties. Between 2012 and 2013, for example, the Sobrato Family Foundation (SFF) committed nearly $11 million in general operating support grants , and announced another $2.4 million in Silicon Valley grants last October (Read Sobrato Family Foundation: Bay Area Grants).

However, we’ve noticed that there’s a lot of Sobrato money sitting on the sidelines right now. And this fortune continues to grow rapidly. According to Forbes, John A. Sobrato had an estimated net worth of $3.9 billion in March 2013, but as of June 2014, that amount has jumped and is edging closer to $5 billion.

That's a bigger fortune than the Rockefeller Foundation is sitting on, and it looks like most of it is destined for philanthropy.

John A. and Sue Sobrato signed the Giving Pledge in 2012, along with their son, John M., making them the first multi-generational signatories of the agreement. “Each of us has provided that 100% of our wealth will be given away during our lifetimes, or left to the Sobrato Family Foundation, upon our death,” John A. wrote in his Pledge letter.

Shifting the bulk of the family fortune into philanthropy could take decades, given how its tied up in real estate assets. So don't look to the Sobrato Family Foundation to suddenly become a behemoth overnight. Still, while the foundation won't comment on any plans for expanded giving, signs suggest that larger scale philanthropy may start sooner rather than later. John is now 75 and announced last year that he and his son, John M. Sobrato, would step down from the day-to-day operations at his real estate firm to focus on the family philanthropy. Another real estate expert, Rob Hollister, was hired to take control of the company, signifying the first time a non-family member has run it in 35 years.  

Meanwhile, John Sobrato's daughter, Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, has been deeply immersed in the family's giving for nearly twenty years. It's she who did the work of actually setting up the Sobrato Family Foundation in 1996 and has been point there as its board president. And it's she who's been the family member most deeply plugged into the Bay Area nonprofit scene. 

John has always been passionate about his foundation’s regional education programs that develop and recognize Silicon Valley teachers, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see some upcoming increases in education funding. “Teachers are the most important asset we have, and our education system in this state is failing them and our students,” he told Joint Venture Silicon Valley. John credits his mother, a VA Hospital volunteer, for instilling a sense of philanthropy in him from an early age.

One of the best ways that SFF gives back is by donating and converting Silicon Valley office parks into multi-tenant nonprofit centers. In the Milpitas, San Jose, and Redwood Shores centers, the foundation has provided 68 nonprofit organizations with 333,000 square feet of space in which to operate. The annual market value of these three rent-free spaces comes out around $5.5 million. Due to the unprecedented success of this real estate-based nonprofit program, we wouldn’t be surprised to see additional tenant space and centers opening up soon.

But let's face it: a fortune of the size that the Sobrato family has amassed is a lot of money to pump into regional philanthropy, and so our bet is that their foundation will eventually look beyond the Bay Area and emerge as a national funder in a few key areas. We've seen that pattern with other regional funders who broaden out when the time comes to move bigger money. Lisa has long been passionate about helping abused and neglected children, so that's one possible area of national funding. Education is another.

In the end, though, this is all guesswork and surely there are plenty of nonprofits who are hoping that the Sobratos do keep things local.

We'll be watching.