Inside the Helen Diller Family Foundation, Where an Heir to a Real Estate Empire Oversees Major Giving

Jackie Safier. Photo: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Jackie Safier. Photo: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Here are a few of the most important things to know about philanthropist Jaclyn Safier, who is president of the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation and CEO of Prometheus Real Estate Group, the largest private owner of apartments in the San Francisco Bay area. Everyone calls her Jackie. She is 54 and mother of a son and a daughter who are aged 21 and 20. And she is married to Dan Safier, who has a separate real estate development business, the Prado Group. In 2014, her net worth was $1.3 billion.

Beyond some press she’s done regarding donations over $1 billion the foundation has given University of California, San Francisco, to build healthcare facilities and underwrite medical research, this is the first time that Safier has ever given a personal interview and discussed her philanthropy—including a politically charged controversy relating to Israel that dogged the Helen Diller Family Foundation last year.

Notably press averse, Safier is the daughter of the late billionaires Helen and Sanford Diller. Her two brothers are not involved in the company or the family’s charitable work, she told Inside Philanthropy. Helen Diller died in 2015. The foundation has long focused on a few areas: healthcare, Jewish education—primarily through its Diller Teen Fellows and Diller Teen Tikkun Awards programs—and the arts, through major gifts to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and others.

Safier, who is this day dressed in a classic navy blazer and white shirt, met with Inside Philanthropy recently at the office of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties.

A few important things to know about Jackie Safier: In the rental real estate and philanthropically driven structures she builds, she strives to make customer experience the focus of their design.

At hospitals, of course, patients are the customers. Last year, the foundation gave UCSF a historic a $500 million gift to build a new hospital on its Parnassus Heights campus, which is already home to the Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Cancer Center started in 2003 with a $35 million gift from the Dillers—at the time, the largest in the school’s history. The foundation gave the cancer center another $3.25 million in 2016 and 2017, devoted to the sequencing of childhood tumors, for collaboration with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and for three awards to scientists who create breakthrough cancer research ideas.

For the new hospital building, Safier hired a hospitality group that usually focuses on high-end hotel and restaurant interiors. “We’ve already designed a prototype more like a living room, with residential features like shelves so it feels more like home than an institution,” Safier told Inside Philanthropy. “The choice of colors” in a room is also key because “it changes your mood,” she noted. “That goes for the staff areas, too. A happier staff makes happier patients.”

Building has not yet begun on the hospital, which is slated to be finished in a decade. “I just wish it could be done before 2029. Apartment buildings go up a lot faster,” Safier noted ruefully.

Prometheus’ many apartment complexes—13,000 apartments and more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate in the housing-starved San Francisco area, and Portland and Seattle—are intended to feel like neighborhoods, with tenants called neighbors, site managers titled neighborhood directors, and amenities like tools available for residents to borrow. “We want it to be in the sense of borrowing a tool box, like a neighborhood should be,” she said.

When building two Helen Diller Civic Center playgrounds (two of them) in an area of San Francisco previously frequented by junkies, Safier hired a landscape design firm instead of a playground company. The foundation spent $14 million on the playgrounds, said Safier. They opened in February 2018. In another city neighborhood, Dolores Park’s Helen Diller playground is magical, with a climbing structure similar to a Mayan pyramid at its center. Low naturalistic rock walls planted with drought-tolerant greenery provide a natural barrier between the playground and the rest of the sprawling rectangular park. “Playgrounds can be wonderful for families, and not necessarily made of yellow and red plastic,” Safier said. “Why do (most) playgrounds always have fences like prisons? In ours, nature is the barrier, so it doesn’t feel like kids are in jail. We try to make it really beautiful.”

Moving Past Controversy

Another important thing to know about Jackie Safier: She does not share her father’s politics. 

Sanford Diller, who died in 2018, was the son of Austrian immigrants and a conservative Republican. He donated to several far-right-wing organizations, including $100,000 in 2016 to Judicial Watch, which is still putting out articles about Hillary Clinton’s “private email server” and “transgender illegal aliens” getting hormone treatments paid for by U.S. taxpayers. 

In 2016, through the Helen Diller Family Foundation, he also gave $150,000 to the Tea Party Patriots Foundation and $175,000 to the anti-leftist, anti-Democrat David Horowitz Freedom Center

A series of articles last year in The Forward, a Jewish newspaper based in New York, revealed that in 2016, the foundation had also donated $100,000 to Canary Mission, a secretive group that publishes dossiers on anti-Israel campus activists—including undergraduates. Those dossiers, containing photos and details about the profiled individuals’ activist and personal lives, appear intended to intimidate and frighten the subjects. Some are students and faculty of Arab/Palestinian descent, and a few are American Jews. These profiles have been used by Israeli security officials to block entry to those who Canary Mission says support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to cripple Israel economically in order to end its occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza. The Forward called Canary Mission “the most hardline and aggressive of the new anti-BDS campaigns,” and in the case of at least one major university where the student government was planning a pro-BDS resolution, sent men in creepy bird costumes to frighten those going to vote.

Because the Helen Diller Family Foundation is a supporting foundation of the San Francisco Jewish Federation, its assets flow through the Jewish federation. The same day the first Forward article appeared, the federation published a press release promising that neither organization would continue supporting Canary Mission or Regavim, a right-wing Israeli nonprofit that funds settlers who sue Palestinians who have built homes without a government permit, seeking to wrest control so settlers can take them over. But the Israeli government does not issue building permits to Palestinians, and so the Regavim-funded nonprofit usually wins. Sanford Diller donated to both Canary Mission and Regavim through an American 501(c)(3) called the Central Fund of Israel.

When The Forward’s investigative report came out, the Helen Diller Family Foundation got forceful pushback from many of its teen alumni. Dozens signed a letter to the editor asking that the foundation give $100,000 (the same amount it gave to Canary Mission) to groups focused on combating racism and Islamophobia, and that it add programming for its teen fellows on America’s history of blacklists.

Neither has happened, Safier told Inside Philanthropy. Once her father passed away—months before the Forward articles were published—she shifted the foundation away from politics back toward its key priorities. “The foundation is focused on art, healthcare and education. We’re trying not to do everything. I’ve kept it linearly focused, and this whole area is not part of our focus,” she said.

Grants to right-wing groups focused on U.S. politics and Israelis working to push Palestinians out of long-owned property “preceded this generation,” she said. “It was motivated by concern about anti-Semitism… their tactics are not OK,” she said.  “We are absolutely staying away. I know politics are part of life, but I’m staying away.”

The foundation has granted “over $1 billion” in total, said Safier. “Those grants are absolutely minute, and now they are discontinued. I consider myself a steward of what my parents set up, and those were never part of the foundation’s focus areas.”

A Focus on Core Priorities

To be sure, donations to far-right groups were a drop in the Diller Family Foundation’s deep philanthropic bucket.

That same year—2016, the most recent for which its tax filings are publicly available—the foundation gave nearly $4 million to permanently endow the first Rhodes Scholarships for Israeli students. The Diller Family Foundation also gave $3 million to the National Library of Israel through its American fundraising arm.

Additionally, in 2016, the foundation made payments on a $10.31 million commitment to the University of Southern California for study measuring the medical effectiveness of a natural soy product compared to statin drugs when treating atherosclerosis and dementia.

The foundation’s tax filings for 2017 and 2018 are not yet publicly available. Phyllis Cook, executive philanthropic consultant to both the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the newly active Helen Diller Family Foundation, provided information about more recent grants from both, but declined to provide information about their present assets.

The Helen Diller Family Foundation’s main focus is a $50 million grant for the Helen Diller Quantum Center at the American Society for Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, wrote Cook in an email. It is being paid over 10 years.

This year, Safier told IP, the Helen Diller Family Foundation gave $5 million to the University of California, Berkeley, to endow a chair in Israel studies. That’s on top of $5 million it gave UCB several years ago to create a Jewish studies department. Why Berkeley? Certainly because the Dillers met there. But also because “we thought UC Berkeley is the best public university in the country, and should be an example for the entire UC system and universities nationwide,” Safier said.

Safier and her husband have another family foundation, the Dan and Jackie Safier Family Fund. They’ve donated to the Brandeis Day School, which their children attended, and to UCSF’s medical research.

A “Purpose-Driven Company”

Safier worked alongside her parents starting 1992, when, after attending Harvard Business School, she started closely observing the family’s approach to philanthropy, and over time, transitioned into a more formal role.

In 1992, she was also named president of Prometheus. “Working with my dad was 10 times the experience of being in business school. But I learned all my managerial skills from my mom, who led with her kindness,” Safier told Inside Philanthropy. “They were two very good examples.”

Being an active philanthropist has influenced her business, Safier said. “We consider Prometheus a purpose-driven company. Business can be used for good.”

One illustration: Prometheus is building a new dorm at UC Berkeley at no cost to the university. The Helen Diller Family Foundation is underwriting the hard costs, and Prometheus is donating its services and expertise. Once the building is completed in 2023—at an estimated cost of $250 million, Safier said—it will be given to the university. 

With student dorm apartments and ground floor retail space, the net rental income will be plowed into student financial aid. “It could potentially generate several million dollars a year for student scholarships,” Safier said. 

Though she is CEO of Prometheus Real Estate Group, she spends half her time on nonprofit work, said Safier. “My parents always taught us that the best combination is giving time and financial resources. If you can invest your time and philanthropy, that’s very gratifying.”