J.W. Sefton Foundation: Supporting San Diego for More Than 70 Years

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

This is one in a series of profiles highlighting the work of our longtime members to commemorate the 40th anniversary of San Diego Grantmakers' founding in 1976.

When the late J.W. Sefton started his foundation in 1945, he did so with the desire to pass his love of natural science onto future generations of San Diegans. Decades later, influences of the man who dedicated his life to serving the people of San Diego can still be felt throughout the city.

Strong Family Ties Lay the Foundation of Giving

As the son of the man who founded the original San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, J.W. continued his family’s legacy by working to improve the San Diego community, both as an executive of his family’s bank for nearly 50 years and in his community advocacy. 

Arguably, one of J.W.’s most important achievements is the passion for giving that he passed down to his family, most notably his son, the late Thomas W. Sefton, and grandson Harley Sefton, both of whom followed in J.W.’s footsteps of sitting on the boards of the J.W. Sefton Foundation (JWSF) and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Thomas’s wife Donna even served as JWSF’s president for a decade before current president Harley took over nearly 11 years ago.

According to JWSF Executive Director Debbie Williams, the foundation gifts around $1 million a year to organizations of all sizes. Beneficiary organizations are those that make significant education-based impact toward improving nature, science, and natural history in San Diego. 

“The J.W. Sefton Foundation started as a way for the Sefton family to give back to the community that gave so much to them,” continues Debbie. “Our board members like to see our grants bring positive impact to local residents. We love watching people go on to lead better lives with our help.”  

A Long History of Community Impact

As impressive as the amount of grants that JWSF gives out is how long the foundation has supported some of San Diego’s most beloved institutions. Here is just a sampling of JWSF’s most noteworthy accomplishments over the last seven decades:

  • The San Diego Natural History Museum represents the longest giving relationship between JWSF and any organization. In addition to three generations of Seftons having served on its board, the museum received its first grant from JWSF in 1946. According to Debbie, “our grants have enabled the museum to consistently provide science education to school children and the general public, as well as conduct research and share its expertise on plants and animals in our area.”
  • Visitors to the San Diego Zoo can experience the results of JWSF’s support every time they step into the Owens Aviary. The zoo has been a beneficiary of the foundation for at least 27 years. Since 2007, the zoo has been able to welcome three college students a year to its Institute for Conservation Research, thanks to JWSF grant funding.
  • JWSF has supported the Ocean Discovery Institute in providing after-school and summer science programs for disadvantaged middle school and high school students. They also helped with capital funding for the institute’s living lab in City Heights. Both initiatives helped dramatically improve college outcomes for participating students.
  • Additionally, JWSF branched out to wildlife support because it recognized a need for rehabilitation and protection efforts for wounded wildlife.  They provided funding to explore and initiate a successful merger between Project Wildlife and the San Diego Humane Society.

JWSF and San Diego Grantmakers

JWSF was among a handful of foundations that, in the late 1970s, recognized the need for a local consortium of philanthropy to support more collaborative and effective giving in San Diego County. It began participating in regular meetings to build such a network, and in 1980, the group became formally known as San Diego Grantmakers. 
“When I came to the Foundation, I had a background in fundraising, not grantmaking, and SDG was a great resource for me,” says Debbie. “SDG understands the important role of philanthropy in helping local communities thrive and they’ve helped us connect with other grantmakers to share ideas.”

Through the family’s ongoing commitment to our region and involvement with SDG, the J.W. Sefton Foundation’s legacy in San Diego will likely continue for many more years to come.

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