SAM WATERSTONE | August 14, 2020
Cheri Savage is the longest-tenured staff member at the Santa Barbara Foundation, a 23-year SBF veteran who has devoted much of her career to strengthening nonprofits and promoting philanthropy in our county.
Savage currently serves as Director of Investments, a role in which she has overseen significant growth of the Foundation’s endowment and investment portfolios. However, Cheri’s knowledge and versatility transcends investments and accounting. Since moving to Santa Barbara in 1975, she has held various leadership positions in the community, contributed to the success of many important projects, and experienced some truly fascinating happenings along the way.
The first time that Savage heard of the Santa Barbara Foundation was in the early 1990s, when she and a group of community members came together to save and restore the historic Los Baños del Mar Pool, located across the street from the Santa Barbara Harbor.
“I became interested in saving Los Baños swimming pool, which led to over 10 years of volunteer activity with the Friends of Los Baños del Mar Pool,” said Savage, who served as the organization’s first president. “We not only saved the pool from being demolished, but it was put on the national registry of historic places, it was made a city landmark, and then we raised money to renovate it.”
Under Savage’s leadership, the group registered as an official 501(c)3 nonprofit in 1992 and started applying for funding. They requested a grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation and were awarded $5,000 to buy new starting blocks for the pool. While the dollar amount was relatively small, the grant ended up being a monumental vote of confidence for the fledgling organization.
“Getting that grant really opened the door for our small nonprofit to draw attention from other funders in the area. Because we were vetted and supported by the Foundation, other funders got involved: the Ann Jackson Family Foundation, Weingart Foundation, Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, and a bunch of others,” Savage explained.
Savage and her team ultimately raised more than $1 million to preserve and renovate the pool, and it continues today as Santa Barbara’s most popular aquatic facility. You can learn more about the history of the pool here.
Prior to joining SBF, Cheri had a career as a land use planner, working for several government entities including the County of Santa Barbara, the City of Ventura, and the California Coastal Commission. After more than a decade as a government employee, she switched to a position with an accounting focus and held many accounting positions with local businesses. Subsequently, she combined her accounting skills with her interest in nonprofits, and was soon brought on as the Development Director for the Environmental Defense Center. By this time, Savage had worked with SBF on the pool renovation project and was impressed with the organization’s impact in the community. It wasn’t long before she decided to pursue a career at the Foundation.
“My first interest was the grant program side of the Foundation, and I applied several times for different positions and was never successful,” admitted Savage. “And then I applied for an accounting clerk position and got the job. And it wasn’t just accounting at that time – I was in charge of the El Adobe Corporation, which was a private foundation managed by SBF and made up of 170 different donor directed funds.”
Savage managed the El Adobe Corporation for over 10 years, managing the private foundation’s finances and investments, donor-level services, and the board of trustees, which was also separate from SBF.
The El Adobe Corporation served as the arm of the Foundation that allowed donors to hold donor directed funds – a popular form of philanthropic giving that has since evolved to be known as Donor Advised Funds. Over time, as tax laws changed, it was no longer beneficial to keep the El Adobe Corporation as a private foundation, so Savage worked with an attorney to terminate the private foundation and create a supporting organization of the Santa Barbara Foundation that provided the same function to donors.
“Eventually the Foundation dissolved the supporting organization and it just became what it is today – Donor Advised Funds under the direct umbrella of the Santa Barbara Foundation,” Savage explained.
Savage’s list of accomplishments at the Foundation is remarkable. She is responsible for developing the Agency Endowment Program (SBF now manages the endowments of over 70 nonprofit organizations) as well as many aspects of our Planned Giving Program. She has handled the acquisition and sale of countless assets, including some very peculiar items.
Savage was once tasked with evaluating the value of an Israeli stock certificate that the Foundation had acquired. One individual involved with the asset insisted it was worth $10 million. However, after a great deal of digging, Savage discovered it was worthless.
“My 23 years have been full of all different sorts of projects, with a lot of variety. I’ve even sold gold coins, medical equipment, oil paintings, and a bronze statue,” she recalled. “We acquired this huge bronze sculpture of a cowboy on a horse, a bucking bronco being spooked by a smaller animal, and my boss at the time wanted me to sell it for at least $25,000.”
Somehow, Savage learned that actor Tommy Lee Jones was interested in the piece. Jones and his wife came to town to view the sculpture, and ended up buying it for the full asking price of $25,000. Savage even convinced Jones to pay for the expensive shipping costs to deliver it to his estate in New Mexico.
Among all of her achievements, Savage’s greatest contribution to the Foundation has likely been her development of SBF’s investment programs – specifically, expanding donor and agency investment options while dramatically increasing the Foundation’s endowment.
In 2003, the Foundation only offered one investment portfolio – the Long Term Endowment portfolio – which oversaw roughly $60 million in community funds. Today, SBF oversees approximately $180 million spread out over four diverse portfolio options that are made up of community assets including Donor Funds and Agency Endowment Funds managed by the Foundation.
When setting up a fund with SBF, fundholders can now select from the following four investment portfolios based on their preferences: Long-Term Endowment, Focus Growth Blend, Focus Income Blend, and Socially Responsible Blend. Offering these diverse investment options allows donors greater flexibility to choose the portfolio that best meets their individual needs.
Savage has achieved these successes while working closely with the Santa Barbara Foundation Board of Trustees, SBF’s Investment Committee, and Meketa Investment Group, the investment consultant that has advised the Foundation’s Investments Team since 2017. Wells Fargo has acted as the Foundation’s custodial manager for decades.
The Foundation’s endowment is invested in all four portfolios, demonstrating that these are investment products that we truly believe in. By combining community funds and investing them in our diverse portfolios, the Foundation is able to leverage the power of our endowment and the expertise of our various investment partners to grow the philanthropic capital that is used to support our community.
Forming meaningful relationships with donors and partners, selling rare works of art, and making savvy investment decisions are just a few of the ways that Savage has left her mark on the Santa Barbara Foundation over the last two decades. Beyond her work at the Foundation, she has generously served her community by dedicating her time and talents to the causes she is passionate about.
Savage continues to give back to her community. Since 2004, she has volunteered with her certified therapy dogs at local hospitals. Prior to COVID-19, Savage and her 8-year old German Shephard, Shadow, regularly visited Cottage Hospital, doing tricks for patients and bringing joy to those in need of some love.