Editor’s Note: This blog post originally appeared here.
Considered an icon in the philanthropy world, Susan Packard Orr frequently is the person nonprofits look to for inspiration and advice. For more than three decades, the Stanford resident has provided nonprofits around the world with support services and software she developed for the management of fundraising and grant-making activities when few others served that niche.
She’s probably better known, however, for steering her family’s nonprofit organization, The David & Lucile Packard Foundation, for the past 22 years. She stepped into the role of chairwoman — overseeing the mission and strategic direction of the Foundation — in 1996 after the death of her father, David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Company. With the world watching, she transitioned the Los Altos nonprofit into one of the most influential and respected family foundations in the nation. Under her tenure, the foundation expanded its grant giving globally while tackling some of the world’s biggest issues.
Orr also has served as a trustee of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute that her family funded, the Packard Humanities Institute, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, for which she played a lead role in the design and construction of the new $1.1-billion LEED Platinum facility that opened in December. And from 2014 until this year, she served as the first Distinguished Fellow in Family Philanthropy for the National Center for Family Philanthropy, sharing her experiences with foundations nationwide on everything from how to give money away to how to navigate family issues.
Much of that know-how she’s passed along to the next generation of her own family. Five third-generation Packards currently serve on the Packard Foundation’s board, poised to carry on the work David and Lucile Packard envisioned when they established the foundation in 1964.
Orr, 71, recently took another step to ensure the Foundation’s work will be passed along to the next generation. At the start of this year, she stepped down from her long-held role as chair of the $6.8 billion enterprise. The 16-member board appointed the position to her son, David Orr, who had by that time served as board trustee for nine years.
“We need to make room for new ideas. It just became apparent that it was time for the next generation to have some leadership role in the foundation,” Orr said during a recent interview with the Weekly inside the quaint, historic two-story home on Cowper Street in Palo Alto that serves as her software company’s California headquarters.
Orr will remain involved in the Foundation as a board trustee.
Under her leadership over the past two decades, the Foundation has greatly expanded the breadth and impact of its programs, having a hand in everything from conserving coastal ecosystems, reversing the decline of marine bird populations and mitigating climate change to protecting wilderness in the western United States, overhauling approaches to management of the world’s fisheries, working on population and reproductive health in parts of Africa and Asia and helping children living in poverty.
Locally, the Foundation emerged as a leader in sustainability in 2013 after its newly built headquarters became the largest building to achieve net-zero certification for generating more energy than it consumes.
Statewide, the Foundation has preserved 480,000 acres through the California Landscape Initiative and partnered with the Moore and Hewlett foundations to protect nearly 20,000 acres of salt ponds along the San Francisco Bay and Napa River.
Nationally, its health care strategy saw the number of children in the U.S. without insurance reach an all-time low of 7 percent in 2012.
Globally, the Foundation has provided 2,557 grants to organizations focused on population growth and reproductive health, helping countries such as Ethiopia double its modern contraceptive use over the past two decades.
Looking back on her two decades as chair at the Packard Foundation, Orr — widely known for her modest demeanor and preference for avoiding the public spotlight — explained: “I never considered myself in a place of power as a chairman. I have two sisters, and I always thought we were the triumvirate leading the foundation together. I was just the one who happened to run the business of the meetings.”
A seat at the top
Orr was living at Stanford with her husband, Franklin “Lynn” Orr (founding director of the Precourt Institute for Energy), and providing nonprofits assistance through her software company, Telosa Software, when her father died in March 1996, leaving the bulk of his estate to the Foundation in the form of Hewlett-Packard stock.
In June 1996 Orr took the top seat of the then nine-member board responsible for setting the mission and strategic direction of the Foundation and for overseeing its finances, operations and policies.
Her three siblings — David Packard, Julie Packard and Nancy Packard Burnett — remained in their roles as board trustees. (David Packard eventually left the foundation in 1999 to run his own philanthropic organization, the Packard Humanities Institute.)
With Orr as chair, a new era in the life of the foundation began.
Within two years, as the value of HP shares skyrocketed, the Foundation went from a $2.1-billion family-style charity awarding about $100 million in grants annually to a global leader endowed with more than $9.1 billion, reportedly making it the third wealthiest foundation in the world. In 2000, the foundation’s endowment reached a record $13.6 billion and its grant-making budget totaled $534 million.
Such fast growth was unheard of at the time.
“It was like a startup company that’s just gone public,” the foundation’s chief financial officer, George Vera, told Fortune magazine in 2003.
Orr was tasked with keeping the nonprofit charity on course and figuring out how to give away hundreds of millions of dollars — all without losing sight of her parents’ vision.
David and Lucile Packard chose not to leave instructions telling their children what programs to support, according to Orr. Her father told them that he had changed his own mind over the years as new information, challenges and issues emerged, and he could not foresee what the most important issues were going to be in the future.
“It was very challenging for all of us, although we had pretty much been at the table (as trustees) for a long time,” said Orr.
She knew, however, that each of her siblings had their own favorite projects, which could potentially splinter the board’s operations, a 1998 story in the Wall Street Journal reported.
According to the article, Orr was chosen as board chair because her father believed she could best keep her siblings focused together. She handled the role just as he had anticipated.
When Orr became chair, “there was a profound shift,” Carol Larson, Foundation president and CEO, told the Weekly. “Susan worked hard to honor her parents’ legacy while fully embracing the trust and freedom they gave to the board to change over time.
“She led the board in reviewing our values, purpose and areas of work.”
She looked to the general trustees for wisdom and to other big foundations for advice. David Rockefeller and Warren Buffet were among those whom she called to advise the family. To find their focus, Orr held a series of fact-finding meetings that spanned over two years, Larson said.
Before deciding on their direction, the Packard siblings also wrote down a set of core values they felt their parents had lived by and incorporated them as guiding principles for the foundation: integrity, respect for others, belief in individual leadership, commitment to effectiveness, and the capacity to think big.
“We did a big review to decide on what to work on, and we ended really more or less in the same place. We liked everything we were doing,” Orr said.
Orr said the Foundation became more proactive in its giving.
“It used to be decided that there were certain areas we wanted to fund, and people would write proposals,” she said. “We still do that with local programs, (but) with other programs, we’re much more strategic.”
Staff works with experts to identify partners and other foundations that can help on policy, research, identifying NGOs and developing a strategy, so grants can be given more broadly to several areas of an issue and have greater impact.
“Under Susan’s leadership, the Foundation became a global grant maker and has worked in over a dozen countries around the world. Susan also made sure that we kept a robust local program, reflecting her belief that philanthropy must support the nonprofits in their communities,” Larson said.
Larson described Orr’s leadership as “thoughtful and steady.”
“Susan is quiet and supportive; she does not dominate the board meetings but ensures that all voices are heard, builds consensus and consistently shows respect for staff leadership,” she said.
Orr demonstrated her capabilities as a leader when the market crashed in 2001, sending HP stock plummeting. The Foundation’s assets dropped to approximately $5 billion and it had to slash its annual grants by about $50 million. Orr, who served on the HP board from 1993 to 2001, addressed the issue with transparency.
Adam Lashinsky, a Fortune Magazine reporter covering a conference on giving where Orr was scheduled to talk about the problems nonprofits were facing at the time, wrote in 2003: “Before Orr, the keynote speaker, got to their problems, she knew she had to deal with one of her own — the severely declining fortunes of the Packard Foundation. Anticipating the question everyone asks her these days, Orr flashed to a PowerPoint slide reading, ‘Why didn’t you sell your HP stock at the top of the market?’ Her answer: ‘Because Father asked us to hold on to it.'”
In 2003, the board authorized the diversification of the Foundation’s stock portfolio to reduce the risk of volatility.
Giving globally, giving locally
Orr said even with the Foundation’s global expansion, giving back to the local community remains a priority.
“We made a very conscious decision that we were going to have a local program,” Orr said. “We’re all in the area still. We’re still part of this community, so that’s part of it. But the other part of it is this is the community where HP originated and grew, and the community has a lot of issues associated to what’s happened in the Silicon Valley … and so we feel a responsibility to use a part of that money to assist those (here).”
Orr said many of today’s young tech founders are giving, but not necessarily locally. About 90 percent of giving goes elsewhere, according to results from “The Giving Code,” a 2016 report commissioned by the Foundation to look at state of Silicon Valley philanthropy.
“The young wealthy people get criticized for not being philanthropic but actually a lot of them are,” she said. “You know they are big-idea people, and so they have a ‘We’re gonna change the world attitude’ because that’s what they did with their companies, and so doing the small-sized grants in the local area isn’t so interesting. Is it going to change the world? No. It’s going to change the lives for some people.”
Through its local grant-making program, the Packard Foundation gives about 30 percent of its grants to local organizations working to improve the arts, children’s causes, conservation, science, food and shelter, and reproductive health in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties.
The Foundation earlier this year contributed $2.25 million to find creative solutions to the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis. Silicon Valley at Home, which received $1.5 million, and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, which received $750,000, are working to bring down construction costs, expand opportunities to free up more land for housing and promote policies and programs that make development possible. Last July, the Foundation also contributed $5 million to the Housing Trust Silicon Valley to provide loans to affordable-housing developers with the goal of creating 10,000 affordable homes over the next decade.
According to the Foundation, nonprofit leaders put housing at the top of urgent issues facing the region.
“It’s kind of frustrating because there’s money to do something about it, but no one’s willing to build buildings. You have to go through the process to find land, and that’s a hard one,” she said, especially in Palo Alto where there’s not a lot of open space to begin with to build thousands of homes. There needs to be a more regional approach, she added.
The precise moment when Orr became interested in nonprofit work is difficult to pin down. Philanthropy and charity work were always a large part of her family’s daily life. Her father grew up during The Great Depression and instilled in his children the importance of giving back to the community.
Her mother was a consummate volunteer. She spent her days out in the community stuffing envelopes, baking cookies and driving ill children to doctors’ appointments. Her children watched her work evolve into the Children’s Hospital at Stanford.
“She was out in the community all of the time. We have lots of memories of her volunteering. I remember my sister used to say, ‘We all thought she had a full-time job, but she didn’t. She was volunteering,'” Orr said.
Orr took her seat on the Packard Foundation board alongside her two older siblings when she turned 21. Her father made certain that each of his children would be able to take their seat on the foundation at age 21 by including a stipulation in the bylaws when he formed the foundation a few years earlier.
“I am the third born and so it just seemed the natural thing to do,” Orr said. “We all knew it was going to happen.”
Orr said in the early days, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to distribute. In the first year, foundation contributions totaled only $17,000, and most of that money was given to charities headed by people Lucile knew personally.
“Mother was the one in charge. She was very active and did her homework,” Orr said.
The family would sit around the dining room table in their Los Altos Hills home looking over proposals, Orr recalled. The process was very informal and relaxed.
“There was (a) folder about each proposal that came in, and the folders got passed around the table, and we made our decisions,” she said.
Orr carved out her own career in the nonprofit world shortly after forming a computer consulting firm in the 1980s. She was doing consulting work at the nonprofit Hidden Villa farm in Los Altos Hills when she discovered that many nonprofits in the area lacked any reliable way of tracking and managing their donations and donors. She said most software programs at that time were developed for private schools, not nonprofit organizations. While at Hidden Villa, other nonprofits approached Orr asking her if she could help them.
“That was kind of the ‘aha moment,'” she said, when her computer consulting evolved into nonprofit support services.
Orr developed software exclusively for nonprofit groups and launched Telosa Software in 1986 with the goal of helping mid-size nonprofits, such as Ronald McDonald House Charities and The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, track their fundraising. Last spring, Telosa merged with Florida-based DonorCommunity Inc. with the goal of offering nonprofits a way to streamline all of their donors’ activities. The new joint venture, Arreva Software, combines Telosa’s donor-relationship management software with DonorCommunity’s online fundraising platform. She said the merger means Arreva users can now collect online donations, set up and manage event and volunteer registration, record pledges and memberships, oversee grants, and track all of their activities through one database. Entrepreneur David Blyer, who is president and CEO of Arreva, said with Orr’s background as a computer scientist and leader in the nonprofit sector, he can think of no one better to work with on this venture.
“She was brought up in (a) very philanthropic manner and really understands it, ” he said. “She just drives the social consciousness of what we do. The knowledge that she has … you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
The company’s headquarters is in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but Orr will keep the Palo Alto office where she’s continuing to develop software programs for the company.
“Technically, I’m called the chairman, but I’m also a programmer,” she said. “Yesterday, I found a bug and fixed it.”
With the recent completion of the new Packard Children’s Hospital and a new generation at the helm of the Foundation, Orr is putting more focus on another of her passions — birds. She stepped down from the hospital board in December and joined the National Audubon Society’s board of directors and is serving as chair of the Global Advisory Group for BirdLife International.
“Because Susan has done such a good job in nurturing this next generation of family trustees, there will be very little impact on the Foundation’s work as she steps down,” Larson said. “She and her sisters are still members of the board, so we are fortunate that our board will continue to benefit from her opinions and experience.”