How Multiple Generations of the Disney Family Come Together to Fund Social Justice in LA and Beyond
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series on the many forms of family philanthropy, in partnership with the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and produced by Inside Philanthropy’s editorial team.
It all began at Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in October 1923. Here, bright young cartoonist Walt Disney and his older brother Roy O. Disney established the upstart studio in Hollywood, California. Walt arrived in Los Angeles from the Midwest after his previous effort, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, went bankrupt. But in sunny Southern California, the brothers found great success, starting with the short film “Alice’s Wonderland,” and then “Steamboat Willie”—which unleashed Mickey Mouse to the world.
Today, the Walt Disney Company boasts some 200,000 employees worldwide with revenues exceeding $67 billion, according to Disney’s annual report for the fiscal year 2021. More recently, Disney has emerged as a major television streaming player powered by Disney Plus and Star Wars sensation “The Mandalorian.”
As for how much the Disney family is worth these days, that’s not entirely clear. According to Walt Disney’s grand-nephew, Roy Patrick Disney, Walt and Roy owned about 20% of the company by 1960 and today the whole family owns less than 3% of it. Most of the family has stayed out of the business.
Many members of the Disney clan have engaged in some significant philanthropy over the years, starting with late matriarch Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, who helped launch what would become the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with an initial gift of $50 million all the way back in 1987. The venue opened in Downtown Los Angeles in 2003.
Then there’s other branches of the Disney family tree. Roy’s son, Roy E. Disney was a longtime Disney senior executive, and had four children—Susan, Roy P., Tim and Abigail. Now in their 60s, they engage in philanthropy at various levels.
Perhaps the most public Disney philanthropist, Abigail Disney, said she had given away around $70 million as of 2019. She and her husband Pierre founded the Daphne Foundation, which focuses on empowering disenfranchised New Yorkers affected by poverty, violence, and discrimination. Tim Disney, a writer, producer and investor, runs the Adamma Foundation (meaning “beautiful child” in the Nigerian language of Igbo) with his ex-wife Neda, which has similar aims as Daphne but focused on Los Angeles.
And then there’s Susan Disney Lord, mother of five and owner of The Bel-Air, a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles. She’s board chair of the Roy + Patricia Disney Family Foundation (RPDFF), a multi-generational family philanthropy that has upwards of a dozen members of the Disney clan involved in decision-making. The foundation supports a combination of criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and environmental issues in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Tacoma, Washington, and gives around $6 million annually.
In a recent interview with Susan Disney Lord and RPDFF Executive Director Shaun Escoffery, I learned more about how Susan and her siblings directed a large bequest toward philanthropy, how the foundation evolved to focus on social justice, and leadership at the foundation, which includes family members, non-family, and a small staff.
A philanthropic start
Daughter of Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, and Patricia Ann Daley, Susan Disney Lord’s earliest experience in philanthropy was working as a candy striper hospital volunteer while in high school, which she really enjoyed. Looming above was the family’s foundation, launched in the 1960s by her grandfather Roy O. Disney.
Susan recalls that when her grandfather passed, her parents began to steer the foundation, focusing on causes personally important to them. The foundation was small and unstaffed. “My father generally gave to what he cared about,” Susan says.
But soon enough, the foundation became a family affair. As she and her siblings each turned 18, they were brought on to the board and allowed to make small annual grants of $10,000 to causes of their choosing. Susan immediately rallied around the cause of supporting a children’s hospital, and says that’s where a bunch of her gifts went for a while.
Around 2000, when Roy E. Disney was in his 60s, Susan and her siblings began to fully steer the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation. Still, as she and her siblings took more control, some of their interests overlapped with their father’s, especially a passion for the environment. For example, the Disney Conservation Fund, since 1995, has directed $100 million to support nonprofit organizations including International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
“Time to get serious”
Donors ramp up their philanthropy for many reasons. Sometimes it happens when a couple retire from business and have more bandwidth for other projects. In the case of Susan and her siblings, the inflection point came when their mother Patricia passed away in 2012, and left what Susan calls a good deal of money. Susan had been board chair since the 1990s, and so was tasked with hiring staff and really getting serious about how the family conducted their giving.
Their founding CEO, Sylia Obagi, now works at the Arthur M. Blank Foundation. But Susan credits Obagi with “creating something out of nothing,” and helping establish a set of values, rules and regulations. Susan and her siblings also used this moment to bring their children aboard, much like they were involved with the foundation from their teenage years.
“It’s brought them all in and helped them become educated in philanthropy, even more so than I had been. And I’m really proud of that. They’re all extremely engaged at this point. It’s been maybe eight years now,” Susan says.
In the early days of their revamped foundation, Susan says it was sort of a case of learning as they grew. The younger generation are much more sophisticated now with several stepping up to the board of directors. Olivia and Charlotte, Abigail Disney’s daughters, are on the board of directors and Kim (Roy P’s daughter) and Megan (Susan’s daughter), have been active on the board of directors. Early on, though, Susan says it was a matter of finding a “sweet spot” as far as what the family would collectively focus on.
Today, RPDFF’s small staff includes Executive Director Shawn Escoffery, who once worked at the Surdna Foundation. He joined the foundation in 2018 and Susan credits him with helping make the family’s joint vision cohere.
A three-pronged focus
RPDFF states that its mission is to “invest in innovative solutions and community leaders to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable world in which all people thrive.” The foundation takes a place-based approach to grantmaking, focusing on multi-year general and project-level support, pilot projects, and capacity-building initiatives.
A major geographic focus area for the foundation is Los Angeles, which of course looms large for the Disney family. In L.A., the foundation focuses on at-risk communities in South and East Los Angeles. RPDFF’s grantmaking also touches New Orleans and Tacoma—secondary markets, as the foundation describes them—where other Disney family members have personal ties.
“We all believe that change has to be driven locally and that locally, people know what their community needs are better than any of us could say. I think that’s where the answers come. From right there on the ground and the places where the people are affected the most,” Susan explains.
This social justice lens, which focuses on strategic and systems-level interventions and putting power in the hands of its grantees, took some time to evolve toward, and is animated by several forces. As Susan tells it, this work is really driven by next generation family members who are now in their 20s and a few in their 30s. “They have really awakened because of the political climate and the election a few years ago,” she says.
She also mentions the influence of her sister, Abigail, an active philanthropist and documentary filmmaker who has been increasingly outspoken on political issues. “I’m kind of a lefty, New York City, Manhattan, pointy-headed intellectual type,” Abigail Disney said in an interview in 2019.
Abigail starred in a “NowThis” video voicing her opposition to tax breaks for the wealthy and has used her personal Twitter account to take on Trump. And her film “The Armor of Light,” tells the story of an anti-abortion activist and Evangelical minister who becomes an unlikely activist for gun control.
Abigail’s children, Susan says, were more steeped in the world of philanthropy. “They thought about these things earlier on in life. And so they were always able to add things to the conversation. But all of the kids do care a lot. They don’t want to see injustice. They want to do what they can,” she says.
This shift toward a more progressive outlook is not unique to the Disney family and can be seen in wealthy American families across the country. As the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of a family inherit wealth or a family foundation, they get to decide what traditions to keep, and what new virtues to uphold. That often, though not always, translates to a shift toward concerns over social justice and equality.
The foundation’s three focus areas are brought together by the idea of civic empowerment, understanding that systemic change can only be accomplished through grassroots power building, shifts in political representation and public policy, and ensuring equitable access to resources and influence.
RPDFF’s criminal justice reform portfolio has included Anti-Recidivism Coalition and JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030. On the environmental justice front, grantees have included East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. And its affordable housing preservation portfolio backs organizations like East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), a neighborhood-based development organization focusing on social and economic justice.
ELACC helped organize on the ground work to respond to the construction of the Gold Line Metro rail in Los Angeles. Cutting through the Boyle Heights neighborhood, local residents were concerned that land and property would be lost.
“We went from hearing from Metro that there wouldn’t be affordable housing to now every single lot that Metro owns in Boyle Heights already has or will have affordable housing,” explained Isela Gracian, ELACC president.
The foundation is also part of a public-private partnership that includes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, focused on a pilot program preserving affordable housing and preventing foreclosures of rental properties in South Los Angeles. If successful, this is a model they hope to bring to all of Los Angeles County.
Giving at home and abroad
Most of the Disney family resides in the Los Angeles area. Patricia was born in New Orleans, where several of Susan’s nieces live. Another niece lives in Tacoma, Washington, influencing giving in that region. In the past, grantmaking also touched New York.
“We try to make sure everyone feels included. That’s part of this whole thing, working with the family, and everyone joining together and making sure they’re being heard,” Susan says.
The foundation also has a unique, time-limited initiative located in Nairobi, Kenya, which is just now wrapping up. The story here, in part, involves Abigail Disney again, who along with her two daughters, Wesleyan alumnae, connected with Kennedy Odede. A Wesleyan man himself, Odede founded Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a grassroots movement that works in urban slums across Kenya, setting up and running a free school for girls, providing access to clean water and medical care, and helping individuals start small businesses.
Later, a number of Disney family members traveled to the African country.
“My sister [Abigail] actually took all of my kids to Kibera slum, getting down and dirty building latrines while they were there. It was a great experience for them. And Kennedy is such a dynamic and brilliant guy and his wife, as well. So we’ve remained loyal to him. We believe in what he’s doing and that he needs to be able to ramp it up,” Susan says.
RPDFF Executive Director Shawn Escoffery mentions that next year, the foundation is looking to launch a new international program, likely focusing elsewhere in the Global South.
“Over the next couple of months we’ll be meeting with a couple of intermediaries.… We’re looking for places where we can have impact and where our investment can be catalytic,” Escoffery says.
Philanthropy and social justice
I talked to Susan Disney Lord and Shawn Escoffery the very same morning that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted, which prompted the question of how philanthropy could be a better ally to social justice.
Susan believes that in addition to listening to voices on the ground, and making local grants in communities, philanthropy also needs to focus on leveraging collective power.
“Anyone working together in advocacy should work together, because your voice just gets louder,” she adds.
The foundation has also tried to make the application process more user friendly so that nonprofits—those vital grassroots organizations on the ground—are less encumbered by paperwork. And once an organization receives a grant, the foundation has tried to reduce the burden of reporting.
In addition, Susan mentioned a program they ran this year that allowed some of their partners and community members to decide where some of the foundation’s money would go. This is a growing trend in philanthropies of all shapes and sizes as more donors seek to share power with participatory giving practices.
“We just got feedback at our last board meeting. It was interesting to hear from them about how it opened their eyes about how challenging it is from the foundation point of view. Obviously, we know they have unique challenges, too.… We’re probably going to do it again next year,” Susan says.
Down in NOLA, and keeping ears to the ground
The Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation also works down in New Orleans, where Escoffery once served as deputy director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC), a community organizing, planning and housing development organization focused on post- Katrina neighborhood revitalization.
The foundation is partnering with JP Morgan Chase and a housing group, working with small landlords and property owners to preserve affordability and create affordable housing districts.
“It’s another sort of old industrial city,” Escoffery says of New Orleans, adding, “It has the constant start-stop caused by natural disasters. But for the most part it is a very resilient city that’s always focused on trying to be better.”
Escoffery also mentions the Los Angeles Local Rental Owners Collaborative (LROC), a pilot program which offers qualifying owners comprehensive benefits like short-term rental relief grants combined with long-term financial consulting services, technology tools, and property management resources. LROC is a cross-sector collaborative which includes RPDFF, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD), and others.
Overall, the foundation makes a point of maintaining a presence in the communities that it serves, whether that is South and East Los Angeles, New Orleans, or Tacoma. Escoffery says he personally shows up to random events in Los Angeles over the weekend, not representing the foundation but just as a community member.
“We want to do everything we can to address power imbalances between grantmakers and grantseekers.… We do a lot more listening than we do talking. It’s about listening to community members and nonprofits, and believing and really hearing what they’re saying,” Escoffery says.
A lean structure, balancing input, and reflecting
Joining Escoffery are a handful of other staff members, including a grants manager and program officer. RPDFF also runs a fellowship program, now in its second year, where the formerly incarcerated are actually staffed at the foundation. This year, the foundation partnered with Project Rebound at California State University Northridge for the fellowship and next year the foundation will pull in a fellow from A New Way of Life, which works with formerly incarcerated women.
With so many family members involved, governance of such a family foundation can be a tricky affair.
Escoffery explained how it operates. RPDFF actually has two boards. Its fiduciary board includes seven people—five family members and two non-family members—and a member board that family members can opt in or out of on an annual basis. This past year, the foundation had 12 active family members total, along with the two non-family members. Members meet at least three times a year and approve all of the grants during those meetings after a presentation by staff. These meetings are well attended, usually at 100%.
Staff present the grants docket and members ask clarifying questions. There’s also a learning component to each meeting where an outside guest speaks. Typically staff update the members on finances and impact investing work as well. Members then host an executive session without staff to end the meeting.
Since the pandemic, the foundation has been meeting virtually. Escoffery has also added a fun activity to each meeting, like a baking or pottery class.
Susan added that she can’t recall an instance where staff brought something to the board that was denied. While board meetings do cover things like financials, leadership spend most of their time talking about grants, she explains. “We know everything that’s been brought to us has been carefully curated and investigated.”
She also says the foundation plans on keeping this lean structure, because that means more money that can be put toward supporting their grantees.
Reflecting on what the foundation has accomplished so far, Susan recalls that their inaugural executive director Sylia Obagi brought in Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). One formerly incarcerated individual, Kent Mendoza, spoke and moved the entire room, including Susan and her children. Years later, the foundation made a grant to ARC, bringing in Tommy Morris Jr., another formerly incarcerated man, to work as a fellow at RPDFF for a year.
“Tommy is amazing and he just got a new job at Liberty Hill Foundation. He was a kid who was lost, who wanted to set his life in a better direction.… He was a sponge, just so eager. And now he’s launched a career in the nonprofit world. I can’t think of anything that we’re more proud of than that.”
Susan also reflects on the progress that her own children have made in philanthropy, reminding me that at this point, her own children, and her siblings’ children, far outnumber them in terms of leadership.
“My brother and sister and I really want them to take this on one day and run it. And that’s the vision my mother had. And it’s come to fruition…. We really do take our cue from them,” Susan says.
Ade Adeniji is a journalist at Inside Philanthropy
The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.