Peter deCourcy Hero, who transformed Silicon Valley philanthropy, has died

Influential leader grew local foundation from $9 million to $1.2 billion in assets

The man who was instrumental in helping tech tycoons channel their millions to charitable giving, Peter deCourcy Hero, has died, his family has confirmed. He was 73.

Hero died in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, Aug. 22, of esophageal cancer, according to an email Monday from Emmett Carson, CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

When Hero, a Stanford University MBA graduate, took over the Community Foundation of Santa Clara County in 1988, he inherited an organization with a mere $9 million in assets, according to a 2000 Fortune Magazine story about his work. By the time he stepped down as president and CEO in 2006, the organization was shepherding $1.2 billion, said longtime associate Greg Avis, a partner at Summit Partners, who was chairman of the foundation's board.

Hero told Fortune that Silicon Valley's young millionaires and billionaires initially did not have a culture or a tradition of charitable giving. Up until then, philanthropists on the eastern seaboard served as models of philanthropy, and their style of donations largely entailed giving away their money through bequests and gifts at the end of their lives.

So the former executive at Spice Islands and president of the Maine College of Art spearheaded a sea change in philanthropic giving.

"A big part of what he believed was that if your worth didn't have social impact, then what was the point? He was a catalyst for modern-day philanthropy in Silicon Valley," said his son, Chris Hero.

"Building those relationships with tech leaders, he figured out how to engage them and leverage the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of Silicon Valley with solving our most pressing community problems. That's really his legacy: figuring out how to engage and build a culture that didn't exist before," he said.

Rather than restricting donated monies for designated purposes, such as college endowments, the Community Foundation staff set about to acquire "unrestricted" funds that could be used for any charitable purpose, Avis said. In that way, Hero built a staff highly focused on serving its donors and their charitable goals, he said.

The foundation gave donors dedicated staff to build "portfolios" of nonprofit groups to which their funds might be given, and it became a center where donors could also learn about philanthropy.

"Peter was a visionary. He was very likeable and an excellent fundraiser. He really believed in what he was doing and he was able to attract money from people around him. He was willing to be innovative and work with wealthy donors on complex philanthropic structures," Avis said.

"He made it safe to be a philanthropist and was very donor-focused. When a donor called, he always picked up the phone."

Hero started his job with the foundation when the tech industry was taking off, his son said. Someone had to help create a culture of giving with the new wealth, using it to address the area's most pressing concerns, such as affordable housing and poverty.

"It struck me how all of those issues have come back to the forefront with this latest cycle. He taught people to not look at these issues as a drag onto our society but an opportunity to bring the whole society up," he said.

Silicon Valley executives and heads of philanthropic foundations Monday remembered Hero as a dynamic and creative person who was dedicated to helping Silicon Valley executives realize ways to make the most of their giving. He was on the board of directors of the Skoll Foundation.

"Peter will forever be my hero and original philanthropic mentor. Always innovative and entrepreneurial himself, he went along with the idea of using pre-IPO stock to establish the eBay Foundation at what was then Community Foundation Silicon Valley. He brought me to my first philanthropic events, where I met Bill Gates, Bill Gates Sr., and Bill Strickland. He introduced me to Steve Kirsch -- who was the first to advise me to start my own foundation -- and Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, who created (again at CFSV) SV2, Silicon Valley Social Venture," said Jeff Skoll, first president of eBay and founder of the philanthropic Skoll Foundation.

Sally Osberg, Skoll Foundation CEO, said that Hero's pioneering role in cultivating an innovative culture for philanthropy in Silicon Valley was in a class by itself.

"He liked to say that we're not attracted to problems here, we're attracted to solutions -- and no one saw those solutions as clearly as Peter," she said.

Osberg said she was one of hundreds of nonprofit leaders Hero befriended over the years, starting from when she was with the Children's Discovery Museum and through her work at Skoll.

"We have been blessed by Peter's continued service on the Skoll Foundation board -- a period spanning more than 30 years. I am overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for Peter's life. No one worked more tirelessly to ensure this valley becomes a place where all its people flourish," she wrote in an email.

Hero re-branded the Community Foundation of Santa Clara County as the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, then oversaw its 2006 merger with San Mateo County-based Peninsula Community Foundation to become Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Avis recalled that without Hero the groundwork would not have been laid for the merger. He was magnanimous -- first working to make the merger possible and then stepping aside.

"It was his baby, and he was willing to part with it for the greater good of the community," Avis said.

Hero then served as special adviser to current CEO Emmett Carson until his retirement in 2008. Carson remembered him on Monday.

"I knew Peter Hero for over 20 years. He was an amazing leader of Community Foundation Silicon Valley for 18 years. Peter has left an important legacy of local community engagement and national philanthropic leadership," Carson said.

Hero grew up on the East Coast and attended Williams College. He received his masters in Business Administration from the Stanford University School of Business. He attended a preparatory school in Colorado, his son said.

After Silicon Valley Community Foundation, he went on to become the founder and principal of The Hero Group, which focuses on social investment and high-impact philanthropy. The company created a social-impact investment option for the National Philanthropic Trust, a three-year strategic plan for Stanford University's d.School, strategy for a $30 million National Forest Endowment Fund for the Portland nonprofit Ecotrust, and worked with Santa Clara University to bring together Silicon Valley donors in a two-year philanthropy initiative.

"He saw impact investing as a very important component to 21st-century philanthropy," his son said. "He never stopped working, partially because he never lost his curiosity of how he could make a positive impact in the community."

Hero also inspired his children.

"He taught us to give back to the community. It's a legacy with his family and with his children," Chris Hero said.

His latest and greatest passions were his two granddaughters.

"He was a super-devoted grandfather. He was on the board of Sesame Street for many years, which came in handy for baby gifts," his son said.

Hero is survived by his wife, Bonnie; his children Christopher, Alexander and Molly; and grandchildren Harper Hero and Isla Richmond.

No services are currently planned.

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5 people like this
Posted by Perla Ni
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2016 at 9:47 pm

He was an inspiring leader and mentor to so many of us. We will sorely miss him.

5 people like this
Posted by Kathy Thibodeaux
a resident of Waverly Park
on Aug 23, 2016 at 2:48 pm

Kathy Thibodeaux is a registered user.

I really enjoyed working with Peter and he will be missed deeply.

7 people like this
Posted by Catherine Brown
a resident of another community
on Aug 23, 2016 at 4:42 pm

This is just a message from Australia where Peter Hero has been an inspiration to community foundations for 20 years. He has mentored many of us and has always encouraged us to ensure that community foundations support innovation - to be the venture capital providers for the not for profit sector. I was fortunate to interview him late last year for my PhD research into innovation and philanthropic foundations. I will always treasure his wise advice. He was a wonderful role model and we will miss him "down under".
Catherine Brown
Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation (Melbourne)

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