News and analysis
January 12, 2017

Helen Diller Fund Gives $500 Million for Biomedical Research, With Few Strings Attached

Family photo
When Helen Diller learned how hard it was for public universities to get government grants, she decided to devote much of her philanthropy to scientists at all stages of their careers.
The Helen Diller Foundation has given $500 million to the University of California at San Francisco, including a $100 million pot with no restrictions beyond advancing biomedical research.

The remaining $400 million of the donation announced Thursday will support faculty, staff, and students in various medical fields

The entire pledge is relatively, and unusually, unrestricted, university officials said in a news release.

By the time she died in 2015, Ms. Diller had spent more than two years working closely with the university to finalize plans for the donation, her daughter, Jackie Safier, told The Chronicle.

The $100 million pool, dubbed the "Innovation Fund," is particularly noteworthy for the lack of strings attached. It can be tapped at the discretion of the chancellor.

The other $400 million will support the university’s endowment, boosting the $2.25 billion fund by 18 percent. Half the money is targeted at faculty for teaching and research; the other $200 million will back students in the dentistry, medicine, nursing, and pharmacy schools.

"Those three components were what she thought were most important," said Ms. Safier. "She saw that in a rapidly evolving world of science things move quickly, and she wanted to give UCSF this tool to move rapidly and achieve great things."

Late Bloomers

Ms. Diller’s husband, Sanford, who lives in the Bay Area, founded Prometheus Real Estate Group in 1965. The couple built the company into one of San Francisco’s biggest privately owned real-estate developers, making them billionaires.

Ms. Safier said despite their riches, her parents were always private, low-key people. They were also late bloomers as philanthropists, she said, with Ms. Diller turning her focus to giving once her three children were grown.

"She always used to say, ‘It’s never too late, too early, or too often’ to give back," said Ms. Safier.

Ms. Diller supported the arts and Jewish causes but devoted most of her attention to education.

A product of Bay Area public schools and the University of California at Berkeley, she gave to programs that helped public-school students at all levels, from preschool to college. She put a special focus on helping teenagers, an age group she thought was overlooked in philanthropy circles, her daughter said.

Ms. Diller created the Diller Teen Fellows, a leadership program for Jewish 10th and 11th graders from Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa, and the United States; and the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a program that gives out $36,000 apiece to 10 teens a year who have started volunteer service projects.

Scientific research caught her attention in later years. Ms. Safier said that once her mother started learning about the struggle public universities face in landing government research grants, she decided to step into the fray and devote a large sum to support scientists at all stages in their careers.

Said Ms. Safier: "She very much considered all of this a privilege and a responsibility."

To learn about other big donations, see our database of gifts of $1 million or more, which is updated throughout the week.

Send an email to Maria Di Mento.