Wallis Annenberg

The Builder

“It sometimes seems as if Wallis Annenberg is single-handedly funding L.A., with all the community projects, art centers, and medical buildings that bear her name,” Vanity Fair commented recently. Yet what sets Wallis apart from other philanthropists isn’t just her willingness to make large, catalytic grants to established organizations, it is her enthusiasm for building projects from the ground up.


There is one other way Wallis is a master builder: she is committed to building the capacity of nonprofit leaders and other visionaries to succeed and make an impact in their communities. She has a remarkable ability to spot talent, and one central goal of her giving is to pave the way for others to reach their goals.



As the only surviving child of Ambassador Walter Annenberg, founder of the Annenberg Foundation, many assumed Wallis eventually would take the reins, though she did not officially become president of the foundation until her stepmother, Leonore Annenberg, passed away in 2009.


The Annenberg Foundation was established in 1989 with $1.2 billion, one-third of the assets from the sale of Triangle Publications. Walter Annenberg was a newspaper and magazine publisher, broadcast pioneer and former Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Great Britain. His philanthropic work included building schools of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. He endowed chairs at more than a dozen colleges, and he made major gifts to support the arts, presidential libraries, hospitals, orchestras and museums.


With this remarkable precedent, the question was not if Wallis would become a substantial giver, but how she would give. One of the first actions she took as the new president was to elevate three of her children from foundation trustees to co-directors and vice presidents. By including her children in foundation decision-making and by providing them the opportunity to recommend grants of their own, Wallis is continuing the theme of building – this time, building the capacity of her children to become sophisticated, thoughtful philanthropists.


“Wallis is one of only a handful of philanthropists committed to creating or transforming public spaces in a city that needs a variety of accessible places for people to meet each other, play, and learn. Michael Govan, the Wallis Annenberg Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, told Vanity Fair magazine that Wallis has “that sense of big, civic, long-term investments.”


One example is the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, California. When the former beachfront estate of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies was slated for potential commercial development, Wallis stepped in with a $27.5 million grant to save it and transform it into a public beach house with all of the amenities of a “club” but free general admission to the public. By doing so, she showed her willingness to take challenges that often scare off more timid funders. She was willing put in the first money, she was willing to work alongside local government, and she was willing to take a chance on a model that wasn’t tried and true.


The result is a unique gift to the people of the Los Angeles region. For a modest fee, visitors can grab a chaise lounge and relax around the Julia Morgan-designed pool – just as Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst and their guests did many years ago. There is no other place like it on the West Coast.


A Diverse Portfolio

The Beach House is only one example of the type of visionary community space that Wallis has given to the people of Southern California. She and her foundation have also launched the following projects:


◆The Annenberg Space for Photography is the first cultural destination devoted solely to photography in the Los Angeles area.


◆The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills will preserve the landmark, historic Beverly Hills Post Office by transforming the building into a facility for the presentation of theater, dance, music and other cultural activities.


While Wallis and her foundation are known for large, catalytic gifts, she has also approved grants to a great number of organizations, large and small, in Los Angeles and around the world. Since the foundation’s inception, more than 6,700 grants totaling roughly $4 billion have been awarded to nearly 2,000 nonprofit organizations. The foundation’s priority areas have been education and youth development; the arts, culture and humanities; civic and community life; health and human services; and animal services and the environment.


Also under Wallis’s leadership, the Foundation has created a program called Alchemy, whose mission is to inspire nonprofit organizations to greater effectiveness through the development of its leaders. While many nonprofit leadership programs exist, what makes Alchemy unique is its requirement that both the organization’s executive director and board chair participate. This “price of admission” has ensured that organizations leave the training on the same page, with similar goals, and a shared vision for how they will succeed.



The foundation’s impact on its grantees and the communities they support is immense. And while anecdotal evidence has shown an increase in the fundraising capacity of organizations involved with Alchemy, the benefit of the foundation’s capacity-building programs will take many years to see.

However, it is easy to show the impact of The Wallis Annenberg Heart Program, supported by a $3 million grant from the foundation to the American Heart Association. Coordinating with private and public healthcare entities, the new system helps paramedics assess and monitor patients with symptoms of heart attacks. Implemented in 2005, the new method replaced outdated equipment with a more accurate and revealing approach. Previously only available in hospitals, the upgraded system is estimated to save thousands of lives in Los Angeles each year and allow paramedics in the field to determine in two minutes whether the patient is experiencing an acute heart attack.


Providing a Healthy, Strong, Solid Foundation

Wallis Annenberg’s giving truly acts as a foundation in every sense. For capital projects, it provides the necessary structure that is the first and most important step, and it allows the building to move ahead safely and securely. Her giving provides a foundation for individuals and community-based organizations in the form of capacity-building opportunities. And she has provided a foundation for the next generation of Annenberg family members to learn about and experience the promises and challenges of philanthropy.


In a metropolis that is still being built, Wallis is challenging the next generation to take extraordinary steps to substantially improve their communities. And she has provided an example for future philanthropists by showing that private philanthropy has the ability to be nimble, take chances, and test ideas. Her commitment to building the nonprofit leadership in Los Angeles will undoubtedly be critical to the city’s future success. Like a building’s foundation, this work will be unseen, but it will provide the necessary base for others to build a strong, innovative, successful sector that helps communities for decades to come.




Colacello, Bob. Vanity Fair. October 2009. http://www.vanityfair.com/style/features/2009/10/wallis-annenberg200910