Meet Thomas E. Backer, PhD

Thomas E. Backer, PhD is founder and Co-Executive Director of Valley Nonprofit Resources (VNR), which since 2007 has been providing technical assistance, education and information services to the 4,300 nonprofits in the San Fernando Valley. VNR is based at California State University Northridge, where he also is Senior Research Fellow. Dr. Backer also is a long-time Board member of the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City.

What is your connection to the Community Foundation of the Valleys, and how long have you been in the Valley?

I’m on the Community Foundation of the Valley’s Advisory Board, and in May 2023 Valley Nonprofit Resources partnered with CFV on a convening attended by more than 175 San Fernando Valley nonprofit and philanthropic leaders. It was held at Valley College and featured as speakers Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and Weingart Foundation CEO Miguel Santana. I also have several times nominated Valley nonprofits to receive small grants from CFV.

I was a 6-year-old in Reseda for a year, and I have lived in the same house in the hills of Sherman Oaks for 44 years – so I’m about as much of a Valley boy as I can be without actually having been born here! I started VNR because I wanted to be of service to the community in which I live – and I am so pleased that over the years it has become a valuable resource for nonprofits and foundations in the San Fernando Valley. The Valley has a vigorous nonprofit sector, and VNR also provides ways of bringing it together through our educational workshops, convenings like the May 2023 one at Valley College, and our website and monthly eBlasts.

What interested you in philanthropy and nonprofits?

I was originally trained as a clinical psychologist at UCLA, but while still a student I came to work for the Human Interaction Research Institute, a nonprofit which for 53 years did research on how nonprofits handle innovation and change. I ended up being CEO of the Institute for 30 years, and doing a lot of research both for government agencies and foundations, to help them make better decisions about allocating their resources to nonprofits. As the philanthropic sector became more organized and professional in the late 1980s, the Institute was one of the research pioneers in studying such important topics as how foundations can support nonprofit capacity building, how innovative programs funded by foundations can be implemented more widely, and how advisors to wealthy donors can improve philanthropic practice.

My activities now include administering a permanent endowment at California State University Northridge, which provides grants to faculty in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences to do research on the nonprofit sector and on philanthropy. Forty grants have been awarded to date, to support research on topics ranging from how to develop a Valley-wide network of museums, archives and other cultural institutions; to a comparison of Chinese philanthropy in China and in the US. The endowment was funded by a gift to the University in 2014, made from the reserves of the Human Interaction Research Institute when it closed that year. As a member of Southern California Grantmakers, I’ve learned a great deal about how even a relatively small endowment giving out only a handful of grants each year can have real impact.

What are the unique challenges of Valley giving and how can we overcome them?

So many donors and foundations (there are 575 of them in VNR’s Platform searchable database) give more to nonprofits and causes outside the Valley than to Valley-based nonprofits – the San Fernando Valley is a “net exporter” of philanthropic resources. This is partly because many successful Valley nonprofits are relatively unknown to the philanthropic community. There are few organizations or media outlets that help to promote the work of nonprofits located in the San Fernando Valley, and it has proved challenging to get non-Valley foundations or individual donors to pay attention to Valley nonprofits. For instance, several programs co-sponsored by VNR and Southern California Grantmakers have attracted only a small number of philanthropic attendees from outside the Valley.

What are your hopes for the Community Foundation of the Valleys going forward?

The May 2023 CFV-VNR convening at Valley College is, I hope, just the first of a number of events that the two organizations – with other partners in the Valley – can produce to increase the visibility and impact of Valley nonprofits. Recently, supported by a grant from Amazon, VNR brought together a dozen nonprofit networking groups to explore how they can help best bring together and serve Valley nonprofits, including possibilities for collaboration among the groups. Information about these groups is being shared through the 20th annual edition of VNR’s Resource Directory for Nonprofit Capacity Building in Los Angeles County. The Directory will shortly be available for free download from VNR’s website.

I also hope for more opportunities to nominate worthy Valley nonprofits to receive grants from CFV, either through their direct grant programs, or through Donor Advised Funds placed at CFV. And over time nonprofits in the San Fernando Valley (and the Santa Clarita Valley, which CFV also serves) will come to regard CFV as a leader in bringing together donors, foundations, nonprofits and community groups to increase the impact of nonprofits serving the two million residents of the San Fernando Valley.