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Saint Daniel's Fire

Melissa Griffin Caen | December 6, 2013 | Story Profiles

For someone so deeply connected to the city’s ruling elite, Daniel Lurie is an uncomfortable interview subject. He’s every bit the shy, nervous rabbi’s son, whose studious look and medium build—his friend and colleague NFL legend Ronnie Lott affectionately calls him a “wannabe athlete in a Billy Crystal body”—belie his relentless drive. He has no hobbies aside from work. And he appears deeply embarrassed when asked to talk about himself. “I probably think at times that I didn’t deserve all the great things I got growing up,” he tells me. But behind the fidgety, self-effacing exterior lie an enthusiasm and a depth of focus that have made the 36-year-old the city’s most dialed-in philanthropist. “Daniel has the heart of the most empathetic NGO worker and the brain of a CEO, and it is that combination that makes him so effective,” says a childhood friend, Trevor Traina.

Lurie’s magic was on display on May 2, when his nonprofit, Tipping Point Community, raised a record $8.5 million during its annual gala on Pier 48. (Previous cochairs of the event include A-list tech couples Ron and Gayle Conway and Marissa Mayer and Zachary Bogue.) Three weeks later, Lurie’s fairy dust extended to Boston, where the NFL announced that San Francisco would host the 2016 Super Bowl. Lurie was the improbable chairman of the Bay Area’s Super Bowl bid committee, handpicked by Mayor Ed Lee to pitch the region to NFL owners—and to raise $30 million for the event. The clincher: Lurie’s demand that 25 percent of that total go to fighting poverty and improving the environment in the Bay Area—an unconventional stipulation “that was 100 percent Daniel,” according to 49ers CEO Jed York.

That he was able to pull off two such disparate coups in the same month was cause for celebration in Lurie-land. But even as San Franciscans toasted and talked trash about Super Bowl runner-up Miami, the man who’d made it happen remained something of a mystery. Just who is this unassuming guy with the Midas touch and the insane Rolodex? And why do people keep lining up to give him cash?

The most obvious answer is upbringing. He’s the stepchild of legendary philanthropist Peter Haas, the former CEO of Levi’s, whom Lurie’s mother, Mimi, married in 1981. His father, Brian, ran the Jewish Community Federation for 17 years. As a child, Lurie lived with his mother during the week, but it was on weekends with his father that he learned how to hit people up for money. While he was in grade school, Brian used to drag him to the phone bank at the JCF so that he could cold-call people for donations. As president of his class in elementary school, he recalls, he raised $500 for Habitat for Humanity by throwing “the best damn fair that school has ever seen.”

After graduating with a degree in political science from Duke University in 1999, Lurie moved to New York and landed his first and only corporate job—as an associate for the consulting firm Accenture. He lasted six months. “It was not a good fit,” he chuckles. The gig wasn’t a total waste of time, though. A coworker at Accenture was doing some consulting work for the Robin Hood Foundation, the groundbreaking philanthropy founded in 1988 by hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, and Lurie finagled himself an interview. Robin Hood pioneered the system of metrics-based giving— using data to determine the effectiveness of a particular nonprofit and either helping it improve or defunding it. This is philanthropy as investment in the truest sense, with an insistence on measurable returns and meeting goals—and it’s the model upon which Tipping Point Community would be based.

After two years at Robin Hood, Lurie moved back to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree in public policy at Berkeley. On the side, he began writing up plans for Tipping Point. While he was still working on his master’s, a mutual friend introduced him to Lott, who was a longtime fan of Robin Hood. “When I met him,” recalls Lott, “I thought to myself, ‘You’re the guy. You’re the person, and you should be doing this, and you have to do it.’”

In 2005, Tipping Point Community (the name was borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book about viral entrepreneurship) was launched with four partners: Lurie; Lott; Katie Schwab Paige, daughter of Charles and Helen Schwab; and Chris James, founder of the Partner Fund Management hedge fund. That year, the philanthropy reviewed more than 50 nonprofits and partnered with only seven of them.

Since then, it has handed out over $50 million to more than 50 organizations. Its board of directors has expanded to 18 members, each of whom is expected to contribute $250,000 per year to cover the organization’s overhead (though some give far above that amount). As with Robin Hood, every donated penny goes directly to charitable projects— all of them focused on alleviating poverty through employment, education, housing, and wellness programs. Every project receives assistance in creating reports for the nonprofit’s investors, and all are held to strict measurement standards. Its adherence to these benchmarks, Lurie says, sets his nonprofit apart. “We’re willing to stop funding a group that isn’t performing.”

The concept of data is key to Tipping Point’s appeal, of course—but so is the concept of trust. Given the sheer number of charities in the Bay Area—15,000 by some counts—“people are looking for somebody to give them confidence that they are putting money into things that are effective,” says Jay Banfield, executive director of the youth charity Year Up.

Why do so many prominent people put their trust in Lurie? Beyond the fact that he’s a member of a blue-chip San Francisco family who also happens to understand the metrics-driven mentality of the Bay Area’s newly minted millionaires, it’s because he brings an activist’s intensity to the fight. “Tipping Point Community is a movement,” says board member Tony Bates, an executive vice president at Microsoft, “and Daniel is the spiritual leader.” There is literally no difference, his friends say, between Lurie the person and Lurie the president of Tipping Point.

York, who recommended to Mayor Lee that Lurie head up the Super Bowl committee, attests that there’s no one else in San Francisco “who can bring a community together” that links up both new money and old. “He is gifted with a better understanding of the worlds of the affluent, people in service, and CEOs than anyone else out there,” says Lott. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone picked up the phone and asked him to be mayor.”

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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