The Nonprofit Prophet

By Steve Uhler   |   January 12, 2021

Even the most vociferous critics of genetic engineering would have to concede: we need more Ken Saxons in the world.

Equal parts entrepreneur, social visionary, pragmatic analyst, and leadership matchmaker, Saxon has been serving the Santa Barbara community for nearly 25 years as a guiding force behind some of the most progressive nonprofit and philanthropic programs in the country. 

“I love to create organizations, grow teams, and create something that makes a difference,” he says. “That’s my orientation. I like to be creative and nimble.”

He is that, and more. As founder of the Courage To Lead Program for nonprofit leaders in 2008, Leading From Within’s Emerging Leaders Program in 2013, and recipient of Santa Barbara Foundation’s 2012 Man Of The Year Award, Saxon has been bringing together civic leaders, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits in Santa Barbara to more effectively work together through strategic alliances. 

“Business will always do what business can do profitably, and government has limited resources,” he says. “Beyond that, if you look at key areas of quality of life – education, healthcare, the environment, the arts – much of that is funded by philanthropy and executed by the nonprofit sector. A community with a healthier, more prosperous nonprofit sector is generally going to have a higher quality of life.”

“A community with a healthier, more prosperous nonprofit sector is generally going to have a higher quality of life”

As the son of a father in commercial real estate and a mother who was a community volunteer, Saxon’s future seemed pre-ordained. After graduating Princeton University and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, in 1988 he founded a small but successful logistics management company in the Silicon Valley – fertile ground for a fledgling entrepreneur. Moving to Santa Barbara in 1996 with his wife, a set of one-year-old twins, and family dog Maggie, Saxon initially found himself a Stranger in Paradise. Drawn to community organizations and nonprofits, Saxon began immersing himself in his new surroundings.

“I started to get involved on nonprofit boards,” he recalls, “and found that who I identified with most were the executive directors. They’re very akin to small business people, which is what I had been. They have to wear a lot of hats, and they don’t have enough time or resources. They experience the loneliness of leadership, where there’s not a safe place to talk about what’s keeping them up at night. I related to all of that – and my epiphany was that rather than let them suffer and burn out, we need to invest in them and connect them with each other.” That insight spurred Saxon to create the Courage To Lead Program in 2008, a vital cornerstone of Santa Barbara’s philanthropic and nonprofit community.

Saxon thrives on the ever-evolving dynamics of Santa Barbara’s unique nonprofit sector. “There’s a really unusual confluence of two things here: First is this incredible human capital. One of our greatest assets is that every year there are people who move to Santa Barbara that have experience, talent, gifts and resources, who want to put them to work. The second component is really substantial need. I think many people would be surprised to know that Santa Barbara County has the second-highest poverty rate of any county in California.”

“So when you combine all these people that have creativity, skills and also money – and an obvious need that’s right in front of their faces – that leads to a really significant amount of philanthropy in this region, and a lot of people with really creative ideas to address these needs.”

Reflecting on the recent near-Biblical string of Perfect Storms ravaging the Central Coast nonprofit sector, Saxon offers an insightful yin/yang perspective.

“In the last three years, the paradigm has become very disaster-focused, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good in that it’s catalyzed more philanthropy and some really creative solutions. An example is the 805 Disaster Fund, which is one of the most inspirational efforts I’ve ever seen. 

On the downside, it’s really limited the amount of resources to address fundraising, especially in light of the pandemic. Imagine how hard it’s been for arts organizations, when some funders say, ‘We’re not going to give our normal grants this year because we’re going to give money to address the mudslides or the fires or the pandemic.’”

“We will get past these current crises – as we have so many in our past,” Saxon assures, “and nonprofit organizations and philanthropy will lead the way as we rebuild a community that ideally works better for everyone.”

Ken Saxon is still working his altruistic alchemy, eager to embrace a future rich in transition and possibilities. “I do have the good fortune in that for more than 30 years I’ve had a great deal of say in what I do and who I do it with,” he reflects. “It’s a real blessing in my life. I feel so lucky about that.”

And Santa Barbara is lucky have Ken Saxon, even if there is only one of him.


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For over 92 years, the Santa Barbara Foundation has been a catalyst for change. We analyze issues to identify challenges that burden people every day in Santa Barbara County. We convene community stakeholders to build coalitions and partner with nonprofits and other leaders working on the front lines. Together, we chart a direction and mobilize people like you to support the dynamic initiatives that makes this a better place, now and for generations to come.

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