Nancy Sheldon Sets a Large Philanthropy Table
When Nancy Sheldon was a little girl growing up in Milwaukee, her mother, Muriel, hosted dinners for Russian immigrants. It puzzled Sheldon, primarily because, as she recalls, “my mother hated to cook.” And yet, there she was, working away in the kitchen, creating beautiful dinners, to make these transplanted families feel comfortable. “I just remember not understanding what it was all about and why she was doing it, but feeling like there was a sacrifice,” she recalls. Although Sheldon could not completely comprehend the gravitas of the families’ plight at the time, her mother was actually helping to resettle “Refuseniks,” people (usually Jewish) from the former Soviet Union who were often forbidden from emigrating, but took great risks to leave the country. Thus, the seed of philanthropy was planted in young Sheldon.
Years later, working in the banking industry for UBS, Sheldon didn’t have the time for the hands-on giving that her mother modeled for her, so she gave charitably to many philanthropic causes. Then, 22 years ago, a business opportunity for her husband brought them to Santa Barbara. After experiencing postpartum depression upon the birth of her first child, Sheldon was struck by the impulse to contribute to her community as her mother had, by not only contributing financially but by more actively participating.
Recalling those welcoming dinners from her childhood, she finally comprehended their significance. “It was just so visceral,” Sheldon remembers. “I realized that I could make a much bigger difference in people’s lives just by personal interactions,” she says. So, she began to volunteer for “PEP,” Postpartum Education for Parents, a local organization that supports new mothers and helps those who are experiencing postpartum depression. She soon found herself running their hotline: “I had very little knowledge except my own experience. But I realized just how impactful it was to get involved and help where you can,” she recounts. She also learned about empathy, opening up and being able to listen, reflect, and support. “It was a very big growth moment for me. I learned not to be afraid to get involved in causes I cared about, just because the work was daunting or I lacked experience.”
Her work at PEP was followed by numerous forays into philanthropic volunteer work for local organizations, including her synagogue and the Santa Barbara Food Bank, both of which were springboards for her biggest endeavor to date. On a trip to San Francisco, Sheldon visited the science museum with her children. She was overwhelmed by her kids’ wonder and enthusiasm during the visit. “I just saw the immediate growth in their learning,” she says. Inspired by that trip, when she returned to Santa Barbara, she discovered an effort was underway to bring that kind of experience to her community. So, she joined the board of the nascent Children’s Museum of Santa Barbara, an 501c3 organization formed in 1990 for that very purpose.
“I joined and became the head of development before I even knew what that word meant,” she recalls. “They told me they were doing a ‘capital campaign’ and I said, ‘ok let’s go for it,’” she adds. But it was a grueling ten years of hard work bringing that dream to fruition, and there were times when she fantasized about doing something that seemed easier, like “finding the cure for an incurable disease,” she jokes. But every time she felt like it was a Sisyphean task, she remembered a conversation she had with her son, when he was only five years old. When she asked her children (she now has four) what they loved so much about children’s museums, her son, Max, immediately gushed, “Mom, I just love walking through those doors.” Making sure all children in her community had the chance to ‘walk through those doors’ helped Sheldon persevere.
In 2017, the realization of that dream, MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, opened its doors to the public. The 17,000-square-foot space on State Street is an interactive science museum for all ages, and it has attracted thousands of kids and adults along with rave reviews for the immersive exposure to science, technology, and imagination. “I think it has accomplished much more than we set out for,” Sheldon says.
These days, Sheldon and her husband, Michael, own and run LOCAL, a buzzing, thriving eatery on Coast Village Road in Montecito. The brainchild of Michael, the menu was designed around 50 favorite meals that Michael has perfected at home for his family. Sheldon’s mother may not have loved to cook, but cooking has been her husband’s lifelong passion.
As for philanthropy, the 2019 death of her mother changed her perspective. She began to get involved in political work. “It was an ode to my mom, about taking more risks, not less,” she says. “Hers was a life well-lived, and it’s inspired me in the way that I approach giving.” Her volunteer work now includes social justice causes, get out the vote efforts, supporting women’s reproductive autonomy, and co-chairing the board of her synagogue. Between the food she’s serving up locally and the philanthropic work that continues to expand, Nancy Sheldon sets a very large table these days, and it includes many causes that would make her mother very proud.