Sonoma Gives: Sebastopol couple makes a case for philanthropy

After retiring, Ben Cushman and George Tuttle are focusing their professional talents on improving people’s lives.|

Ben Cushman has been fortunate over the years, turning a liberal arts degree into a successful career helping budding companies grow their brands. Starting with small donations to gay rights organizations, he and his husband, George Tuttle, have made philanthropy a priority after retiring to Sonoma County.

Cushman, 60, serves on nonprofit boards, worked to get Sonoma Academy on strong footing and, with Tuttle, has channeled a portion of their estate to causes they champion: relieving the suffering of those who are hungry, need medical care, or lack shelter, as well as supporting institutions that promote education and civil rights.

In 1975, soon after earning a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Cushman moved to San Francisco and entered the management program at Macy’s, where he set about learning the ropes of retail store and buying operations. He left in 1978 to become director of national accounts at Silicon Valley-based Atari, then a leading marketer of computers and video games. When he left two years later, sales had grown from $3 million to more than $40 million.

He couldn’t have picked a better place to land next: VisiCorp, which one year earlier had released the first spreadsheet computer program, VisiCalc. Widely considered today to be the first “killer app” for microcomputers, VisiCalc was the defining tool that changed the machines from playthings into serious business tools.

In his four years at the company, from 1980 to 1984, Cushman grew sales from less than $1 million to more than $30 million.

Somehow, the New England gentleman had ended up imbued with the kind of marketing “right stuff” that most Silicon Valley MBAs only dream about.

And in each succeeding position, Cushman continued to achieve outsize results.

“I was drawn to companies positioned for high growth,” he said, “companies that grew quickly.” As senior vice president and COO of SuperCuts, he managed operations through 500 percent growth; while president and CEO of HomeChef, he developed a business plan, attracted venture capital funding and led a successful early roll-out.

Less than a decade after moving to San Francisco, Cushman met corporate attorney George Tuttle. Born and raised in Detroit, Tuttle earned a law degree from Yale and, like Cushman, moved to San Francisco to begin his career.

The couple has now been together for nearly three decades. “We married in 2008,” Cushman said, “but we had also been registered domestic partners in San Francisco, and later we were California registered domestic partners. My parents live in Vermont, where they were involved in civil union efforts, so we went back there and had a civil union. We tried everything.”

In 2005, after both were retired, they moved from San Francisco to Sonoma County. “We’ve had property on the Laguna north of Sebastopol for many years,” Cushman said. “We’ve done a lot to the house, which we used as a weekend getaway. After we were both retired, we decided to consolidate. We sold our house in the city and moved here full time.

“It’s peaceful here. We grow grapes, raise honeybees. We have some goats, a llama and dogs. It’s a fairly quiet life, but I’m active in nonprofit board work, which brings me to New York six or eight times a year.”

Both men enjoy exploring the world. “Africa is high on the list,” Cushman says, “particularly southern Africa. We’ve made a few trips there, a month at a shot. We also like southwest Asia: Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand. We went to Iceland this past summer. That was wonderful.”

We asked Cushman to talk about why and how philanthropy plays a role in their lives.

Q: When did you first realize the value of giving? Describe the circumstances.

I’d say it started around the personal stakes we both had in gay civil rights issues, a deeply personal interest in advancing the civil rights of us and our people. Over the years, as we grew into a position of being able to be more generous, our giving broadened to include other causes that are important to us - particularly civil rights writ large, education, health, and hunger. It boils down to human services, education and civil rights.

At some point we realized that we needed to get more organized about it, that our philanthropy would have more impact if we had greater focus and aligned our personal interests and commitment with specific organizations. Over the years we’ve shortened the list of people we give to, so we now give more in absolute dollars to those on a shorter list

Q: Why do you give?

I’d say it’s gratitude for what we have, and an appreciation of the urgent short- and long-term needs of others, a sense that we need to help others where and how we can.

Q: I know you work through Community Foundation Sonoma to implement your strategy of giving. What do you like about the community foundation model?

From a practical point of view, the model makes it very easy for us to implement our philanthropy, and they will also implement our estate plan. Instead of writing a lot of checks throughout the year, we make one or two lump-sum payments to Community Foundation and they implement our plan.

We like to do most of our philanthropy with gifts of appreciated stock. To avoid the complications of giving many smaller gifts of appreciated stock, we give it as one large gift to Community Foundation.

We have a donor advised fund, which basically means that we supply the funds, and then we advise the Community Foundation who we want them to support (including the Community Foundation itself).

Q: What else does the agency bring to the table?

We like how they inform our philanthropy in Sonoma County as well as facilitating our giving outside the county. They really know who is doing what, and who warrants support, in Sonoma County. They’ve not only exposed us to potential recipients but have helped educate our thinking.

They also help with our estate planning. We plan to leave the philanthropic component of our estate to the Community Foundation, together with instructions about gifts we want to give to specific organizations, as well as percentage pools focused on specific causes - like hunger in Sonoma County - where the Community Foundation will decide what organizations get funded. With this we’re trusting their discretion to determine the best or most worthy organizations in those specific areas.

Another thing we really like is that Community Foundation serves Sonoma County very well, but we can also donate through them to our philanthropic priorities beyond the county. For instance, we give to educational institutions on the east coast and to the International Rescue Committee, which is a global organization.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your philanthropic endeavors?

We hope to relieve suffering for people who are hungry, need medical care or lack shelter. We also support institutions that make positive systemic improvements in people’s lives over time: educational and civil rights organizations, for example.

Q: Please talk about a project you’ve funded that continues to offer you personal satisfaction.

I’d say Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa. Prior to Sonoma Academy there was no independent college prep high school in the county, and I’m a big believer in independent schools. I was also drawn to the board and leadership of the school on a personal basis.

I served on the board for six years and was chairman for three years, and those were significant years in the school’s history in terms of strengthening its marketplace and financial positions. We are meaningful donors to the school. Education has long been a priority for us.

Other local nonprofits we take an interest in include the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is run by my friend David Goodman, and 10,000 Degrees, which is based in Marin but now also operates in Sonoma. I’m on the board.

Q: What would you like to tell people about philanthropy that they might not know?

Philanthropy is hard. It’s not a matter of writing a check and you’re done with it. Philanthropy requires us to think hard about how much total support we can provide, which always involves personal trade-offs. And given the tremendous needs in the world today, you need to stretch yourself and give beyond your comfort zone.

We believe that philanthropy is an obligation. It’s related to our common humanity, I suppose, and the sense that we are all connected. As I’ve said elsewhere, giving - or giving back - is so clearly part of our human connection that I can’t imagine not doing it. I think recognizing and responding to our shared humanity is a big part of what makes us human and differentiates us from other animals.

Beyond that, because the needs are so great and varied, you’re forced to make decisions about what not to support, which is very hard. There are so many worthy organizations and efforts, and it’s frustrating to feel that your gift is a drop in the bucket. So in the end it’s as important to decide what you’re not going to do as it is to decide what you are going to do. It’s extremely difficult to make those decisions.

Q: Any last observations?

I’m always amazed at how many people I know, both those of means and those with lesser means, who never even think about philanthropy. It’s difficult to understand.

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