Interview with Sean Leonard, Chair of the VCCF Board of Directors
By Lauren Graf
Meet Sean Leonard, the new Chair of the Ventura County Community Foundation Board of Directors. Sean joined the Board in 2019 and served as Secretary until being selected to become Chair of the Board following Immediate Past Chair, Scott Hansen. Sean has been a resident of Ventura County for over 30 years, currently residing in Oxnard with his wife Gwen. The two met while attending UCLA and have been married for 42 years with three sons, two daughters-in-law and two grandsons.
Sean was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to the United States as a foreign exchange student and the first in his family to attend college. Growing up, Sean said that his parents were “models of humility and industry.” His father was a member of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment “The Volunteers” who fought the Japanese invaders and was imprisoned for four years following, while his mother was surviving the war in an occupied Hong Kong.
Sean is inspired to give back both on the Board and through his company. He runs a project management firm, S.L. Leonard & Associates, which specializes in assisting nonprofits with their real estate development needs. Some of their local clients include the Museum of Ventura County, Casa Pacifica, kidSTREAM, and three Boys & Girls Clubs. Additionally, he’s helped his clients to develop nearly 6,000 units of affordable housing. He says his most notable project in Ventura County is the Camarillo Public Library, a favorite local spot for many residents.
In addition to his tireless work on the VCCF Board of Directors, Sean also serves on the Casa Pacifica Board, and is the immediate past Board Chair of A Community of Friends, which develops and manages affordable housing for people with mental illness.
Sean spoke with VCCF about his philanthropic journey, his desire to give back to his community and his vision for the future of VCCF.
Where did your passion for philanthropy come from in life?
It stems from my faith, where I was taught that giving unconditionally will result in the floodgates of Heaven opening with blessings. Consequently, we haven’t always received everything we wanted, but always were provided what we needed.
As our business exposed us to so many nonprofit clients, Gwen & I saw how much goodness there was in the community and also how hard it is for them to fund all their vital work.
What inspired you to join the VCCF Board of Directors?
When I was Board Chair of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, the CEO and I met with Vanessa Bechtel several times as we had an endowment fund at VCCF and were also seeking advice on fundraising. From there I started to learn and admire the reach of VCCF and its ability to connect people and organizations for the greater good. Sometime later Scott Hansen and Vanessa reached out to me to discuss my joining VCCF’s Board.
You have been on the Board since 2019. Since then, how have you seen Ventura County change, whether in philanthropy, nonprofit work, or some other aspect?
When I joined, we were still reacting to the tragic Borderline crisis and taking a leading roll in connecting victims and families with financial and other support. We have seen over 10,000 first-time givers step forward in these times; the community is extremely generous and philanthropy is changing and thriving in Ventura County. I am very excited to be a part of facilitating that passion.
What are some causes that you are most passionate about supporting through your work on the Board?
Homelessness is one. I am fortunate that I work with many agencies such as Many Mansions, Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura, Area Housing Authority, Cabrillo Economic Development and People’s Self-Help Housing who are leading the charge in providing permanent supportive housing in our community.
Gwen and I are also passionate about helping underserved youth and hence our involvement with Boys & Girls Clubs and Casa Pacifica who serve some of our most vulnerable neighbors. I recently chaired the Major Gifts Committee for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard & Port Hueneme’s successful $5,000,000 campaign.
In your transition to becoming the new Board Chair, what have you learned about leadership?
Great things can happen where there is a will and openness to collaborate. I remember our CEO Vanessa Bechtel talking about the 2020 census in 2019 which was a real headscratcher for me. As talk turned into action, I believe that Vanessa was one of the primary catalysts if not the dominant force behind convening meetings, performing outreach and moving us from being in the top 2 percent of counties at risk for being undercounted to the top 95th percentile for achieving a complete count. This massive effort will result in $1 billion to $2 billion in added social services to our community over the next 10 years. That’s effective leadership.
What advice did immediate past Chair Scott Hansen give to you as he helped prepare you for this new role?
Scott has been such an amazing chair over the last six years and quite intimidating to follow. Scott is talking about solutions when I am still figuring out the questions. Scott told me we don’t need another Scott Hansen; we need a Sean Leonard. In essence I got permission to be me. Under Scott’s leadership we added a new Chief Operating Officer and Chief Compliance Officer. We have a very strong executive team, and by building the Board and creating a robust committee structure, I have all the support I will need for success.
Looking forward, what vision do you have for the Board and VCCF in the years to come?
As the table has been set for success with the right sizing of staff and Board, we can be more strategic and proactive in our strategic planning. We are currently developing a new strategic plan and we have an incredible group of excited and talented Board members and senior staff working on it.
I would like to see us reach even more nonprofits and empower them to fulfill their missions. We are convening regular “Coffee & Connection” meetings with nonprofits to get to know each other better and introduce them to strategic partners.
With the extraordinary outpouring of generosity we have witnessed, I would like to see us grow beyond the best kept secret for donors and investors. Through VCCF, investors can streamline their giving, we can help them be more strategic and focused while leveraging their dollars. We can show them multiple tax advantaged avenues for philanthropy. We can facilitate multigenerational funds where children can be exposed to philanthropy and heirs can be empowered to continue the legacy of giving.
Real issues sometimes require complex solutions; by being a convener and connector we can do great things for our community. The future is very exciting!