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Jacob James: Bridging Sectors for Positive Change

On June 30, 2022, immediate past San Diego Foundation Board of Governors member Jacob James completed his last term of service after nine years of service as the organization’s youngest-ever board member. When he talks about his volunteerism and philanthropy, he immediately describes the influence of his mother, who he dubs “a magical human.”

“Our mom taught us through her actions that people are people – everyone deserves dignity,” Jacob said. “She modeled mutual respect for all people through her own actions, her own volunteerism and by using her skills as a nurse to give back to the community.”  

Jacob’s earliest memories of philanthropy weren’t philanthropic in the conventional sense – giving large sums of money – but were reflected in his mother’s day-to-day life. 

“The magic is that she truly loves everyone.”

When he talks about his upbringing, Jacob describes himself as a “rare local boy,” born at Balboa Naval Medical Center and raised on Naval Amphibious Base Coronado by his mother.  

“San Diego runs through my blood very deeply,” he expressed. “A connection to the coast and the ocean are foundational to my life and my mental health.” 

Pre-Med to Public Affairs

Jacob attended Point Loma Nazarene University with a pre-med scholarship, but soon realized he had a passion for civic engagement and catalyzing major systems change. By graduation, he worked on two political campaigns and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in government at Georgetown University. After an 11-month job search during the Great Recession, Jacob joined the Waitt Foundation as an executive assistant and policy advisor, later becoming Managing Director. Jacob’s decade at the Waitt Foundation inspired his interest in and passion for cross-sector partnerships, especially from the perspective of conservation philanthropy.

“With the challenges we face today, this is an opportune, in fact a necessary, moment in history to build strategic alliances between those who care about the environment and social good, particularly between the corporate and public sectors,” he emphasized.

Jacob is inspired by “big results” and cited the need for “smart” environmentalism, which he describes as being solutions-oriented while not compromising core values.  

Elephant Skin

As a professional advocate, Jacob has advanced legislative and executive actions around the world. His ability to problem solve and create impact across cultural barriers came as a result of his unique life experiences, including being “the gay millennial son of a Navy SEAL and a Sharp health care nurse” and living “as an evangelical Christian for 18 years on a San Diego naval base.”

Although he’s not particularly religious today, the deep connection Jacob has to faith through his mother’s example helps him empathize and connect with others.  LGBTQ+ rights, mental health access and women’s pay equity – all informed by his lived experiences – are causes that Jacob has a deep passion for outside of his environmental work.

“Every day, through every life experience I have, I try to intentionally integrate and update my own filters and thinking to understand other people’s perspectives,” he expressed. “It’s been a winding path, and certainly fast paced, but this tool is one of the many things that has given me the elephant skin to do what I do.”

Strategic Good

With Jacob’s nine years on the San Diego Foundation Board of Governors coming to an end, he was introspective. When he was recruited by past board members Darcy Bingham and Connie Matsui, also former board chair and interim CEO, he quickly saw where SDF could go.

“Being a professional in philanthropy, having the opportunity to campaign for and occasionally achieve major global results, I knew that the foundation had the same potential,” Jacob said. “I was encouraged by Waitt leadership to get involved and it seemed to me that the foundation was the best place in San Diego to have an outsized impact at home. That the foundation could be the nexus of public-private partnerships in our region.”

When asked his advice to future San Diego philanthropists, he shared that San Diego Foundation staff are a “treasure trove of expertise, goodwill and community connections.” He encourages present and future donors to engage with SDF team members, the “heart and soul” of the San Diego Foundation’s work.

Jacob now marries all of his professional and volunteer experiences through his public affairs and philanthropy consulting firm, Dudley & Finch. The firm, which shares the name of his family’s donor-advised fund, honors his mother’s and grandmother’s maiden names, who he describes as “strong and powerful red-headed women.”

Thriving Aligned

Through Dudley & Finch, Jacob lends his skills and talents as a public affairs specialist and behind-the-scenes problem-solver to expedite outcomes and increase impact by aligning multiple sectors and interests while making a positive impact. 

“The most enlightened clients that I work with understand that there are substantial bottom-line benefits to doing good, while also being strategic and achieving systemic outcomes,” he shared.

Jacob continues to circle the globe to help organizations and individuals grow their power and affect major change. Through all his travels, he still relishes coming home and is inspired to do as much good in his hometown as he can. In fact, he will continue serving on San Diego Foundation’s San Diego Regional Disaster Fund Board, bringing climate-oriented thinking to that group.

“In order for everyone to thrive, we have to take care of Mother Earth,” he emphasized. “People are people, and we all deserve to thrive.  What connects all of humanity without question is the natural environment we must steward together.”

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