Washington, D.C. — Today marks the passing of pioneering progressive philanthropist and co-CEO of the savings and loan giant Golden West Financial, Herb Sandler. Along with his late wife Marion, Herb worked with John D. Podesta to help found, support, and guide the Center for American Progress beginning in 2003. CAP leadership released the following statements to mark Sandler’s passing:
John D. Podesta, founder and director of the Center for American Progress:
Today we mourn the passing of my dear friend, Herb Sandler. Herb and his late wife, Marion, were essential partners in the founding, growth, and success of the Center for American Progress.
When I first met Marion and Herb, all I knew about them was that, together as partners, they had built an extremely successful savings and loan business. From the first hours we spent together, I knew that they were not just driven by a desire to succeed in business but also by a deep sense of mission to build a more just and equal society here in America and to protect the human rights of vulnerable people around the world.
Encountering Herb and Marion for the first time was an experience few would forget.
Herb was towering; Marion—tiny. He was charming; she—tough as nails. He was solicitous; she—demanding. He exuded the Lower East Side; she—the more rarefied air of a bucolic Maine. On the surface, they seemed as different as could be, but the reality was that they were a united force of intellect and values that was imposing. Yin and Yang. They had used that force together to build a business, which, over its lifetime, was second in performance only to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. They were co-CEOs. They shared connected offices. They were insanely devoted to each other, to their children, and to their grandchildren. They finished each other’s thoughts. In a marriage of over 50 years, Herb told me that they had been apart a total of less than four weeks.
My first exposure to Herb and Marion was a four-and-a-half hour grilling in their San Francisco apartment. They had invited me there to explain my ideas for creating a new, progressive think tank. They had seen a business plan I had co-authored to establish a new institution that could build out a set of ambitious ideas for progressive governance and counter the depth and breadth of conservative think tanks that dominated the dialogue in Washington, D.C.
At the outset, I told them I didn’t want the job of running the think tank. But this was no job interview. They pushed, prodded, and probed. They were testing not just the business concept but for leadership style, values, and, most of all, personal integrity. They wanted to know what issues the think tank would prioritize. They wanted details on the percentage of the budget that would be devoted to communications (Marion’s specialty). They wanted to know who would join with us to start the organization (Herb’s favorite advice—only A pluses, no Bs).
At the conclusion, Marion said to me, “Herb and I invest in people, not business plans. So, get serious and run this thing or get lost.” And so, they took a chance on me and together we helped build the Center for American Progress.
Like their joined-at-the-hip business practice, they held one board seat (first Marion, later their daughter Susan, and now executive director of their foundation, Steve Daetz), but I talked to both of them virtually every day. They were our most generous funders. They both participated in the strategic direction of the institution, mentored the staff, helped build best in class business systems, and always demanded excellence. They helped pick the name of the institution and Marion even designed the logo that we still use today.
Their philanthropic strategy at CAP—invest in people, invest in leaders—was their guiding philosophy in all their philanthropic work. They became anchor investors in Martin Eakes, at the Center for Responsible Lending, Paul Steiger at ProPublica, Ken Roth at Human Rights Watch, Anthony Romero at the ACLU, Emmanuel Saez at the Berkeley Center for Equitable Growth, Heather Boushey at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Linda Darling-Hammond at the Learning Policy Institute. They helped my successor at CAP, Neera Tanden, grow the institution and take it to a new level. Their pioneering approach to breakthrough biomedical research, particularly at UCSF, set new standards for effective philanthropy.
They didn’t really need the Giving Pledge to convince them to give away the vast bulk of the wealth they had amassed in business. They had already transferred those assets to their charitable foundation. I think they loved their philanthropic work more than even building their business because they got to do the work in partnership with their daughter, Susan, and their son, Jim, who are disciplined, creative philanthropists in their own right. But when the Giving Pledge came into existence, Herb used its forums to urge many wealthy people to give back to their country, which had made their success possible, particularly by giving to the causes of education for all, building a more equitable economy, and a more sustainable environment.
Along the way, Herb, Marion, my wife Mary, and I became devoted friends. We traveled together, exchanged notes on grandchildren, left singing birthday greetings on each other’s voicemails, and shared dinners together with their coterie of interesting friends. One of the things that Mary liked the best about dinners with Herb and Marion was their rule that there could be only one table conversation. There would be no sidebars, no glancing at iPhones, no talking over each other. Herb would enforce that rule with an iron fist, which led to wide-ranging philosophical and unpredictable conversations.
Mary and I had one last visit with Herb last week. He knew he was close to death and was in a wonderful, humble, and grateful mood as we reminisced about how our paths had crossed. But he wasn’t quite ready to be done with work.
As we talked, he was not only giving us orders, but sending out emails to friends and allies about the causes that needed to be taken on, the challenges ahead, and the victories to be won.
Herb Sandler was the most principled, decent, and fearless person I have had the privilege of knowing. We will miss him dearly but will carry on and carry out his orders as he would have wanted.
Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress:
The Center for American Progress exists because of the foresight, vision, and leadership of Herb Sandler, his incredible wife Marion, and, of course, our founder John Podesta. Herb infused within CAP a profound commitment to justice, excellence, and integrity. Today, our entire organization—past and present—mourns his passing with both tremendous sadness and an immense sense of gratitude.
Herb’s life embodied the best of what America represents. Born to modest beginnings, he and Marion—true partners in business and in all aspects of life—used their philanthropy to make our country and world fairer and more just. They wanted all people to have the kind of opportunity that made their story possible.
Herb always pushed everyone to do their best because he believed in the importance of CAP’s mission and in how people acting collectively could make things better for people with little power. Herb was tough and strong, yet compassionate and fair—and his wisdom and counsel made me a better leader. Herb once challenged me to always “remember the example of one’s leadership upon others.” While he was speaking about the work of CAP that day, those words applied equally to Herb himself. Herb made everyone around him better—more effective, more compassionate, and more committed to fairness. And the progressive movement as a whole was made better by his example and by his vision.
Countless people’s lives have been affected by the work of Herb Sandler and our whole community has suffered deeply from his loss. But we can all take solace in the impact of his legacy across so many fields and endeavors that will live on for decades to come.
Please direct media inquiries to Colin Seeberger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.741.6292.