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New RSF Foundation CEO hopes to enhance growth of community’s philanthropic impact

As he’s met people in his new role as president and CEO of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, Chris Sichel said he’s been told over and over, “You have big shoes to fill.”

Chris Sichel
(Ken Jacques Photography)

Sichel took on his new post Sept. 1, and agreed wholeheartedly that he is taking the reins of the philanthropic organization from an inspiring and well-respected leader, Christy Wilson, who is stepping down after 24 years in the top job.

Sichel said he feels fortunate to be able to work together with Wilson through the end of October, when she will officially step back from her day-to-day role with the foundation.

Early in his tenure, Sichel has been meeting with members of the community and overseeing planning for an event on Oct. 20, when the foundation will both celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding, as well as bid farewell to Wilson, its long-time leader.

While it’s too soon to say what, if anything, Sichel might change within the organization, his priority going forward is to continue being a good steward of the resources entrusted to the foundation by its donors, and to find ways of maximizing the impact of those dollars.

“My aim is to increase the philanthropic impact of this community. Not so much a revolution as evolution, to continue growing year after year,” Sichel said.

“This community is filled with generous people with big hearts. Our organization exists to help channel those dollars to have as much impact as possible,” he said.

Currently, the foundation manages $155 million in a mix of endowments and donor-advised funds, said Sichel. Endowments are funds set up in which the principal is preserved in perpetuity, and investment earnings are used for charitable grants. Donor-advised funds provide flexibility, allowing donors to distribute both the principal and earnings, and such funds can be replenished, Sichel said.

Since its founding in 1981, the foundation has disbursed more than $100 million in grants, Sichel said. The foundation’s IRS filing for 2020 shows the organization made $10.1 million in grants in 2020. Working in collaboration with other charities, the foundation gave $858,000 to North County nonprofits, to provide emergency services such as food, shelter and medical needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the foundation’s philanthropic efforts are its Patriots Connection, which assists active-duty military members and veterans, and the Women’s Fund, which supports a wide range of programs throughout the community, touching on such issues as homelessness, youth and women’s services.

Sichel comes to the RSF Foundation after a career spent in the nonprofit sector. For the past 16 years, he served as president and CEO of Make-a-Wish San Diego, which works to fulfill wishes for critically ill children.

According to the Make-a-Wish website, during Sichel’s tenure, the group more than doubled in size and became one of San Diego’s “best known and most trusted nonprofits,” while also expanding the organization’s assets.

Before that, he worked with STAR/PAL, a nonprofit that pairs law enforcement officers with at-risk youth in a variety of programs, including mentoring, homework assistance and instruction in life skills.

A San Diego native, Sichel said his new role offers a logical progression, allowing him to guide an organization that seeks to make a difference in the local community and beyond.

As foundation CEO, Sichel said he will work to preserve and enhance the charity’s reputation as a trusted financial steward of donors’ funds. “As a community foundation we have to live up to very, very high standards and we do that very well,” he said.

Sichel and his wife, Coleen, a nurse, live in Mt. Helix in La Mesa, but are considering a move further north. The couple have three grown children, a son studying pre-med in college, a daughter who moved to Spain after her college graduation, and a son in the solar energy field in San Diego.

When he’s not at work, Sichel enjoys cheering on the Padres, paddle-boarding and hiking with his wife and the family dog. The family has combined their love of the outdoors with a passion for history and culture, taking long hikes on a historic pilgrimage route in Spain.

“I love seeing the world at two-and-a-half miles an hour,” he said.

Spending time outdoors, he said, allows he and his wife time to be together and connect, in spite of their busy daily schedules.

Sichel said he’ll turn 55 this month and is looking forward to the next chapter of his career.

“I’m just delighted to be here, I’ve felt so welcomed, and it’s an honor to follow in Christy Wilson’s footsteps,” he said.

For more on the RSF Foundation, visit rsffoundation.org.


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