"I like to do things quietly in the background. I don't want any bugles," she said on a sunny August afternoon.
But Gifford's — and her family's — quiet imprint is on many things benefiting the Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Stanford communities: Stanford athletics and arts programs; the YMCA in East Palo Alto; the Children's Hospital at Stanford; the Music Guild at Stanford University; Junior League of Palo Alto-Mid Peninsula; a local PTA, as well as numerous others.
From being a Palo Alto Community Fund director emerita to being a 30-year member of the "Dirty Knees Brigade" at Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden, tending the flower beds, Gifford isn't shy about one thing: rolling up her sleeves. With privilege comes responsibility, and that's how she was raised, she said.
Her mother and father were active in their community in Aurora, Illinois; son Peter is past president of the Palo Alto Community Fund and has been involved with the East Palo Alto Charter School; son Jonathan volunteers with Canopy and Gamble Garden.
"It's a family ethic — that's all," she said.
Her father, Karl Grube, who graduated from Stanford University with a degree in aeronautical engineering, was a big supporter of the university. After returning to his hometown, he recruited many students for Stanford's admissions office, she said.
He also encouraged his own son, John, and John's friend, Jonathan Berry Gifford, to attend Stanford. Jonathan Gifford became an architect and later worked for Birge Clark's firm. Betsy eventually married him, and the couple settled in Palo Alto in 1966.
Settling into her new environment was challenging. The only people she knew were her husband and a high school classmate.
"I had to forge my own way," she said. In the uncharted territory of Palo Alto, she set out to find out "who she was" and how to be creative in her new environment, she said.
Gifford graduated from the University of Arizona with a social sciences degree.
"It was my hook to learn about the community," she said.
She first volunteered as a "pink lady" at Stanford Hospital in patient services. Then she was invited to join the Palo Alto Auxiliary at Allied Arts, which benefited the Children's Hospital at Stanford. After their two sons were born, she volunteered with the Junior League and PTA in Palo Alto.
When her husband died — Gifford was in her early 40s — her volunteerism and giving intensified. Leonard Ely conscripted her to join the Palo Alto Community Fund in 1993, and she began directing her attention to East Palo Alto.
"It was a ticket for me to learn about the community on both sides of Bayshore Freeway," she said.
Gifford wanted to continue her family legacy of involvement with the YMCA, so she and her family contributed to the building of the Lewis and Joan Platt East Palo Alto Family YMCA.
Gifford met her husband, Jon, at a YMCA in their hometown; in the Bay Area, he was a past-president of the YMCA of the Mid-Peninsula; her father was president of the YMCA in Illinois and her mother also was involved with the YWCA in her hometown, she said.
When Gifford visits East Palo Alto's YMCA and sees the community enjoying the programs, she feels satisfaction.
"There's nothing better than to see the results of quietly contributing to the benefit of all. It fills your heart. Money can't build those feelings," she said.
Volunteering and donating "gave me the opportunity to expand my curiosity. The curiosity of my surroundings has taken me on this journey of community involvement. It's wanting to know the whys and the hows. You can't let yourself stay stagnant. It's the pleasure of seeing — to give where you live — while you're alive. There's the pleasure of seeing the accomplishments of what has been quietly underwritten, of seeing the rewards of the investments in the community," she said.
Gifford is animated by this excitement and energy. But she laments what she feels is a general disinterest today among those who have the most to give.
"It's hard to recruit board members for important nonprofit institutions. Somehow, people feel entitled, and they feel they don't have to contribute. It's a conundrum. How do you get people to engage?"
Everyone has something to offer. Growing up in Aurora, a community in the Chicago metropolitan area, Gifford was around "a wonderful mix of different types of people," she said.
"We were taught that everyone comes to the table and has something to contribute."