More Blessed to Give
San Diego doesn’t have Rockefellers, Carnegies and Astors lording over its civil society. “We’re still a young town. Even our dynasties are only a couple of generations old,” explains banker and third-generation philanthropist Malin Burnham.
We may not have old money, but we do have A-list benefactors with names like Kroc, Copley, Jacobs, Geisel, Thornton and Price. We cheer for athlete humanitarians Gwynn, Gordon and Carney. We have donors with names you won’t recognize, because they don’t want you to. And there’s a generation of young philanthropists with new thoughts on giving.
They’re a diverse tribe, linked by tax bracket. Many socialize with one another, in museum boardrooms and at charity galas. Others live in ordinary camouflage. They have differing opinions, political persuasions and giving styles. Some write checks quietly. Others publicly. Some do it out of devotion to cause. Others (let’s be honest) for more strategic reasons. Most give because someone they respect asked them to. In a month noted for seasonal flurries of goodwill, remember this: Whatever their motivations, these people give all year long.
Philanthropists bankroll the big business we know as charity. As the federal government steps back from its role as grant-maker to our arts, education, health and social-service institutions, these San Diegans are asked to step forward. They’re a daunting economic force.
“Just look at what the universities, museums, churches and direct-service organizations raised from private donations last year,” muses Robert Kelly, San Diego Community Foundation president. “Nobody’s done a study on it, but just do the math. It could be as much as $300 million. It’s unbelievable that people don’t realize the magnitude of philanthropy here, and what it would be like if we didn’t have it.”
The magnitude of a few recent grants rocks the Richter scale. Joan Kroc, a philanthropic force of nature here for more than a decade, floored even veteran Kroc-watchers by her personal gift of $50 million to Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities in late October. The organization funds child-related health and protection agencies worldwide, including the Ronald McDonald House here.
Though Kroc is reticent about interviews these days, her grants speak volumes: Over the years she has given $35 million to Operation Cork for the prevention of substance abuse, $10 million toward building the San Diego Hospice, $3 million to build the St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center for the homeless, $1 million to the Special Olympics. The list goes on. And on.
Everyone knows not to ask Joan Kroc for money. Ever. Her grant-making is as mercurial as it is magnanimous. “If she likes you, one day you’ll get a check,” says one fellow donor. “She’s a true philanthropist. And she just gets hounded, the poor woman.”
Talk to many executive directors of San Diego’s smaller nonprofits. They’ll tell you about standing, astonished, stuttering through their spiels to an unannounced Mrs. Kroc. They’ll tell you about receiving, unsolicited, the biggest check they’d ever collected.
Other prominent widows have blasted the Lady Bountiful cliché with grants of world-class proportions. Audrey Geisel, wife of the late Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, caused a stir with her gift of $20 million to the UCSD library. Part of Ted’s archival collection, of untold value, had already been given to the library. The other portion went to UCLA. Muriel Gluck followed up her $1.5 million grant to the San Diego Museum of Art’s Art Rig (a van that delivers an interactive art-for-education program to schools) with a $1 million pledge to the Children’s Museum. Helen Copley gives millions to the community every year.
Marvels one charity-watcher: “Can you imagine what would happen if those four women got together and decided on one cause?”
THE CAUSES THEY CHOOSE AMONG form a vast constellation of need. High culture attracts the more celebrated grants. Five major museums are expanding, and the sums they raise are impressive. The Museum of Contemporary Art sought $11.5 million for its capital campaign and got most of it (since 1986) from a small roomful of donors. Four other museums have similar campaigns going.
Six-figure checks to such big-budget institutions are common enough, but still cannot compensate for funding lost when the National Endowment for the Arts budget falls victim to Congress’ political red pencil. All arts benefactors we spoke to look into the future and say the same thing: The arts are vital to the city, and the money won’t be enough.
Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, are active benefactors here. They divide grants among cultural and educational institutions.
“Organizations need to reach out and give us a reason to give,” says Irwin Jacobs. “They will all be facing tighter economic times. Mayor Golding has taken an interest in the philanthropic community and is providing leadership. We need a variety of cultural institutions here, and we all need to increase our funding of them.”
“Culture is important because it stimulates the more productive activities,” says San Diego Museum of Art trustee Joseph Hibben. “Our biotech and communications businesses are beginning to realize they won’t attract imaginative, intelligent people unless they have a culturally rich community. Tourism is also vital. Tourists subsidize the arts through the hotel occupancy tax, and they make up more than 50 percent of museum visitors.”
One incentive to arts grant-making is having scrupulous and efficient grantees. At press time, the fate of the San Diego Symphony is unknown, and the widening wrangle over executive staff salaries and expenditures at the San Diego Museum of Art sits unresolved. Most arts patrons we spoke with have strong opinions on both debacles. They weren’t asked to debate them here. This is a story about where the money comes from, and why—not who spends it, or how.
The hardest challenge will be faced by grass-roots groups where the not-yet-famous experiment and innovate. San Diego Repertory Theatre, Sushi Performance & Visual Art, small dance and performance groups, alternative-art spaces—these are the folks who have depended on NEA moneys. They tend to fly below the radar of the big benefactor.
Marianne McDonald, patron and trustee of the small, brave Sledgehammer Theatre, sees a link between a diverse arts community and the soul of a city. “You need the means for living as well as the reasons. The reasons you get from the arts,” she says.
“I hope philanthropists will be generous. But when a society has public funding, it has greater representation from the bottom to the top. The arts become elitist otherwise. We have a multicultural society that has a responsibility to everyone. Our young artists need to be supported to experiment, so that they don’t just make all the safe bets.”
Hospitals and medical-research agencies suffer the changes in health-care economics. Those who give to them give passionately. Because medicine fascinates them. Because, well, most philanthropists are of a certain age and thinking ahead. Or because they’ve been touched, directly or indirectly, by grave illness.
Sally and John Thornton gave one of the city’s more spectacular health-related gifts. Their lead grant of $5 million to UCSD helped build the Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, a first-rate facility offering a new model in patient-centered care.
“Medicine was always sacred in our family. My father and great-grandfather were both physicians,” Sally Thornton explains. “We wanted to be role models in our funding of both arts and medicine. I haven’t just written a check. I rolled up my sleeves and worked. We’re proud of the results.”
The experience of giving large sums of money, she tells you, is not as much fun as it may seem. Philanthropy—overoptimistically defined by the Greeks as “love of mankind”—has its dark side. Whopping capital grants to a single source are controversial by definition.
“Building the hospital got us into a hornet’s nest,” Sally confides now. “The other hospitals and the press were punishing and unkind. We’re sorry we did it. We will be more cautious about our giving and involvement in the future.”
Marianne McDonald, who established the Scripps McDonald Center for treatment of substance abuse at UCSD, had the opposite experience. Building the center turned a personal tragedy into hope for others. Her daughter died in a drug-related gun accident.
“I’m from the CIA—a culture of Catholic Irish Alcoholics,” McDonald says. “My daughter got into the same trouble as others in my family, and I lost her. She was
a 15-year-old who didn’t get help. At the McDonald Center, they love people like her back to health. I also support gun-control efforts. People are conquered by guns, drugs and alcohol. I see myself as a freedom fighter. My causes always deal with quality of life.”
Venerable philanthropist Robert Driver and attorney Vincent Bartolotta both saw that Tijuana’s acute shortages in basic care weren’t just problems. They were our problems.
Driver, a frontier Mormon who cites medical missionary Albert Schweitzer as his role model, brought Project Concern to Tijuana, which led to his building that city’s Children’s Hospital. A business partner once quipped, “If you split a candy bar with Robert, make sure he’s the one who breaks it. He’ll always give you the bigger half.”
Bartolotta built Clinica de los Niños in Mexico as well as several orphanages there. “Our responsibility is to our fellow man,” he says of his cross-border funding. “Our two communities are economically and morally tied together.”
ATHLETES PLAY THE CELEBRITY CARD when drumming up public support for causes that benefit children.
John Carney, place-kicker for the San Diego Chargers, uses his star power and power kick toward loftier goals than those scored in football. He founded KickStart for Kids, a program that invites the public to pledge dollars for every point Carney scores during the regular NFL season. Funds benefit Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, which provides free reconstructive surgery to children with physical deformities.
“It was stressed to us at Notre Dame that you should leave a legacy,” explains the personable Carney. “As a professional athlete, you have a great platform for public service. I knew if I ever had an opportunity to play in the NFL, I wanted to give something back to my community. I wanted the money to stay in the city where I play.”
Carney doesn’t mince words on the issue of star power: “It’s flattering that people want autographs, but our myth is blown out of proportion. The real heroes are the doctors, teachers and soldiers. Athletes are performers in the entertainment industry. They’re not curing cancer.”
Chargers Darrien Gordon and Leslie O’Neal tried a different strategy. They knew that stars rise and fall, and as a result, causes lose their champions. They helped found Athletes for Education, a publicly supported charity that invites all players, in all sports, to participate in mentorship programs. The athletes commit to spending time in school classrooms, up close and personal, with kids. Their purpose is to tout the importance of a good education.
“I like to sit down with the kids one-on-one,” says Gordon. “It’s better than making a speech from a podium. I don’t stress being a successful athlete. I stress education. The kids are worried—about gangs, drugs and violence. They’ve been great at coming up with ways to make their communities better. They’ve started their own mentorship programs.”
Tony Gwynn gives more than a good show on the diamond. Tony and his wife, Alicia, started their own foundation, TAG, last year. The couple hosts fund-raising events to benefit their favorite causes: Casa de Amparo, New Haven, Palomar Pomerado Pediatrics, SDSU baseball and the Police Athletic League.
The Gwynns have been tireless community supporters for more than a decade, lending their names, magnetism and heart to a variety of causes. As Alicia says, “TAG was our way of making sure the money gets to the groups that really need it.”
Tony’s reason is more basic: “I do this for the kids. Early on, I wasn’t too outgoing. I didn’t like to go to the big fund-raising parties. Even the golf tournament we put on is a lot of hard work. But then I get to meet the kids we help—say hello to ’em—that’s when I know the reason I do it. It’s for them.”
“Tony will always be Tony,” says Alicia. “He’s a down-to-earth homebody. He just loves kids and helping people.”
CULTURE, EDUCATION AND HEALTH receive the lion’s share of philanthropic dollars. As Congress dismantles what current leadership calls the “welfare state,” those who provide services to the poor and disenfranchised wonder if significant philanthropic dollars will flow to their more difficult causes.
Health clinics, shelters, substance-abuse centers, AIDS agencies, women’s and minority services, gang programs, food providers, community centers—all have relied on government grants and churches to underwrite services. Of course, they’ve always had their donor angels too. In order to attract sustaining funds from the private sector now, they must compete with the far slicker money-raisers at museums, universities, hospitals ... and with each other.
Will philanthropists take on this Herculean task? Opinions run the gamut from “Absolutely” to “Absolutely impossible.” Many have been giving money in this arena all along. Some tackle the funding of poverty programs from aggressive new angles.
“The money is better off in private hands,” says former San Diego United Way chairman and Salvation Army supporter Kim Fletcher. “For every dollar we give to Washington, we get 50 cents back. The agencies doing a good job will survive. Others use their financial woes as a scare tactic. Maybe they should go out of business.”
Progressive donor Donald Cohen disagrees. “It’s ludicrous to think that philanthropy can take the place of government assistance,” he says. “The amounts cut in local Medicaid alone are huge. Philanthropists can’t handle it. Government isn’t the only solution. People need jobs. Donors need to help people build their own capacity to get into the fabric of civic life. And in the end, people will work hard and still need help. They should get it. That’s why we’re a country. “
St. Vincent de Paul supporter Vincent Bartolotta believes that good agencies will bring out more altruism in the wealthy. “I’m confident that everyone has a charitable heart,” he says. “The work I support at St. Vincent’s means so much more than just stopping homelessness. It’s not about the bum on the street with a wine bottle. They give people back their self-respect and an opportunity to start again. There are so many families in need.”
Susie Spanos, wife of Chargers owner Alex Spanos’ son, Dean, now heads up
Las Patronas, a 50-year-old organization of wealthy women that donates to many of these agencies. The work has brought personal insights.
“We go out and visit every place we give money to and really touch a critical need. I go to Logan Heights, Southeast San Diego ... places I’d never otherwise see. It’s deepened my experience of giving money,” Spanos says.
Young donor Victoria Danzig prefers to tackle social problems at core levels rather than through direct service. She and Donald Cohen are founding members of San Diego’s new coalition of progressive philanthropists, Foundation for Change.
“I was born privileged. I can’t make changes on behalf of people who weren’t,” Danzig says. “But I can support them to make their own changes. I fund social-justice groups and community organizing work. It feels morally right to me. I believe in change, not charity.”
Others apply free-market principles to humanitarian efforts. Joseph Jacobs, a political conservative, makes all funding decisions democratically with three liberal daughters. They agree on this: “When compassion is expressed as charity, it creates a dependency and causes a well-hidden resentment toward those providing charity,” says the elder Jacobs. “We demean people when we decide they are incapable of controlling their own lives. We wanted to use the principles of the free-enterprise process as a vehicle for ultimate self-determination.”
The Jacobs family doesn’t just send checks. They give help: They assist nonprofits in strategic planning to make them efficient economically and in their delivery of service. They support only programs that empower the poor.
The Jacobs family, Ira Katz and retail wizard Sol Price are on the vanguard of this new trend in giving. Jacobs and Katz spearhead a group of like-minded philanthropists who assist minority entrepreneurs, within the legal boundaries of charity. They focus their efforts in Southeast San Diego.
“The money and help are out there,” says Katz. “But the system is hopelessly confusing to a minority entrepreneur. The Jacobs Family Foundation is funding a directory of agencies. Another group of us will support an office with a staff that will go out door-to-door, to bring people the directory and advise them on where they can get loans and technical assistance.
“I’m a free-enterprise nut,” he continues. “I prefer to support entrepreneurs, who will need help the most while the revolution in global economics shakes out. As much as we need a symphony, disadvantaged people need help more.”
WHO WILL TAKE THE TORCH the older generation of philanthropists will soon pass? Katz and Jacobs have made sure that giving is a family affair. Their grown children sit on the boards of their family foundations (in Jacobs’ case, his daughter Linda is chairman). The coming intergenerational transfer of wealth, estimated nationally in the trillions of dollars, will decide the future content of San Diego’s character.
Some, like Victoria Danzig and Donald Cohen, are already active. They’re a minority. “I haven’t seen many young couples starting to do this in large numbers,” says San Diego Hospice chairman Sue Edwards. “There are a lot of them living in big houses in Fairbanks Ranch. But they don’t seem to care much about the city.”
Robert Driver’s son, George, does care. He’s philosophical about the responsibility. “My parents’ generation went through the Depression and hard times,” he reflects. “They’re more ready to give generously. The causes haven’t changed; there are just new ways of dealing with them.
“I was at the forefront of the hippie movement, which was about idealistic causes, peace and equal opportunity. I was outrageous. As I grew older, I wanted to be more a part of my community. My father’s influence shows up in the broad giving I do. Some of the causes are different—from arts and environment to military accountability. I believe the quality of life in my community is a reflection on me.”