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Someone's Gotta Give


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a painting depicting a man rolling out a carpetIMAGINE FOR A MOMENT that you have $1 million to spare. On second thought, make that tens of millions. You’ve provided for your family, your closest friends, even your in-laws. You’ve enjoyed many of the sumptuous trappings of wealth: a sweeping estate on the rolling hills of Rancho Santa Fe, a jewel of a yacht anchored in San Diego harbor, two shiny Mercedes SUVs and a closet filled with Prada.

Now you’ve decided to share your wealth. You are poised to give away millions you’ve earned—or inherited—for the good of humanity. Who or what will benefit from your largesse? Foster kids? Senior citizens? Poverty-stricken neighborhoods? AIDS research? Healthcare? The environment? Disaster relief? Education? Hospice care? The arts? The list goes on. Suddenly, wealth in hand, you are faced with a daunting decision.

Indeed, the stream of potential recipients and the currents of desperate need run broad and deep. Just ask Bob Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Foundation, which helps guide philanthropists in determining how their donations can bring about the greatest change for the common good. In the 10 years he’s been with the organization, Kelly says he has witnessed a profound change in the way San Diegans target their philanthropic gifts.

“I’ve seen a tremendous increase in concern about the environment, animal welfare, libraries, healthcare—almost every area that affects all of us on a daily basis,” Kelly says.

During the same period, he saw San Diego emerge from philanthropic adolescence into a sophisticated center of philanthropy. Unlike large cities back East with their Carnegies, Fords and Rockefellers— people who made their fortunes in manufacturing and large, “old” industries— San Diego historically depended on tourism and the military, neither of which tends to generate a great deal of local philanthropy.

That was then.

“Now, our new industries are real estate and high technology,” Kelly says. “These sectors have generated an unprecedented amount of wealth in San Diego. Just look around and you can see that there’s no shortage of cash here.”

During the 1980s and ’90s, the region saw an influx of well-to-do transplants from the East and Midwest. “Wealthy people, people like Ray and Joan Kroc, came here and made San Diego their home,” Kelly says. “Once that happened, they felt they had an emotional and financial tie to the community. And they felt the need to invest in that community.”

In her role as executive director of San Diego Grantmakers, Nancy Jamison has seen a similar shift.

“There is far more diversity today, both in the types of people making contributions and the nature of their gifts,” Jamison says. She calls it “a democratization of giving.”

For San Diego builder and philanthropist Conrad T. Prebys, the gifting decision was a virtual slam dunk. Earlier this year, Prebys gave $10 million to Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest. A resident of Point Loma, Prebys says he feels very much like a part of the community of Scripps Mercy.

“I like to get a bang for my buck,” Prebys says. “And the more I discovered about this hospital, the more I admired it. Besides, it seems like everyone I know was born there: my driver, my escrow person, the people I know socially. All of them.” He is president of Progress Construction & Management Company, a real estate and development firm he founded in 1966.

Hospital officials say his gift—the largest donation in Mercy’s 116-year history— will be used to expand the emergency department and trauma center, which are perennially overcrowded. The gift from Prebys will act as a jump-start for the expansion.

“This is the money we need to get this project under way,” says Mary Braunwarth, executive director of the Scripps Mercy Hospital Foundation. “We have more than 50,000 visits a year to our ER and trauma center, and we’re already under a great strain. This will provide funding for the largest expansion in the hospital’s history.”

Prebys’ gift to Scripps Mercy Hospital was not his first sizable philanthropic gesture. In 2005, he gave $10 million to the Old Globe Theatre. And he plans to keep on giving. Prebys says his original plan was to establish a foundation that would distribute his money after his death. “I can honestly tell you it’s a lot more fun giving away money while you’re still alive,” he says.

THERE WAS A DEEP emotional bond linking Prebys to the target of his generosity, something played out frequently on the grand stage of philanthropy.

“We see that all the time,” Kelly says. And he easily ticks off a number of examples: A doctor donates money to a hospital or research facility; an athlete contributes to a school sports program; an alumnus gives a philanthropic gift to his alma mater; a widow whose late husband was gently shepherded through his final days directs a portion of her estate to a hospice facility.

The gift to Scripps Mercy from Prebys came on the heels of yet another large-scale donation to a local hospital. Just weeks earlier, La Jolla businessman and real estate financier Ernest Rady and his wife, Evelyn, gave $60 million to Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa. It was the largest gift in the hospital’s 52-year history and one of the largest ever in San Diego County.

“This gift is a very good start in making sure we have the facilities we need so that no child will ever have to leave San Diego for medical care,” says David Gillig, executive director of the nonprofit hospital’s fund-raising foundation. The Radys’ donation will help pay for a $350 million expansion at the hospital, now renamed Rady Children’s Hospital & Health Center.

“In making gifts like this, people are saying they believe in all of the individuals who make up Children’s,” Gillig says. “There is a great deal of trust being expressed: trust in the surgeons in the operating room; in the nurses who are there to care for a sick child in the middle of the night; in the social workers, the dieticians—everyone who is a part of our mission.”

This was not the Radys’ first major donation in the region. In 2002, they gave $2 million to Children’s Convalescent Hospital. And in 2004, the Rady Family Foundation donated $30 million to the University of California, San Diego to establish a school of management.

While multimillion-dollar donations are often heralded in front-page headlines, people working on the forefront of philanthropy emphasize the importance— no, the necessity—of smaller gifts. You don’t have to be a Rockefeller or a Bill Gates to make a difference. Imagine that you have $20 to spare . . .

“Small donations are indeed critical,” Braunwarth says. “Giving back is important on every level.”

From his perspective at the Children’s Hospital Foundation, Gillig makes a similar observation. “The reality of philanthropy is that all contributions are essential,” he says. “If San Diego’s nonprofits had to rely solely on large contributions, we would be a very poor city —in more ways than one.

“At the end of the day, parents expect us to have everything at our disposal to save a child’s life. So yes, every penny is important. Most touching to me are the hundreds of parents who teach philanthropy to their children. We’ll get a donation of $7 from the proceeds of a lemonade stand or a few dollars from a child’s piggy bank. Those gifts are priceless.”
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