Giving Where Need Is Greatest : California Community Foundation: 75 Years of Philanthropy


Claudia Moore was being realistic when she applied for a grant for her Resident Empowerment Project to train tenants as managers of their public housing projects around Los Angeles. Maybe she would get funded, maybe she wouldn't.

"Public housing is a (popular) term today," she says, "but so many people have a negative image about public housing residents; they think all the drugs and gangs come out of here. What we're trying to show people is that the residents here want the same things other people want."

Moore, chairman of the Housing Authority Resident Advisory Council, applied to the California Community Foundation and was granted $28,000 for her yearlong project. Now in effect, the project includes leadership, drug and gang workshops to get tenants involved with managing their own housing projects.

The Resident Empowerment Project is typical of the kinds of innovative programs the California Community Foundation, a Southern California nonprofit grant-making organization, funds.

"We have the luxury to do that," says president/director Jack Shakely, "because many of our donors give money unfettered; we are allowed to grant it wherever the need is greatest."

The foundation celebrated its 75th anniversary with a multicultural festival last month that drew thousands of people to the Japan America Theater and Plaza for a day of ethnic entertainment and food.

Local banker Joseph Sartori began the foundation in 1915 to allow donors to give to charitable organizations through one foundation that would manage the grants. Other than that attention-getter celebration, the foundation has generally kept a low profile--except among the environmental, human service and education programs, struggling artists and community programs that come to it for funding.

"The whole concept behind the foundation is that we quietly administer all kinds of funds that may be as small as $500 for a scholarship to a high school student, up to a multimillion-dollar grant for an AIDS organization," says Shakely, an energetic man whose previous jobs included teaching people how to write grant proposals, as well as being director of development at the University of Oklahoma. He describes his current position as "one of the last renaissance jobs in the world."

Sitting in his mid-Wilshire high-rise office that looks out over a vast, smoggy expanse of Los Angeles, Shakely adds: "That profile is beginning to change gradually. The foundation never went to the public; we're not a fund-raising organization in the classical sense, we're a device for donors to create funds, and most of our funds are created through wills and bequests. . . . People don't make a gift through the California Community Foundation emotionally. It takes months and months of discussion."

Specifically the foundation funds programs in seven areas: arts and humanities, education, environment, health, human services and public affairs.

Following the 1986 downtown library fire, the foundation provided money for the Save the Books Fund. It funded AIDS Project Los Angeles when there were few donors giving to AIDS groups; provided the seed money for the ethics committee, created by Mayor Bradley to draft an ethics code for city government; and instigated a Fund for New Americans, helping immigrants establishing permanent residency.

During fiscal year 1989 the foundation granted $9.3 million (from an endowment of $90 million) to hundreds of programs, making it among the top 25 foundations in California. The foundation's offices also house a funding information center for nonprofit groups.

Donors may give through unrestricted funds (the money can go to any programs the foundation chooses), field of interest funds (the donor chooses one area, such as senior citizens or the environment), restricted funds (earmarked for a specific group) or donor-advised funds (a living donor acts as adviser). Use of money not allocated to a specific project is voted on by the foundation's 14-member board.

The board includes former attorney general William French Smith; philanthropist Caroline Ahmanson; civic leader and arts supporter Ann Shaw; Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theatres Corp.; and Esther Wachtell, president of the Music Center.

"What I enjoy about being on the board," says Wachtell, currently in her third year, "is that I have a tremendous opportunity to see the broadest possible spectrum of activity in the community. . . . When I look at a proposal, I see whether or not there is a need that is going to be met, and whether or not that particular organization has the infrastructure and the sensitivity to meet it. The foundation has the kind of framework that gives all kinds of innovative programs and relatively new groups an opportunity to flourish and meet their needs."

Of her colleagues on the board, Wachtell says: "Because these people come from such varied backgrounds, they bring a unique perspective about the community. There are so many issues that are discussed, and I think all of us defer to each other's expertise."

In addition to their accomplishments in the business world, Shakely adds that members are elected to the board for their philanthropic endeavors as well.

The board often votes on newly established organizations and innovative programs that may have had difficulty finding funding elsewhere.

"We found that in a lot of cases," says Shakely, "the organizations were so new that you really had to look beyond the organization and look at the constituency and say, "This is a good idea, the target population is vulnerable, so we're going to take a chance."

One innovative program that stands out in Shakely's mind is a series of Spanish-language radio plays done last year that dealt with AIDS and was targeted toward Mexican immigrants.

"People said that we were crazy to do this, that it would cost too much money, and radio stations wouldn't play it," Shakely says. "They (the programs) were fairly explicit and dealt with real-life situations. Some of the radio stations did reluctantly put it on at first, and now they're doing it for free."

He adds that for every one proposal accepted, 12 to 14 others are turned down.

"One of the things we key into," Shakely explains, "is the community it comes from. There are certain communities in L.A. County that are more vulnerable than others. We're looking for that, and we're looking for the kind of dedication that shows in whether they've done something like this before, if they've had any kind of track record with another organization, and whether they have a very thoughtful and well laid-out plan. I guess the biggest problem we have in this business, is that people see a proposal as a way of getting money, but not as a way to develop a really thoughtful plan of attack. Sometimes they get the money and it's like Robert Redford in the movie 'The Candidate'; they say, 'Now what?' "

"What we're looking for," says Shakely, "are new ideas from old organizations as well as new ideas from people emerging out of the community; Claudia Moore's Empowerment Project is one. And we have no idea if this program will succeed or not, and in a year or two we'll see. One of our program officers went to their first meeting and things are already starting to happen."

Shakely points out that innovation also means higher risk and sometimes more failure. "When something breaks apart and we don't understand why, we're forced to repeat the accident," he explains. A failure doesn't necessarily mean that that program will never be funded again, but Shakely insists on documenting what went wrong so the same mistake isn't repeated twice.

For Shakely and the board of directors, looking over grant proposals is a kind of barometer of public concern.

"Sometimes you can tell when things have reached a critical mass by the proposals we get," he explains. "When I first came here 10 years ago, I never saw proposals for child abuse programs. Then in 1982 and 1983 they were trickling, and then we were besieged by them. I think it says something about community tolerance. And right now people are saying they're not going to accept homelessness. I can give you more proposals and good ideas now about affordable housing in the last six months than I've seen in the last five years--really good ideas. I'm fascinated watching that kind of flow."

Katie Lipkis, vice president of the urban environmental group TreePeople, came to the California Community Foundation seven years ago when she was shoring up her organization's fund-raising operations.

"We had received a very large grant from Arco a couple of years prior to that," she recalls, "but you find there are these rare people in a position of giving you money, and you regard them as friends; Jack was one of those. I felt I could go to him with my heart a little bit on my sleeve, and I knew he had the organization's best interests at heart, and he was passionate about what we were doing, and he wanted to see us succeed. There was a definite feeling of, 'Let's see what we can do together.' "

Among the three grants TreePeople received from the foundation was one to augment a school education program; TreePeople went from working with 12,000 to 15,000 to 107,000 children a year. Another grant helped increase the group's membership through a direct mail marketing program.

The grants, says Lipkis, were in the $12,000 to $15,000 range, "a small chunk" of TreePeople's budget. (This year it's at $2 million.) Despite their past successes with the foundation, their most recent grant request to fund a donor survey was turned down.

"That's an important point," says Lipkis, "because even though TreePeople and Jack are buddy-buddy, TreePeople didn't get funded. The board makes up its own mind."

As president of the foundation Shakely is in a position to see the ills that plague the city and the people willing to remedy them. He also sees philanthropy growing as residents become more concerned with helping their community, and remains stubbornly optimistic that the trend will continue.

"I've noticed that for so many years, we weren't philanthropic," Shakely says. "That's not true at all anymore. Second- and third-generation money tends to go into philanthropy, but brand-new money does not. If someone has just made money, you're going to have a hard time convincing him to give it away. But even people in the entertainment community, who are notorious for being rich one year and broke the next, have a deep caring sense of the community. I think they see that L.A. is a microcosm of the world--if we could live together here, a lot of good things could happen. If we could protect our environment here, any other city might be able to do the same thing. Many say they want to help the rain forest, but you'd be surprised at how many are saying, 'This is where I live, this is my home.' "

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