When Ginny Ueberroth was invited four years ago to join the board of the Orange County Community Foundation, she was only "vaguely familiar with the work of foundations," she said.
But it didn't take long for Ueberroth and her husband, Peter Ueberroth, to learn that the concept of a nonprofit foundation began in this country 80 years ago and today is represented in hundreds of communities with billions in assets.
In no time, Ginny Ueberroth joined up and volunteered to chair the foundation's "Endow Orange County" campaign, a fund-raising effort that aims to build an endowment of $11 million.
Last year, using Coca-Cola stock, the Ueberroths of Laguna Beach gave $500,000 to the organization, which was founded in 1989 by Judith Swayne to support local programs in health care, environment, education, the arts and social service.
"Peter and I have a great love for Orange County, and we wanted to give to something that would be around long after we're gone," Ginny Ueberroth said, "something that will keep on benefiting others."
Guests at the recent annual meeting of the Irvine-based foundation were welcomed with a word of caution: "Community foundations are somewhat confusing--a lot of people don't fully understand them," said Lee Hancock, foundation board president, as he addressed the crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach.
Guest speaker Dennis Collins, president of the James Irvine Foundation, echoed Hancock's comments: "Judy Swayne asked me to tell you everything I know about foundations, which was probably her way of saying , 'Keep it short,' " Collins quipped during his opening remarks.
Later, Swayne, executive director of the Orange County Community Foundation, gave her own definition of a foundation: "It is a community savings account--a mutual fund for donors," she said. "Donor assets are put into a pool and invested by money managers selected by our board of governors. The income is distributed to the community in the form of grants. And donors can make choices of how they want those funds to be used."
In the 1995-96 fiscal year, the community foundation distributed about $1.5 million to nonprofit programs.
"The foundation genre [of charitable giving] represents the fastest-growing sector of organized philanthropy in this country," Collins told the more than 100 guests gathered for the luncheon meeting.
"Last year's results were nothing short of phenomenal. Nationally, total donations to community foundations rose by 51%, to $1.8 billion," Collins said.
"Meanwhile, total assets climbed by 28%, to roughly $13 billion. The number of community foundations in the country jumped from 476 to 520," he said. "The number of foundations that raised $10 million or more were at an all-time high--41, up from 32 in 1994."
There was a collective gasp from the crowd when Collins spoke of the most unusual gift given to a community foundation last year: "The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation was given the Kansas City Royals baseball team," he said. "And they will now sell it to the highest bidder who promises to keep the team in Kansas City. Now, that ought to prompt a creative idea or two in this entrepreneurial community."
What is motivating Americans to give to community foundations?
"In part, of course, this tremendous growth reflects the beginning of the transfer of wealth from World War II generations, which has been predicted for some time. . . . But I think there is something far more profound" taking place, he said.
"I think the community foundation movement has a lot to do with America's search for community. We Americans have always sought places where we can come together and share our common humanity.
"Today, there are fewer and fewer such places. Where once the city park, barbershop and union hall were places where the bonds of community could flourish . . . the park has become dangerous, the barbershop has turned into a style salon and the union hall has disappeared," he said.
"Community foundations are the anchor institutions that establish a network for caring individuals . . . giving is one of the essential elements of a civil society."
And finally, Collins told the audience that there is an important distinction between charity and philanthropy.
"Charity, at best, is something that can merely sustain," he said.
"Strategic philanthropy"--such as that employed by foundations--"is both more selfless and more ambitious.
"It confronts problems that face society with the humility that it may not have the wisdom to provide the complete solution, but has the firmness of purpose to search out a meaningful change."