In one of the largest donations ever to a single charity, the estate of the late philanthropist Joan B. Kroc announced plans Tuesday to donate an estimated $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army to build 25 to 30 community centers in struggling neighborhoods around the nation.
Kroc, widow of McDonald's restaurant magnate Ray Kroc, died of brain cancer Oct. 12 at her home in Rancho Santa Fe. She was 75.
During her lifetime, she stealthily donated hundreds of millions of dollars to programs promoting education, health care, African famine relief, the arts, the pursuit of peace and nuclear nonproliferation.
Following terms of her will, Kroc's estate has given $200 million to National Public Radio, $50 million each to peace institutes at Notre Dame University and the University of San Diego, $20 million to the San Diego Hospice, $10 million to the San Diego Opera, $5 million to build a Catholic school in Chula Vista, and $1 million to San Diego's Children's Hospital.
The roughly $1.5-billion gift to the Salvation Army would catapult Kroc to the top of an elite group of charitable benefactors, which includes the likes of Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Walter Annenberg and Eli Broad.
Officials at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University said the Kroc bequest appears to be the largest ever given by an individual to a single charity. There have been larger gifts, such as the $6 billion given by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Gates to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but those donations were given to foundations for the upkeep of multiple charities and causes.
"Her passion for children and families and her hope for community peace will live on forever through this incredible gift," said Commissioner W. Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army.
Salvation Army officials said the exact amount of the bequest will not be determined until after the estate is settled, probably later this year. At her death, Kroc's worth was estimated at up to $1.7 billion.
Although specific locations have not yet been selected, Salvation Army officials said the centers would be spread evenly throughout the organization's four regions in the U.S. With a budget of more than $2.5 billion, the Salvation Army provides services to more than 42 million people.
"Mrs. Kroc was very specific: She wanted these centers to be in working-class neighborhoods, places where kids might otherwise not have these opportunities," said Maj. George Hood, director of community relations for the Salvation Army.
Former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor, a close friend, said Kroc had a vision that the community centers could help transform neighborhoods, much like libraries funded by steel baron Andrew Carnegie.
Kroc provided $92 million in the 1990s to the Salvation Army to build and operate a center in a racially diverse blue-collar neighborhood of San Diego. It will serve as a model for the other centers.
The San Diego center was built in the Rolando neighborhood in what had been a nearly abandoned shopping center. City officials say the center, which opened in June 2002, is helping to revitalize the neighborhood by boosting property values and acting as a magnet for new businesses.
The $1.5-billion bequest is to be spread over several years and split evenly between construction costs and an endowment to help with operating costs. None of the money can be used for existing programs or administrative overhead. A similar arrangement was made for the San Diego center.
The 12-acre center here includes an ice arena, basketball courts, a 50,000-square-foot gymnasium, a 600-seat theater, a kitchen, a performing arts center, a worship center, an Internet-based library, and rooms for child-care and nutrition classes. In its first year of operation, more than 420,000 people used the facilities and programs.
Just weeks before her death, Kroc visited the center to inspect a recent gift: a large outdoor sculpture by artist Henry Moore valued at $2.5 million.
Of her many charities, Kroc had particular fondness for the Salvation Army. She allowed the San Diego center to be named the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center to honor her late husband. Ray Kroc, who died in 1984, was also a benefactor of the Salvation Army and acted as a "bell-ringer" during the Christmas season in the 1950s and '60s.
Maj. Cindy Foley, co-administrator of the center here, said Kroc was elated when she learned that youngsters who had gotten skating instruction at the center were rapidly becoming champions, besting students from more affluent areas.
"She wanted everything to be the best here, to help support the dreams of others," Foley said. "She saw no reason these kids couldn't become Olympic champions."
The daughter of a railroad worker in Minneapolis, Kroc remembered the impact of having a skating rink in her neighborhood as a child. She specifically asked that a skating rink, built to National Hockey League specifications, be included in the San Diego center.
Philanthropy expert Paul G. Schervish, director of the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College, called Kroc an "entrepreneurial philanthropist" who wanted both a personal connection to the charities she chose and to donate enough money to see results.
"Mrs. Kroc chose her charities not just because there was a need," Schervish said, "but because there was a need that got under her skin and into her heart."
Unlike many philanthropists, Kroc did not form a foundation and had no official board of advisors. A small staff works in an unmarked office in San Diego; the address and phone number are closely held secrets. Kroc disdained bureaucracy and paperwork.
"That's why she closed the [Kroc] foundation after Ray died," said Catholic Msgr. Joseph Carroll, director of a downtown homeless program that Kroc supported. "She didn't want to be told what, when and how. That was too much like a job. She thought giving away money should be fun."
Kroc chose her charities by herself, with the help of close friends.
The decision to donate money to the Salvation Army for a community center in San Diego started when she asked O'Connor to give her a driving tour of some of the city's less-prosperous neighborhoods.
There was no official application process to receive money from Kroc. Often the genesis of her donations was a chance meeting or a newspaper story about people in need. Her initial contact with the San Diego Hospice project came after she met a woman on a flight to Chicago; the woman was a doctor interested in starting a hospice in San Diego.
The in-flight conversation with Dr. Doris Howell, now director-emeritus of the San Diego Hospice, led to an $18.5-million donation in 1985 to build a state-of-the-art hospice with a panoramic view of Mission Valley and the Pacific Ocean.
Two characteristics of Kroc's charity were spontaneity and anonymity. When the Red River flooded the upper Midwest in 1997, Kroc flew unannounced to the region and began handing out checks. In all, she donated $15 million to flood victims. Her largess might never have been known except for an enterprising newspaper reporter who traced the tail number on her jet.
When the San Diego Chargers traded place-kicker Rolf Benirschke, Kroc was moved by a tearful interview Benirschke gave to local television about being sad to leave San Diego. Benirschke had started "Kicks for Critters," in which people would donate money to the San Diego Zoo for every field goal he kicked.
Kroc called the zoo and pledged $100,000.
"She said: 'Tell Rolf that's to help wipe away his tears,' " said Chuck Bieler, onetime development director at the zoo. "She was an impulsive person, a wonderfully, wonderfully impulsive person."
She donated $3.3 million to the San Diego Zoo in the 1980s to establish the Tiger River, an exhibit for tigers, birds and reptiles.
She once wrote 64 checks for $250,000 each to the Ronald McDonald House Program for gravely ill children.
"Her methodology was simple: 'I want to make it happen. I don't want to wait a long time,' " said David Gillig, senior vice president of the Children's Hospital Foundation.
"Joan didn't want to be part of a campaign; she wanted to be the campaign."
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The estate of Joan B. Kroc, widow of the magnate of McDonald's Corp., is giving the largest gift ever from an individual to a single charity -- $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army. Other donations by the Kroc estate in 2003:
National Public Radio $200 million University of Notre Dame's peace studies institute $50 million University of San Diego's peace studies institute $50 million San Diego Hospice $20 million San Diego Opera $10 million
Sources: Salvation Army; Chronicle of Philanthropy
AP/Los Angeles Times