The Giving Gap

Bifurcation. Now there’s a word most people don’t toss about in everyday conversation. Tom Peters, though, head of the Marin Community Foundation, uses it a lot when he talks about issues such as:

* Health care: “The gap that exists in access to health care is a really serious, serious issue, a bifurcation.”

* The environment: “Another bifurcation is the gap between rhetoric and practice on environmental issues. We have a giant footprint.”

* Economic disparity: “By and large Marin is a pretty segregated community (and) when you live cheek by jowl with people whose lives are way more comfortable, way more cared for than yours, then the struggles of your life are in sharper contrast. What would it be like to see somebody else take their child to a pediatrician at first sniffle and you have to struggle to get your own child with a serious health problem to a doctor? That contrast is rough. The bifurcation and layering of Marin is one of our real ethical challenges.”

These divisions, these fault lines between the comfort of Marin’s many haves and the discomfort of its (surprisingly) many have nots, form a gash that slashes through all aspects of the community—from housing to health, from education to environment. Bridging this gap are local charities, nonprofit organizations that feed the poor, nurture the old and protect the abused. In the broadest sense, they plug holes in an increasingly tattered social safety net that government cannot (or chooses not to) maintain on its own.

“Even though this is Marin County, there is incredible need here,” says Linda Davis, head of the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership in San Rafael. “Just because it’s so wealthy doesn’t mean it’s not there. Nonprofits fill that need.”


Marin’s charitable resources

Building a bridge across the giving gap requires three ongoing components: effective charitable organizations, money to pay those organizations’ bills and willingness by haves to write a check (or donate their time) for the have nots.

Marin has plenty of all three.

It has almost as many non-profits as Porsches and Priuses. In fact, a study by Davis’s group found that Marin has more nonprofits per capita than anywhere else in California, one for every 136 people, or one for every eight poor people. (What’s poor? Eight percent of Marin lives under the poverty line of $20,444 for a family of four; 20 percent of local families make less than $50,000.) Of course, not all nonprofits are charities. The Belvedere Tennis Club, for example, is a nonprofit.

Marin also has money, much more than most places. Households that make more than $200,000 are six times as common here (20 percent) as in the nation as a whole. Per-capita income ($49,000) is twice the national level. Million-and-up starter homes in the right neighborhood are considered bargains.

Marin is also generous. A new Marin Community Foundation study concluded that “giving and volunteerism is thriving” here. Some examples:

• 92 percent of Marin residents either volunteered or donated money in the last year, up from 87 percent in 2000.

• 86 percent of households made charitable contributions, up from 80 percent in 2000 and beyond the national average of 70 percent.

• Marin households gave an average of 2.3 percent of income to charity, a touch more than the national average of 2.2 percent.

All that giving adds up. That clank of coins you tossed in the bell-ringer’s bucket just before Christmas or that $40 check for a MALT membership, plus the heftier sums charities seek from the government and deep-pocketed, private foundations, equals enough money to run several good-size cities—20 of them in fact. In 2007, Marin nonprofits took in at least $1.8 billion, 20 times the city budget of San Rafael, according to a review of 1,236 nonprofit tax returns by the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Where does all that money go? The Marin Community Foundation study found that most inividual Marin donors (58 percent) give to human service organizations (the Family Services Agency or Canal Alliance, for example) and education groups (Kiddo!, e.g.), environmental organizations (48 percent) and religious groups (46 percent). Other categories included politics (39 percent), arts (35 percent) and the aged (28 percent).

As always, the numbers tell an incomplete story. They don’t show the faces of the Marin children whose next meal is coming from a government-issued can of peanut butter. They don’t speak of the local women who seek refuge from the fists of their abusive husbands in a nonprofit shelter. They don’t take us inside the shuttered homes of the old and infirm forced to choose between a doctor’s visit and decent housing. Tom Wilson, executive director of Canal Alliance, which serves San Rafael’s Latino immigrant community, puts it succinctly: “We see people every day who go without health care. We see people every day who go without food. We see people every day who can’t afford housing. And we’re talking about working people here.”




Feeding a need

Food is the most basic of human needs, so perhaps nowhere are Marin’s economic fault lines more visible than inside the cavernous Novato warehouse of the Marin Community Food Bank. Some 2 million pounds of fresh, prepared and frozen food come into and out of this nondescript building every year, a flow of life-enhancing charity to emergency pantries, the elderly and other nonprofits that is sustained by more than $1.2 million in private and public donations, the hands-on largesse of 600 local volunteers and the energetic savvy of Anne Rogers.

A South Carolina transplant whose soft native accent belies the formidable sense of urgency with which she speaks, Rogers is not one to dwell on yesterday when tomorrow is another day with more hungry people in it.

In the world of nonprofits, where other people’s money is as necessary as air, financial uncertainty is a given. But for Rogers and managers of other Marin charities, a change of strategy by the county’s single largest source of funding—the Marin Community Foundation—has elevated everyday uncertainty to nerve-rattling anxiety.

“We’re really very nervous,” says Rogers. “I’m going to be 70 years old in May and this is my 26th year. The foundation has given us a great deal of money through the years and I would no way minimize that, but if we get our funding cut to the quick, I don’t know how we’re going to provide the quality of service we’re proud of. You don’t want to feel that any child goes to bed hungry.”

Indeed, the food bank has already lost more than half the $250,000 it had become accustomed to getting annually from the Marin Community Foundation and it could lose more. And that’s what worries Rogers, even though nearly 60 percent of the group’s income comes from individual donations.




The Marin Community Foundation

Discussions about charitable giving in Marin County inevitably turn to (or often begin with) the Marin Community Foundation. To call the foundation the 800-pound gorilla in the local philanthropic jungle does not do justice to its size and influence. It’s fair to say that nearly every Marin nonprofit is affected by the foundation one way or another. The seed of the foundation was the $9.1 million that Ross matron Beryl Buck left in a trust in 1975 to be used for the benefit of local residents. After a fortuitous turn in the stock market and a litigious interlude over control of the money, the trust metastasized into hundreds of millions, and the Marin Community Foundation was formed to manage it in 1986.




Today, the foundation oversees about $900 million in Buck money and another $300 million in donor-advised funds, the trusts of wealthy families or business groups who have a say in how that money is distributed. Altogether, the foundation is the nation’s sixth-largest community foundation and 51st largest overall.

The foundation created a stir in Marin’s nonprofit community two years ago when it announced plans to reslice the $60 million (or so) pie it gives away each year. More than half that money flows from the donor-advised funds. The foundation can advise but not dictate how that money is spent (although 50 percent does stay in Marin). Another big chunk—$7.6 million last year—is allocated to the three Buck Trust–funded institutes: the Buck Institute for Age Research, the Buck Institute for Education and the Marin Institute.

The roughly $25 million that’s left is divvied up among local nonprofits. That amount is not changing. What is different is who gets the money. Previously, the foundation allocated 70 percent of its discretionary giving to sustaining grants that paid for ongoing operations, and 30 percent to initiating grants that started something new or paid for a one-time cost such as construction of a new building. Under the funding shift, the split will be 50-50. In simplistic terms, the result is a $5 million reduction in grants to the foundation’s traditional recipients.

Peters, the foundation’s president, said the change was intended to answer “one basic question: Can we be sure we can tell a story of impact?” In other words, says Peters, donors, especially younger donors, increasingly want visible results for their money, what fundraisers call social return on investment. And results bring in more money.

“That theme is so strong,” says Peters. “We feel it and see it. When people sense their giving is changing somebody else’s life for the better, they absolutely dig deeper.”

The foundation’s study also found that more than half of local residents (and 83 percent of people ages 18 to 35) would give more to charity if they “knew that charities used the money effectively” or were “making a difference.”

In that quest for impact, the foundation is exhibiting an if-you-build-it-they-will-donate approach to grant-making. In the last couple of years, it has funded a gym in the San Geronimo Valley ($925,000 in grants), a community clinic in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael ($1 million) and a firehouse/health clinic in Bolinas ($1 million).

To be fair, the foundation is also thinking big. Last year it announced two large countywide initiatives—to develop better services for the elderly and to create more local affordable housing.

“This is not about esoteric interchanges,” says Peters. “This is about demonstrating that what you do matches your intention. Younger, more involved donors say, ‘I am ready and able to give and to give substantially, but I want to know that this is really making a positive difference.’ ”

Phrases such as “positive difference” are, of course, open to wide interpretation. Social service nonprofits, those that confront society’s chronic ills, have a more of a challenge demonstrating immediate benefit than someone building a new gym.

“The concern I have with shifting a proportion of the funds to bigger initiatives,” says Margaret Hallet, executive director of the Family Services Agency of Marin, whose services include suicide prevention and child abuse protection, “is that day in, day out, year after year we are helping hundreds of individuals and having positive outcomes. It may not be sexy, but it’s having an impact.”

Hallet has lost about 10 percent of her Marin Community Foundation funding in each of the last three years, causing the agency to rely more heavily on government grants, which come with “lots of strings attached.”

“They want short-term funding,” Hallet says of the foundation, “but there are going to be people coming to us all the time and we need funds to meet those needs. People come, they improve and they leave. They don’t stay forever. But these services aren’t conducive to one-time funding.”




Coping with change

Three quarters of the nonprofits the Marin Community Foundation has funded never received more than 10 percent of their budgets from the foundation, but money is so tight for some of them that any squeeze in revenue could be devastating.

Senior Access, which aids elderly people and their caregivers, “was faced with closure last year” when it lost nearly $200,000 in foundation funding, says Cris Chater, executive director. Only a last-minute gift of $1.2 million from a now -defunct local endowment kept it going, she says. “The lesson here is that we all have to have a diversified portfolio.”

Ironically, the Marin Community Foundation’s $1.2 billion reputation can make it harder for local nonprofits to find money elsewhere.

“I go to the Cal Endowment, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and they just send us right back home, saying, ‘You have the sixth-largest (foundation) right in your own backyard,’ ” Chater says. “The Marin Community Foundation is a blessing, but it can also be problematic.”

Gary Giacomini, a former Marin supervisor and a member of the Marin Community Foundation’s board, has been a vocal proponent of the new grant strategy, citing as one reason the proliferation of local nonprofits.

“Years ago, when I was a supervisor, there were 72 non-profits; now there are 2,700,” he said in a Marin Magazine interview in September 2006, overestimating the actual number by about 1,000. “They’re all doing good things, but in many cases what we were really doing is paying for everyone’s administrative staff. If funding is scarce, groups with similar goals should merge, says Giacomini.

“There’s some truth that there’s some potential for groups to join forces,” says Tom Wilson of Canal Alliance, itself a merger of two longtime advocacy groups. “We are operating in a marketplace and we don’t like to think of it that way. We think of ourselves as a cause. We try not to compete with each other, but in reality there is a fixed number of funding sources and the pie is only so big.”

Although Canal Alliance still receives 30 percent of its operating budget from the Marin Community Foundation, it also is funded by about 30 other foundations and takes in about a quarter of its $2.5 million budget in individual donations. Wilson’s pitch to donors is that Canal Alliance makes “meaningful change in the community,” and that his organization is uniquely positioned to do so.




Land, not services

Being unique and being able to show donors the impact of their money—that “positive difference” thing again —greatly increases a nonprofit’s chances of thriving.

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which keeps land in agricultural use by buying development rights from farmers and ranchers, is a good example. Although no director of a nonprofit would say his or her organization has mastered the art of fundraising, MALT comes close.

First, it benefits from the priority Marin residents place on environmental issues, donating to related nonprofits at much higher levels than the rest of the country. More important, it has used that environmental affinity to extract 80 percent of its $1.2 million operating budget from a base of more than 5,000 annual donors, making it able to stay in business without relying on large foundation grants.

“We’re a very clearly focused organization,” says Bob Berner, executive director. “It’s pretty easy to understand. It’s not a service. It actually results in the preservation of particular pieces of property. It has the quality of being very specific and very tangible.”

MALT did receive money from the Marin Community Foundation for many years, says Berner. But, because “foundation grants were inherently unpredictable in the late 1990s, we worked hard to wean ourselves from our dependence on foundations.”



Looking ahead

Keeping Holsteins on the hillsides of West Marin certainly fits under the rubric of the high impact, visible change. And even though MALT will always need more money to keep pace with the rising cost of farmland, it’s fair to say Marin has responded to its mission and its message.

What of the county’s other nonprofits, those trying to bridge “the grievous gap in educational performance” and the other “bifurcations” cited by Tom Peters? Is the 2.3 percent we’re giving from our weekly paycheck enough?

No, says Wilson from Canal Alliance.

“I really believe in Marin County we could solve those problems,” he says, referring to disparities in health care, education and transportation. “There’s enough wealth in Marin County to solve those problems. There’s room to give more. There’s room for me to give more. There’s room for all of us—not just the wealthy.”

Image 2:  Tom Wilson, Executive Director, Canal Alliance
Image 3:  Tom Peters, President and CEO, Marin Community Foundation