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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Jack Shakely

The Good News About Charitable Giving in L.A.--It's Alive and Well

April 26, 1998|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

A popular perception about people in Los Angeles is that they're too busy talking on cell phones, having plastic surgery or doing lunch to think about contributing to their community. But, like so much about Southern California, this, too, appears to be based largely on myth. There are, in fact, strong indications that Angelenos may feel more of a sense of responsibility toward their neighbors than do folks in New York, Chicago and other major U.S. cities.

Late last year, a Field Research Corp. study found that almost three-quarters of the Angelenos it surveyed reported giving to charities within the last year--5% higher than the national average. Their contributions tend to go to local, rather than national, organizations and fund everything from the purchase of textbooks for Los Angeles Unified School District students to job training for homeless parents.

The philanthropy of the people of Los Angeles has swelled endowments at organizations such as the California Community Foundation, the city's oldest private charity. Its funds have more than tripled in the 1990s, fueled by an unprecedented number of donations made by individuals who call this city home. And, according to the foundation's director, this philanthropic spurt appears to be forming into a steady stream that bodes well over the long term for charitable organizations and the people who benefit from them.

As head of the California Community Foundation since 1980, Jack Shakely is slowly building a name for his organization, which combines small-to-medium endowment funds from individuals and manages them. In the world according to Shakely, charity is a business. It has a good product, but it has to innovate and create new efficiencies to thrive. The California Community Foundation has done just that, according to management guru Peter F. Drucker, who has praised the organization for spending less than one cent on the dollar in administration costs.

The 58-year-old Shakely, who speaks with a pleasing Oklahoma accent, has big plans for his foundation and hopes to increase its endowment from the current $350 million to $1 billion by the year 2002. The father of a son by a now-dissolved marriage, he plans to remarry this summer; he says he doesn't intend on slowing down for at least a couple of decades. In a conversation from Philadelphia, where he was meeting with other community foundation administrators, he spoke about the business of charity, the projects he's most proud of and his sense that the spirit of giving is very much alive in the City of Angels.

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Question: The California Community Foundation's endowment has grown dramatically during this decade, more than tripling in size. Have Angelenos suddenly become more generous, or is there something else behind your good fortune?

Answer: There has been an amazing creation of wealth in Southern California, and many of the people who participated in it are now getting on in years, and are thinking about giving something back. Many people born just after World War I--the people who came into adulthood around the time of World War II--accumulated an amount of wealth that is unprecedented. These are people who came out to California, maybe bought a house in Laguna Beach for $15,000, and now find that house is worth $3 million. The people who participated in the postwar boom in California are now beginning to die. Many are leaving fabulous estates, many are inclined to give to charity, and that's how the Community Foundation is growing.

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Q: While that might be good news right now, it might be bad news in the future. A number of studies have shown that the baby boom generation is far less charitable than their parents.

A: I've read those studies, and I think baby boomers have been disconnected from charity. But that's not to say that they'll always be. There is a maturation going on, and that disconnection is disappearing. In fact, I think, as the baby boomers get older, you may see philanthropy becoming the next big thing.

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Q: Well, then perhaps there's another bit of common lore that you can skewer, which holds that when it comes to charity, Southern Californians are skinflints. There was a report issued about a year ago which showed Angelenos at the bottom of the barrel among major cities in charitable contributions. Is that a misconception?

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