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PHILANTHROPY

L.A.'s Civic Culture Weakening

November 22, 1998|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power."

A society that encourages and rewards individualism needs something to hold it together. This "glue" is the "civic culture," that part of society that is neither government nor the wealth-creating private sector. Rather, it is the segment of the community that supports the arts and the poor, that reaches across ethnic and class boundaries and encourages participation in a common enterprise. A healthy civic culture usually depends on charity: corporate, foundational, individual, even governmental. In Los Angeles, a city that has expectations of national and international greatness, the civic culture is in danger of being weakened.

There are many reasons for this: changes in the character of the regional economy; a lack of interest in local issues among the city's wealthy; an attitude toward L.A. on the part of national philanthropic organizations that can be described, at best, as "benign neglect"; and a conglomeration of local foundations that has no unifying purpose. Not unlike their counterparts elsewhere, each L.A. foundation follows its own compass, supports those it knows and the issues its board cares about in ways that do not encourage broad engagement of the whole community. Even government now only provides seed money for innovative public-policy projects and expects the private sector to pay the operating bills.

Despite occasional large donations from both individuals and corporations, despite the fact that individual giving in Los Angeles exceeds the national average, despite the engagement of thousands of organizations after each of the region's natural and man-made disasters, there are ominous clouds on the horizon for L.A.'s civic culture.

The increasingly multinational orientation of the L.A. economy is a problem that has not been sufficiently recognized, but it can be glimpsed in ARCO's downsizing, which is only partly due to the fall in oil prices. The corporation has announced it will cut its exploration budget, lay off 900 workers and close 20 overseas offices. Although ARCO is headquartered in Los Angeles, it needs to create ties to those parts of the world where it does business and is expanding, and it must be mindful of its stockholders, who demand strict attention to the bottom line. In short, L.A.'s interests may not overlap ARCO's anymore. ARCO used to be the model of corporate citizenship, but its problems today are symptomatic of those corporations that once occupied the downtown skyscrapers that bear their names. L.A.'s civic culture can no longer count on corporate largess.

Corporate philanthropy, while important, is not the only financial backer of civic life. There are the national foundations, most famously Ford and Rockefeller, based in the East. Though Los Angeles receives some foundation funding, its share of national philanthropy is minuscule. A 1995 study of funding patterns found that the Boston-New York-Washington axis, which represents 12% of the U.S. population, received more than half the grants. Southern California, with 7% of the U.S. population, got 4% of the grants. Admittedly, a good part of East Coast funding went to national organizations. But there's no denying that the L.A. region is out of the foundation-funding loop. Significantly, while who receives foundation money is a private matter not subject to rules of fairness, where foundation dollars flow indicates expectations about a region's national cultural and civic strength.

To foundations in the east, Los Angeles is too large, too unmanageable, too out of control. They see little cooperation among the region's ethnic communities, nonprofit organizations, governments, leading universities and local foundations. These foundations say their money would generate no cutting-edge solutions to social problems because Los Angeles is unlike anyplace else, an attitude perhaps reinforced by the Northern Californians on their staffs.

Many L.A. foundations were created a generation or two ago by the entrepreneurs whose vision built Los Angeles. Taken together, their assets total around $20 billion, of which they are required to give away 5% a year, including the Getty and Keck foundations, the two largest. Their work is chiefly guided by the founding families and their friends, and they are, more often than not, driven by the individual interests of their boards rather than by professional staffs who meet at conferences and develop policy goals. They give to the organizations and individuals they trust, to those who will do the job, keep the books and make the appropriate reports. They don't support unestablished people or "iffy" programs, and they don't spend much on policy analysis. As one health-policy researcher put it, L.A. foundations "would rather fund an AIDS clinic than a study on how the [L.A.] county could improve its AIDS delivery services." They don't buy into national-foundation priorities because, as a board member asked, "Why should we fund their ideas?"

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