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The City Is Diminished by Philanthropic-Death-by-Merger

L.A.: As headquarters move out, giving and the connection to the community are lost, and we're all poorer for it.

March 16, 2000|JACK SHAKELY | Jack Shakely has been president of the California Community Foundation since 1980

Now that Los Angeles is officially assuming the title of America's District Office, with the imminent takeovers of the Los Angeles Times and Arco, it's time to pay our respects to the loser: local philanthropy.

Both Times Mirror and Arco consistently have been among the handful of philanthropic leaders over the decades. Programs like "The Los Angeles Times in the Classroom," and more recently, "Reading by 9," show what can be accomplished through leadership backed by grant dollars. Arco helped the California Community Foundation raise more than $10 million in a matter of months after the disastrous Central Library fire, and its community grant-making has become legend.

Both corporations will, of course, stress that the impending mergers will have no effect on their gifts, grants and dedication to the local nonprofit community, and they will mean it. History, however, has always proved such announcements to have little staying power. It really can't be helped. Captains of industry, not district managers, provide philanthropic leadership.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles has a long history of philanthropic-death-by-merger. When locally owned Getty Oil Co. was taken over in the mid-1980s by Houston-based Texaco, $1 million a year in Getty grant dollars to Los Angeles disappeared overnight. This is not about picking on Los Angeles, either. When San Francisco-based Chevron took over Pittsburgh-based Gulf Oil, Pittsburgh nonprofits lost $8 million over a period of a few years. Local philanthropic giants The Broadway, Security Pacific National Bank, First Interstate Bank and Bullock's are no more, and neither are their contributions.

Even when corporations try very hard to maintain philanthropic effort, erosion is certain. Bank of America is a good corporate citizen, but when it took over Security Pacific, its philanthropic center moved from Hope Street to San Francisco, and its initial commitment to local charities, including the United Way, eventually slipped well below what the two banks had given separately. Now that the Bank of America Foundation has been removed to North Carolina, we're going to see another decline, regardless of how valiantly local B of A officials struggle to keep philanthropic share.

You can track all corporate giving in ever-widening concentric circles out of the headquarters office. Giving, at least big giving, is still a peer-to-peer, leader-to-leader activity. I once studied the giving of a large oil company and discovered that your chances of getting a grant from that company were 70 times greater if upper management was on your board than if it wasn't. Corporate chairmen don't join boards of nonprofit organizations thousands of miles from their homes.

In California especially, geography is our enemy: "Pushpin philanthropy" comes into play. Make one grant in Los Angeles, one in Oakland, one in Sacramento, put three pins in the map, and tell your boss you've got California covered. I was told by a Miami-based corporate-giving program officer that there was no hope for a grant in Hollywood "because we already made one in Long Beach."

So goodbye corporate leadership, so long chairmen and CEOs, executive committees and volunteer heads of building-fund drives. We're Middle Management by the Sea now, resigned to an era of philanthropy from afar. When we are told, "we gave at the office," that office is in Chicago, Charlotte or London.

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