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Charity Must Be in the Water

In Santa Barbara, giving is a way of life for both the moneyed and volunteers -- often one and the same. They hope to rope in Oprah too.

September 12, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — The 500 people lunching under the white tent on the Montecito lawn had waited two years for this moment. Now they had her. Oprah Winfrey was making her "coming out gig" on behalf of a local charity.

It was the philanthropy coup of the year. The Santa Barbara charity set had finally bagged one of the richest and most famous women in the world. Their new neighbor. And, hopefully, their new friend.

Winfrey was the guest speaker at a $500,000 fund-raising lunch in late April at the estate of Marlene Veloz for the local chapter of Girls Inc., a group that runs after-school programs for girls.

Others had plotted how to lure the billionaire television star to their own causes. But Winfrey had made it clear that anybody approaching her should talk first to Veloz, her new jogging partner and the previous owner of the $50-million, 42-acre estate that Winfrey now calls Tara II.

Her speech was another high point for one of the nation's most remarkable philanthropy scenes. Santa Barbara, a city of 90,000 people, is home to about 600 nonprofit organizations and 900 social and cultural programs. And charity is a way of life.

Santa Barbara's art museum, zoo, natural history museum, ballet and opera companies, symphony and chamber orchestras compare with those of cities with populations in the millions. But the nonprofit community doesn't stop with cultural amenities for the rich. There are four major homeless shelters, environmental groups, health and education programs. Name the problem, there's a group trying to fix it.

"Philanthropy accounts for a tremendous part of the well-being of the entire Santa Barbara area," said County Supervisor Naomi Schwartz. "For a small community, the amount of giving is amazing. It's probably off the charts."

Santa Barbara is 90 miles from Los Angeles, and has always taken care of itself. Philanthropy isn't just an activity here. It's what defines you as a member of the community, whether millionaire donor or working-class volunteer.

The millionaires and the few billionaires sprinkled around Santa Barbara create a misconception that the whole town is rich. In fact, the median income for a family of four in Santa Barbara is $57,880, lower than the state median of $63,761. Santa Barbara's nonprofit engine also is fueled by middle-class wage earners.

There is a charity ball or other philanthropic event almost every day and night. Many groups hold their fund-raisers on the same day every year so key donors won't get confused.

Though Winfrey has made only one major appearance so far, there is plenty of other celebrity glitter.

Jeff Bridges, Kenny Loggins and John Cleese are among the most active these days. So are Jonathan Winters, Fess Parker and Bo Derek. Though he's not on the party circuit, Michael Jackson donates trips for children's groups to his Neverland estate in the Santa Ynez Valley.

But celebrities are everywhere in Southern California. What most distinguishes the charity world in Santa Barbara is how closely its members and other wealthy donors work together with volunteers. And how much they accomplish.

Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics in Washington, D.C., is a national expert on philanthropy. He says Santa Barbara is unique in the emphasis it places on teamwork.

"I don't know of anyplace else in the country like it," he said. "In much of the rest of the nation, there is a barrier between donors and volunteers that creates a feeling of arrogance. In Santa Barbara, they are all in it together."

Two rules define the charity scene in Santa Barbara. According to Erin Graffy de Garcia, author of a tongue-in-cheek book titled "How to Santa Barbara," rule No. 1 is involvement.

"In Santa Barbara there is an unwritten understanding that to take your place in the community, you must be an integral part of a local nonprofit," her book declares. "If you are not able to donate beaucoup bucks, not to worry. All your spare time will also suffice."

Santa Barbara's cultural institutions were well established by the end of World War II. One of the community leaders over the next two decades was George Castagnola, a fisherman and restaurant owner whose favorite charity was St. Francis Hospital.

Hazel Blankenship, one of a newer generation of Santa Barbara philanthropists, credits the late civic leader with bluntly setting forth rule No. 2:

"This is how the game is played. I have my favorite charity and you have yours. When you ask me for a check, I write it. When I ask you for a check, you write it. The first time you don't, you are out of the game."

At the center of it all is the Santa Barbara Foundation, one of the 50 oldest community foundations in the United States. With assets of $184 million, it tops all Southern California community foundations in per capita giving and coordinates the charity activities of 38 local family foundations known as the Roundtable.

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