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California Endowment broadens ambitions and narrows scope

Robert Ross is concentrating the healthcare foundation's grants on 14 neighborhoods for long-term assistance. It's an approach that is sending ripples through the philanthropic community.

November 30, 2010|By Cara Mia DiMassa, Los Angeles Times

But she said that she has watched as Ross became a student of the vast metropolis, seeking out community and business leaders to guide him. And she said that the moves he is making to shift the endowment's mission reflect what he has learned and what Los Angeles needs.

"Most foundations want to do some nice little safe pilot project that they can give a plaque out for," Rice said. But Los Angeles, she added, "is too complex, our problems are too big for that. He's doing place-based intervention, pegged at the transformative level."

"If you change the endowment," she added, "you change California philanthropy."

The California endowment was created in 1996 after the nonprofit Blue Cross of California became a new for-profit company. As part of its deal with the state of California, the new corporation gave $900 million cash to fund the endowment, which strives to expand access to affordable, quality healthcare.

The endowment annually gives out about 5% of its worth. Last year, that meant $165.8 million in grants.

Ross knows that money is meager given the problems in the state, which he says has a huge to-do list. The system, he said, is not working. The middle class is disappearing. The health of children is suffering. The state's poorest neighborhoods "are in the cauldron of these issues of lousy schools, unemployment, violence."

The Building Healthy Communities initiative is a chance to right at least some of those ills — or at least try. Foundation money is being used to combat childhood asthma and obesity, fix up local parks to make them safer and cleaner; build fitness centers in unused spaces; create neighborhood gardens and provide better access to preventive medical care, among other things.

The last few years have not been easy at the endowment. The financial downturn took away 30% of the endowment's worth — though some has been regained. And a staff restructuring, brought on in part by the need to shift job responsibilities for the new community-focused initiative, meant that 40 of its 150 employees left the foundation or were offered buyouts.

But the financial downturn has also brought the endowment into closer partnerships with local governments, which have been hit by their own budget problems because of the recession.

"This time of crisis has helped bring us all together in new ways," said Aileen Adams, Los Angeles' deputy mayor in charge of the Office of Strategic Partnerships, half of which is funded by foundation money.

The government "doesn't have as much free resources," said James Ferris, the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Non-Profit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy and director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC. "There's a lot of interest in looking at partnerships between foundations and government working together to solve problems," he said.

Whether it's the county health department asking the California Endowment to assist with writing a grant for federal stimulus dollars or nonprofit groups encouraging their constituents to claim food stamps or earned income tax credits, the goal is for a "multiplier effect," said Sushma Raman of Southern California Grantmakers.

Ross sees the partnerships as part of the solution to improving communities, with private and public helpers working for common goals. But he also sees key difference in the two roles. While the government provides basic service, the endowment is focusing more on longer-term programs that can ultimately make the communities more self-sufficient, including a focused push toward creating green jobs in each of the 14 targeted neighborhoods.

"The paradigm shift is that rather than viewing these communities as supplicants waiting for a white knight to come in to save them," Ross said, "they actually have the creativity and the energy. The answers and problem-solving have to come from these communities up, and .... they will demonstrate the problem-solving behavior that Sacramento and Washington need to learn from, rather than the other way around."

The initiative, he said, "wasn't an experiment. It wasn't a pilot. The bottom line of why disinvested communities struggle is not an innovation problem. It's a power problem."

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