How Can People be More Enticed to Give to Social Services?


Antonia Hernández
President and CEO, California Community Foundation (CCF) 

If Los Angeles were judged solely on how we as a community have responded to the increasing needs of the most vulnerable people in our midst, there’s no question that Angelenos are one of the most generous in the country. In fact, last year alone our donors contributed $176 million to the foundation. We raised nearly $300,000 to help about 4,000 youth from low-income families attend summer camp, and donors also gave an additional $300,000 to help people in a crisis.

Even as Angelenos have been overwhelmingly responsive to the needs of the community, much work remains and we cannot lose sight of the scope of the problem we’re facing. For the 1.5 million people living below the federal poverty line in L.A. County, not having food to eat, having a roof over their heads, and getting good health care and quality schools is getting more challenging by the minute.

On any given day, at least 43,000 homeless people roam the streets of L.A. It only takes a job loss, a medical emergency, or a foreclosed home to drive families to get social services—many of them for the first time in their lives. For these new homeless, the reality of losing everything has been a sobering and jarring spiral of descent.

As an institution whose mission is to serve L.A., the California Community Foundation in 2009 granted nearly $46 million, or roughly a quarter of total grants, to nonprofits serving disadvantaged communities in L.A. County. This may sound like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the skyrocketing demand for services for those who need it most. Demand at food pantries, for instance, rose 34 percent in December 2009 over the previous year.

How are we trying to entice more donors to feel passionate enough about critical needs to direct more of their giving that way? By offering our generous family of supporters opportunities to partner with us in special projects that meet specific “basic needs” of a target population and by showing donors exactly how their charitable dollars are making a tangible difference in people’s lives. 

Two of these special projects focus on identified, urgent needs in health care and housing that will ultimately help improve the quality of life of a set number of families and individuals.

The first is a healthy homes program that teaches patients living in substandard conditions ways to prevent chronic illnesses like asthma, fungal infections, and rat bites through simple, cost-effective changes in their homes and surroundings. These illnesses cause missed work, frequent emergency room visits, and repeat doctors’ visits.

The second project prevents homelessness by providing short-term rental assistance to families struggling with unemployment and helping them get back on their feet. The families that participate in this project will also receive support services, including financial literacy workshops, ESL classes, resume-building workshops, and job-search counseling.

By connecting our donors to pressing community needs, we are helping them make informed choices at a time when many are reassessing their philanthropy to be more impactful as resources continue to shrink.

As I write this, another person in our community is forced to sleep in a box, tent or car, to line up for lunch at a local mission and face another day of despair. As generous as many Angelenos have been during this economic crisis, many families still need our help.

Focusing on housing, health, and hunger simply makes good philanthropic sense according to The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, which said in a report that donors can get “a big bang for their philanthropic buck” in these areas.

We all need to do our part to help alleviate the suffering of those who lack the basic necessities that we take for granted every single day. Let’s all commit to doing more than we are, because families await our help. 


John Fishel
Former president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Clearly a city the size of and with the wealth found in Los Angeles has the capacity to substantially fund not only major high-profile institutions but also those smaller, essential human-service organizations that have been so sorely impacted by the economy. After spending thirty-five years working in the not-for-profit world (eighteen of them in Los Angeles) I believe the challenge lies in creating a communal culture of giving that is driven by the wealthiest and predicated on peer pressure. Los Angeles remains an individualistic, entrepreneurial place. It lacks a consensus on critical needs. This is reflected in highly individual approaches to giving. We need a core group of the major philanthropists to be able and willing to leverage a portion of their personal generosity with their peers in support of service programs that are below the radar but work to ensure social justice in our multicultural and fragmented city. 

How we get the philanthropic leaders in Los Angeles to act collectively will be a challenge for Los Angeles in the coming decades.



Adlai Wertman
USC Professor of Clinical Management and Organization and the former President and CEO of Chrysalis

I spent the first 38 years of my life living in New York before moving to Los Angeles.  In Manhattan, there was no way to avoid poverty. While living in the Village in the 1980s, I remember deciding that I would give a dollar to every homeless person I passed on my five block walk down Bleecker Street to the subway. It cost me $15.00 most days—nothing compared to my Wall Street salary, but a reminder that there were 15 homeless people I passed or stepped over every day. Poverty was impossible to avoid, even down the block from my costly Greenwich Village apartment. 

And people in Manhattan came in all colors. You got on the subway each day with people from all parts of the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum. Even those living in the suburbs of Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island still had to ride the subways from Grand Central or Penn Stations. There was no way to avoid knowing that you were part of a larger community, where some members were truly struggling.

In 1997 I moved to Los Angeles and bought a home on the West Side. And in no time my wife and I were struck by the fact that nearly everyone was white and well off—other than the invisible housekeepers and gardeners. As I drove my kids to school and then down the 10 to my office on Figueroa between 7th and 8th, I saw almost no one of color.  Everyone was in cars and I never had to walk past or step over anyone. No subways or forced socialization. Wasn’t this grand—a city with no crime, poverty or homelessness (other than the fellow opening the door at the Starbucks in Brentwood—but everyone knew his name).

One day, a woman I met at synagogue told me that I was only looking at a very small part of the picture. She invited me to come see her a mere six blocks east of my office. As an ex-Manhattanite, I told her I would walk over even though she strongly suggested I drive. As soon as I passed the Jewelry District, everything changed, although it felt oddly familiar. Suddenly the streets seemed to darken as there were no businesses on the street. Homeless people were all over. The streets were littered with people passed out on the sidewalk. Mentally ill people walked around in a stupor and the look of despair in everyone’s eyes was palpable.

I was given a tour of Skid Row that day and could not believe what I saw. Even New York had nothing like this. The streets were packed with homeless. The concentration was unbelievable. I walked into the crowded missions (like Andy Bales’ URM) and rehab centers like Weingart. I walked past the Hippie Kitchen on Gladys and past a crowd of mentally ill souls at LAMP Community.

How could this be so close, yet so separate? I was a five-minute walk from my highrise office on Fig. Even the cars on the street changed. The BMW’s and new Toyotas I drove next to on the 10 were gone.

I learned quickly that the Los Angeles I was living in was not even a small part of the picture. I started making it my business to drive through South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, and the northern Valley. These communities were filled with working class people living alongside people in deep poverty. I learned that Los Angeles was the homeless capital of the world. I learned that 10,000 were living in their cars each night.

My life turned around that day and I went all in. I ended up quitting my job and taking the helm at an amazing non-profit called Chrysalis—the only non-profit in L.A. solely devoted to helping homeless people get and keep jobs. And I went back each day to the West Side and told stories of what I saw each day. I would bring clients to tell their stories. But nothing I would tell people could move them the same way as a trip to Skid Row. When I took them downtown or to South L.A., they too were never the same. And their checkbooks opened. The most common thing I heard was a tear-filled voice repeating “I had no idea”.

So how do I think we can get people to give more to social services?  We need to get people to see what lies outside of their own small communities. We need to get people downtown. Let’s take students AND their parents to the missions and the schools. I know this sounds like I am creating a Disney ride through poverty—but I know firsthand that if we don’t get people off the 10 and across the 405, people with money will continue to have no idea.




Ken Martinet
President and CEO, Catholic Big Brothers

Mark Lacter’s article asserts that many of us in the non-profit human services sector in Los Angeles are and have been at the low end of the “pecking order” for charitable giving contributions. Most of the major charitable donations—whether given by individuals or corporations—have gone to the visibly larger edifices and institutions. Here are some thoughts I have about the situation: 

Major givers like to give to well-endowed causes that they are familiar with and that their friends approve of.  Charities should give better visibility to the high school graduations and productive citizenship of the poor we serve. They should better highlight the achievements of the poor that very often prevent tragedy and crime in the community.

The California communities and especially our non-profit institutions do not get our pro-rata return of the taxes our citizens pay to the federal government. We should make sure our charities are invited to sit at the national policy-making table where deals are cut so that we have the chance to receive our just share.

Among our affluent communities and institutions, the largest portions of contributions most often stay within those same institutions (i.e. faith assemblies).  Givers should at least parcel off and share their affluence with poorer communities and the charities that serve them. 

Corporate flight has taken dollars out of Los Angeles’s charitable pools. Businesses should be encouraged to spend community funds here rather than take those funds with them elsewhere.

L.A.’s population is nouveau rich—immigrants or newly wealthy. Donors should at least be informed of the benefits of helping local charities to the community.

The greater Los Angeles area has its economic, education, and crime challenges.  We also have an opportunity to show the gifts of being a large and burgeoning marketplace and a cosmopolitan city.  We deserve our portion of public and corporate largess but let’s not forget to share our own existing wealth equitably.


What do you think?

Photograph courtesy