Contributing Reporter

There’s nothing like a good economic bounce to bring out a city’s generosity.

In the early ’90s, deep in a business and real estate slump, Los Angeles found itself saddled with a reputation as a poor place for philanthropy. Now, the fortunes of the non-profit sector are turning around with those of the city as a whole.

And with the money pouring in, some say L.A. got a bad rap: Maybe it wasn’t stingy at all just strapped.

The city’s cheapskate image seemed confirmed by a 1994 study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy putting Los Angeles near the bottom among U.S. metropolitan areas in per-capita giving to charity.

But a survey done last December by the Field Research Corp. for the California Community Foundation painted a different picture. Nearly three-quarters of those interviewed 74 percent told the Field interviewers that they gave to charity in the past year. That was 5 percent above the national average in a Gallup survey the year before, and it came as good news to the foundation’s president, Jack Shakely.

“It verifies the hunch we had all along that Angelenos are a lot more charitable and a lot more giving than they are described,” Shakely said when the report was released.

It also may show how much difference a brisk economic recovery and a roaring bull market can make. The data for the 1994 study (which have not yet been updated) focused on giving to established charities, such as the United Way, and came mainly from 1992 and 1993. They caught Los Angeles at a bad time, when the city was suffering more than most areas from the double blow of a recession and defense cuts. By the time of the Field survey, the city was well on the upswing.

So, whether or not the soul of the city has changed, the bottom line for fund raisers has. Joe Haggerty, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, says giving to his organization is up 10 percent this year.

“We’re seeing good, broader participation with more people giving,” he said. And big gifts are up even more sharply. The number of $10,000-and-up donations this year stands at 245, up more than 25 percent from last year’s 194.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, donations for fiscal ’97, which ended last June 30, were up 14 percent over the year before, to $20.2 million (That does not include donations of art). The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, an umbrella group for social services and other programs, saw an 8 percent rise in the same period, to about $43 million.

At the Huntington Library in San Marino, chief fund-raiser Peggy Spear reports a “bonanza year we’re all terrified that someone will ask us to repeat it next year.” Spear expects to bring in $23 million, a jump of more than 50 percent in the fiscal year ending this month. She credits a special capital campaign, along with the stock market, which has made been fattening the wallets of foundations as well as individual investors. “Foundations, for the first time, are giving you more than you asked for,” she said.

In the arts, foundation money has been easing the pain of cuts in government aid. At LACMA, acting Development Director Tom Jacobson said foundation gifts rose more than fivefold, to $3.8 million, in fiscal 1997, while government grants were cut in half, shrinking to $195,000.

Another kind of new-money-for-old shift may be starting in corporate giving, an area in which fund-raising experts say L.A. has suffered more than its share of losses.

Mergers and defense downsizing have left the city with few big-company headquarters traditionally a source of major gifts. “In the ’60s and ’70s we had a great core of corporate executives that provided leadership,” Spear said. “We don’t have that anymore.”

Mona Hobson, a consultant who helps non-profits with capital and endowment campaigns, says, “You lose that balance you traditionally have” between corporate and individual gifts when the company headquarters base is so small. Firms based elsewhere will give, she said, “but their gifts won’t be what we call ‘leadership gifts.’ ”

But Hobson sees a new breed of leaders starting to emerge. Southern California may have lost most of its big banks and many of its Fortune 500 firms, but newer companies in technology and health care are starting to fill the gap.

Los Angeles entrepreneur Alfred E. Mann fits this new category. Though not young himself (he’s 72), Mann has started five medical-device and electronics firms, and he’s currently chairman of two, both based in Sylmar.

Now Mann is making his mark in education with two of the biggest gifts in recent years to any university, in or out of Los Angeles. In February, he signed an agreement to give $100 million to the University of Southern California to set up a biomedical research institute. He also announced he would make a gift of the same amount for a similar purpose at UCLA, though the final deal has yet to be worked out.

Together, the gifts rank in the top 10 private donations to American higher education.

Walt Disney Co. also has become a higher-visibility giver in recent years, working to put the campaign for Disney Concert Hall over the top. The fund-raising drive for the facility started in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian, and the Disney family has pledged $25 million since then. The campaign picked up steam in the past year with the help of additional donations by Disney and other companies.

The fund-raising community seems to have a split verdict on Hollywood. Spear calls the entertainment industry “a hard nut for us to crack.” Jacobson says it has always posed “something of a challenge” for fund raisers, “but you do always run across some people who are generous.”

The entertainment business has a history of supporting hospitals and, more recently, the war on AIDS. Former super-agent Michael Ovitz has longstanding ties to UCLA, as does his wife Judy. The Ovitzes gave $25 million last year to help repair quake damage at the UCLA Medical Center. The year before, Michael Ovitz received the university’s top honor, the UCLA medal, at the medical school commencement.

The current surge of giving may not settle the debate about the state of the city’s heart and its ranking as a place to raise money for arts, education and charity. Even optimistic fund raisers say their work can be challenging in a region with so many distinct communities and without the old-money philanthropic traditions of Eastern and Midwestern cities. But the latest numbers do seem to back up a point made by John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation, who says Angelenos gladly open their pocketbooks in prosperous times. “When people have the means,” he said, “they do respond.”

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