Community Foundation Update

For the last six months resident volunteers have been working hard to set up a new community foundation aimed at improving the quality of life in San Carlos. At last night’s Council meeting they presented an update on where they are in the process and where they plan to go.

This effort was initiated when the Council earmarked $2,000,000 of the $6,000,000 PG&E Line 147 settlement as a potential endowment for a new foundation (it’s potential because the Council hasn’t yet voted to commit or transfer the funds, in part because the new foundation isn’t set up yet).

The residents gearing up the new foundation represent a cross-section of San Carlos: long-term residents, recent arrivals, people with fundraising/not-for-profit experience, business people, parents with school age children, parents with grown children, people without children. When I see them I am reminded about how astounding San Carlos is, as a community, to have such a deep bench of people willing to sacrifice personal time to help the City of Good Living become even better than it is.

The group is also self-selected; the Council did not appoint people to the foundation. I made that point last night because I sense some folks think the opposite, that the foundation is a creature of the Council. We are certainly enabling its organization and launch with that potential $2,000,000 endowment. But it’s a home-grown effort, the same as all the other not-for-profit groups that exist in San Carlos (e.g., the San Carlos Education Foundation, Healthy Cities Tutoring, San Carlos Together, the Parks & Rec Foundation, the San Carlos Garden Club, etc.).

From what I’ve heard from the dais, both this Council and the previous one don’t want a foundation subservient to the Council. We will, I suspect, impose some constraints on how it uses the $2,000,000 grant. But, in general, the goal is to enable a group of committed residents to do what San Carlans do best: work together to improve our community.

As with any change, particularly one of this magnitude, there were concerns expressed about how the new kid on the block would fit in with the existing not-for-profit ecosystem. In particular, people speaking on behalf of the San Carlos Education Foundation and the San Carlos School District were concerned the new foundation would siphon off fundraising, making an already challenging public school financial situation more difficult.

Cameron Johnson, who chairs the group developing the new foundation, has said “If the San Carlos Community Foundation harms the San Carlos Education Foundation, we will have failed” (he said the same thing last night, several times, in different ways). The stated goal of the new foundation is to expand the pool of donors contributing to efforts aimed at improving life in San Carlos.

As a parent whose children attended our public schools, as a former school board member, as a long-term donor to the Education Foundation (not to mention someone who worked hard as a volunteer to help them expand significantly years ago), I wholly agree with Cameron.

Avoiding a negative impact, of course, is harder than stating it as a goal, and, ultimately, the proof is in the pudding; there isn’t any way that I know of to guarantee, ahead of time, that no “diversion” takes place. But having a clear, and sincere, goal of avoiding it is an excellent place to start. Building on that, through discussions with the various existing foundations serving San Carlos, seems like a good way for the new kid to fit in.

And it’s an area that clearly needs some work. The new foundation hasn’t spent a lot of time talking to the leadership of the existing foundations. I give the community foundation team credit for recognizing and owning that shortcoming, and committing to have those dialogs, pronto (they’ve already started).

Personally, I accept their explanation that the oversight was a result of all the work they had to do to come together as a team and to get things moving (launching a startup of any kind is neither easy nor a walk in the park, particularly when people have busy lives). And I applaud their commitment to work through the concerns of the other foundations to reach an acceptable modus vivendi.

As a side note, I think some of the concerns I heard expressed are the result of dealing with “the unknown”. Perfectly valid but probably overblown. Individuals and families don’t give to, say, the Education Foundation because they want to donate and it’s the only game in town (it’s not, but it’s the biggest player). They give to the Education Foundation because they want to help our public schools. That desire and focus doesn’t go away because a new foundation appears.

Granted, the situation for business donors is different. Some firms look upon philanthropic donations as a cost of doing business, and budget only a certain amount for each community in which they operate. That’s less true of local businesses, in my experience, where the approach is closer to the way individuals decide on their donations. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that should be addressed. I’m confidant there’s a way to do that (probably more than one), and it will be worked out.

I want to see the new foundation succeed. It’s stated goal of improving the quality of life in San Carlos is definitely something I support. But even more than that, I hope it will do for civic life what the San Carlos Education Foundation did for our public schools: significantly raise awareness of the opportunities and challenges facing the city.

When the San Carlos School Board was wrestling with its first “modern” financial crisis back in the early oughts polling data showed the overwhelming majority of San Carlos residents had no idea how financially strapped the District was (I know this because I served on the School Board at the time). They deeply supported their public schools, but were relatively clueless about its struggles. That’s not surprising; only about 25% of the households had a child in school at the time (and not all of those had children in the K-8 grades served by the District).

Far fewer households in San Carlos today are that ignorant; the vast majority understand the basic financial situation of the District. That’s due, in no small measure, to all the outreach and education done by the San Carlos Education Foundation. Their goal was not to educate the community per se. But in order to galvanize people to donate they had to explain why donations were important. That resulted in a community better educated on public school issues and more engaged with supporting its schools.

I believe the new community foundation, in the course of working to make life better in San Carlos, will do something similar on the civic side. Because we do have significant issues and challenges to deal with; we’ll get better outcomes, and a better future, from a more knowledgeable and engaged community.

I encourage everyone to watch the video of the presentation and the ensuing public comment and Council discussion. You can find it on the city website.

Overall, I was pleased with what I heard, with the public input that was offered, and with how the new foundation team reacted to it. It’s great to see community members committed to working together to improve San Carlos!

3 thoughts on “Community Foundation Update”

  1. Maggie Demkin

    I’ve read your post and I’m left with one question for the establishment of this foundation? Why?
    In the proceedings at the City Counsel meeting, in your write-up, and elsewhere I don’t see a clear NEED for the establishment of this new foundation. What I do see is, what appears to be, city counsel cronies being opportunistic with a funding source that should be used for things where there is a community based need, not just the “idea ” of a few people with an amazing power point. Maybe I’m sensitive in these times where those in power wield their power in a vacuum, but that is what you seem to be apologizing for above. Also, I saw your article in the San Carlos Living Magazine and you mention nothing about the things this foundation is meant to address. If you turn to page 25 of that same issue you will see a plea from local residents about the budget crunch for our schools. I know I speak for a lot of residents that I had a choice of where to live and I chose San Carlos because of the great schools. Our schools are experiencing a trough of funding and our kids will have to say goodbye to staff and services and they will experience higher class sizes. There was an AMAZING show of support by our community on 5/8/19 highlighting this need, were you there? SCEF rarely meets it’s goal before the final few days of it’s fiscal year. By introducing this “other” foundation, especially at this time would be incredibly detrimental to our schools and our community. With the new tax laws there are questions about whether people will donate as much. So in this time where our schools are in great need, total giving is questionable, and you have not real community charter, then I go back to my question – why?

  2. Hi Maggie,

    Again, let me repeat the apology I just sent to you via email: your comment (and another one on a different blog post) weren’t posted because I didn’t receive email notifications that there were pending comments (I get so few comments that I don’t check for their existence “manually”). I’m not sure what has changed, with either the software, the operating environment, or the configuration, but I appreciated your follow-up email bringing the matter to my attention.

    Regarding the points you raised in your comment, we’ll probably have to agree to disagree on the needs argument. I tried to outline a big need that I see — better understanding within the community of the challenges facing the city. More importantly, I am aware, from the flux of emails I’ve gotten over my years as a Council member, that there are a variety of things that people want: more and better recreational facilities/opportunities; more and better childcare options; a community pool; a community theater (and more support for arts in general). That’s not an exhaustive list, just some examples. Part of what I expect the new foundation to do is to foster community dialog on what the needs are, and to help prioritize them (which is something the Education Foundation has done vis a vis the District).

    I’m not sure who you believe the city counsel [sic] cronies are. The decision to put out a call for interested residents to form a community foundation was made by a majority (and maybe a unanimous majority, I don’t recall the exact vote) of the prior Council as part of discussing what, if anything, to do with the $6 million PG&E settlement.

    For those who are curious, the Council voted to allocate $1 million to essential/affordable housing, $3 million to the reconstruction of the Holly/101 interchange and new bicycle/pedestrian bridge, and $2 million for a community foundation endowment. Personally, I was (and am) opposed to the largest allocation, the $3 million for the Holly/101 interchange project, because while I do want a new pedestrian/bicycle overcrossing, I believe there are much better uses of the more than $10 million in local funds we’re going to end up pouring into that project.

    Where it sounds like we also disagree is on whether or not to view the San Carlos philanthropic community as being a zero-sum entity, that money given to one philanthropic effort inevitably reduces money given to other philanthropic efforts. The people working on creating the new community foundation — who include people who have worked on other San Carlos philanthropic efforts — believe there is untapped potential for philanthropic giving. I think there’s empirical data backing up that perspective: the Ed Foundation does a phenomenal job, but its penetration rate (in terms of the percentage of the community who donate) has not changed all that much in recent years. That’s not a sign of any failure on their part, by the way; I think it just means that different philanthropies appeal to different segments of a population, and they’ve successfully recruited local donors interested in supporting public education.

    Because I see community needs that none of the existing philanthropies target (not a failure on their part; those other needs are just not part of their mission) and because I believe there is untapped philanthropic potential for those needs in San Carlos I am willing to give the community foundation a chance to succeed. By growing the pie, so to speak.

    One last point that isn’t directly related to the community foundation discussion per se. Supporting education is a huge part of my family’s life. We’ve contributed, to date, almost $140,000 to educational institutions over the years, with almost half of that going to benefit the San Carlos School District (not to mention more volunteer hours than I can recall). So I’m always willing to look for ways to help our schools. I’ve had discussions with staff, and with some of my counterparts on the school board, about how the city might help the district with its current financial difficulties. Whether that involves buying and upgrading school athletic fields — giving the schools first crack/control over the fields during (extended) school hours — or just offering the district a loan, I’m willing to do something.

    But I’m also willing to give a group of committed, dedicated community volunteers a chance at making life in San Carlos better than it is in a different way. Why? Because I don’t believe in zero-sum thinking, and I do believe in San Carlos, so I’m confident that people of good will can make it work, for the betterment of all.

  3. Maggie Demkin

    Thank you for your lengthy, detailed reply. I see many of your points and want to reiterate that there is a sense that the timing isn’t right for this – given the trough in funding for our schools – and that that more needs to be done to emphasize that this is a community based effort – rather than focused on the ideas of just a few. Thanks again for taking the time to respond!

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