How the culture of philanthropy and volunteerism in Santa Cruz County is changing as millennials get involved
Even before Congressman Sam Farr steps up to the podium to give his opening speech at the 2014 Be the Difference awards, the air inside the Hotel Paradox seems energized by the presence of hundreds of local volunteers.
“There is just something about you people,” Farr tells the attendees. “You can’t live here unless you volunteer for two or three things. There are more protests in Santa Cruz County than New York City. There’s just something wonderful about the air here, and it’s in you.”
The rest of the event is just as upbeat, but it’s hard not to notice that among the legion of volunteers and community leaders at the ceremony, all but a handful are older, and many are of retirement age and beyond. It begs the question: what is the future of philanthropy in Santa Cruz County? And will the next generation of community members step up and give back like so many have done in years past?
According to the 2014 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project (CAP) report, the answer to the latter question is an emphatic yes. In fact, the report shows that a new generation of socially conscious givers locally are breaking the stereotypical notion that philanthropy and volunteerism are reserved for older adults.
The survey, conducted by Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, reports that although a higher percentage of respondents aged 45 and older gave money to charitable organizations in 2013 than other age groups, their numbers have stagnated or decreased in the last few years. But among those surveyed who were 44 years of age and younger, the number of respondents who gave charitable donations increased by more than ten percent since 2011.
According to a study conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, using the most recent IRS data, Santa Cruz County gave just under $160 million in charitable donations in 2012. Those under 44 years of age gave about 60 percent of the total.
Volunteerism was no different. The number of respondents surveyed under 44 claiming to have volunteered in their community nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013. Among the older community activists, the numbers have dwindled or stayed relatively close to their 2011 numbers.
Tech entrepreneur and local activist Sibley Simon sees his peer group in their 30s and 40s giving back when they can, but what excites him most is that millennials may turn out to be the most generous generation yet.
“While they are not as further along in their careers as some of the business owners yet, I think national and regional information shows that the millennial generation is way more community-minded and cooperative, and less divisive,” says Simon. “I think we will see that generation do way more for our society than, let’s say, my generation, which is in between the older and the younger generation.”
Simon was nominated for a 2014 Be the Difference Award for his continued work to restore the Evergreen Cemetery in Harvey West, and for the many other local volunteer efforts he participates in. But he wasn’t always such an avid social activist in Santa Cruz County. He first moved to the area in 2007 from Washington D.C. with his wife, Nina, who now serves as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH).
“Our first few years here, we weren’t very involved in the community,” says Simon. “But then as we gradually got involved with more, we just became so excited about a lot of the things going on in Santa Cruz.”
Soon after his wife became executive director of the MAH, they were taken on a tour of the Evergreen Cemetery. Simon immediately connected to the space, as his parents run a local history museum in his rural hometown in Washington.
“I don’t think that I’d ever said, ‘Oh, I love local history,’” says Simon, “but when I feel very connected to a place, and intend to live here my whole life, then suddenly I want that feeling of knowing where this place came from.”
While working to rid the cemetery of weeds and restore it to its original state for the past three years, Simon discovered, and fell in love with, the culture of giving back in Santa Cruz County.
“I realized we have a real volunteer-driven and involved community, and from individuals to schools to businesses, everyone is involved in the charitable projects and the vision for the community that they want to see.”
As an entrepreneur, Simon doesn’t see his philanthropic and volunteer work as “giving back,” exactly, but as a new way for him to be involved in bold and exciting projects where social return, and not monetary gain, is the ultimate goal.
“I’ve had some degree of financial reward in my life, so frankly it’s often more exciting to accomplish things where that’s not the primary return, and where people are really just genuinely excited about what gets accomplished,” says Simon.
Through his efforts to restore Evergreen Cemetery, Simon became aware of the homeless issues in the county, as impacts from homeless encampments can be found at the site, and homeless volunteers often come and help him with the restoration. This led him to become involved with the Homeless Services Center and the 180/2020 initiative.
“That is very entrepreneurial, where it says: here’s the goal, and that goal is ending a third of homelessness across the county,” says Simon. “There’s literally a business model there, not just in social return and the lives saved, but in the money saved to the community.”
Representing the next generation of volunteers is UC Santa Cruz senior, Ketty Blum. Through the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center’s YouthSERVE program, Blum was paired with local teens to volunteer at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter.
One of her mentees, Chase Arenal, a homeschooled high school freshman and aspiring veterinarian, meets Blum each week to give some much-needed attention to the dogs at the shelter. Although only 14, Arenal has been eager to volunteer for years.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the shelter because I live, like, a minute away, and when I was 8 I went to the shelter to volunteer and they said I had to be 14,” says Arenal. “So, when I turned 14, I went back, but they changed it to 18. Then I looked into it and found YouthSERVE, and now I work with Ketty.”
Blum calls her work at the animal shelter selfish because she enjoys working with dogs so much, and desperately wants one of her own, but the schedule of a college student isn’t so pet-friendly.
“I love dogs, and I want a dog, and I can’t have a dog, so the animal shelter is the next best thing,” says Blum.
Both Blum and Arenal find it a bit heartbreaking when the dogs they help are ultimately adopted, but they know it’s for the best.
“It’s good when we go back and all the dogs that we took out last week are gone and they got adopted,” says Arenal. “You feel like it was partly your help—that you helped them find a home.
The young duo believes that their desire to volunteer at the shelter is something they learned from their parents, and that they too will pass on the spirit of giving to the next generation.
“I feel like it just keeps passing on from generation to generation because the community is always going to need help,” says Arenal.
Perhaps part of the reason young people are so involved in philanthropy and volunteerism in Santa Cruz County is the number of opportunities they have to do so—with causes reaching out specifically to their age group. Among the approximately 1,500 nonprofits in Santa Cruz County, there are some very unique organizations, such as the Teen Kitchen Project, which won special honors at the Be the Difference awards.
Founded in 2012 by local elementary school teacher Angela Farley, the Teen Kitchen Project aims to help teens learn the art of cooking, and provide healthy food to the critically ill.
Farley, whose son battled a rare form of cancer in 2011, knows all too well the struggles that come with a life-threatening illness. While her son was receiving treatments at UC San Francisco, Farley did a lot of commuting back and forth, and finding time to cook wasn’t always an option.
“Treatment can go for a long time,” says Farley. “Two months into it, we were eating a lot of takeout.”
A close friend bought a year’s worth of food at an auction, and gave it to Farley at one of the small weekly gatherings held to support her son through his treatments.
“I remember just crying when I received it,” says Farley. “I was grateful but I knew that this was something bigger. I knew there were other people out there going through the same challenges that could benefit from something like this.”
After her son was released from treatment and healthy, Farley sought out a way to help feed others going through what she had, but didn’t find much luck until a friend suggested she check out the Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol, California.
“I went to their website and saw these teens preparing meals, and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,” says Farley.
She then contacted the project’s staff and found out what she needed to do to make her vision a reality. Farley connected with the owner of a commercial kitchen, as well as cooks and farms that would be willing to donate to her vision.
“Everybody I asked pretty much said yes,” says Farley.
In September 2012, the Teen Kitchen Project was under way. The project continues to expand its volunteer and client base, and currently employs about 30 teen volunteers who prepare more than 350 meals a week. “Delivery angels,” as Farley calls them, then deliver the meals to about 35 families across the county.
“A lot of the people we deliver to don’t have any other source of food support,” says Farley. “The food we give to them on Wednesdays is something they look forward to, to carry them through the week.”
Operating the Teen Kitchen Project brings Farley a lot of joy as she watches the teen volunteers hone their kitchen skills. She hears feedback from recipients about how the food is nourishing them, but it can also be tough at times.
“It’s still sad when people pass away, or, for example, you deliver to someone you know, or a friend of a friend. It’s meaningful to be able to help them, but it’s hard. It’s bittersweet.”
Whatever the shift in the demographics of charity, the “old guard” of philanthropy is still critical to local organizations that depend on giving. According to the CAP report, the percentages of respondents claiming to give charitable donations in the county were highest among those 65 years of age and older.
One of the best-known of those givers is Rowland Rebele, who says he learned the value of philanthropy from his father. Still, he feels as if he didn’t truly become a giver until he moved to Santa Cruz County.
“I am very happy that I live in Santa Cruz because people are so caring about their fellow citizens,” says Rebele. “And I didn’t expect that necessarily when I came here in 1979.”
Although he is probably best known for his contributions to the Homeless Services Center, both monetarily and on the board of directors, Rebele is passionate about a number of causes in Santa Cruz County.
As a former newspaper publisher, Rebele knows the importance of open government meetings and an informed public in general. Because of his passion for free speech, he serves on the board of directors and contributes his money to the First Amendment Coalition, which provides free legal assistance and advice to journalists and concerned citizens.
“I think that having an informed public is the only way to preserve a democracy,” says Rebele.
Another cause that Rebele resonates with is the arts. He and his wife, Pat Rebele, avidly support the Santa Cruz Symphony and, just recently, the Catamaran Literary Reader—a new quarterly literary magazine based out of the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz.
“I think it has a great future, so I support it financially,” says Rebele.
After giving back so much of his time and resources to Santa Cruz County, Rebele finds that the biggest reward comes when the organizations he devotes himself to make a real difference in the community.
“The most rewarding thing is finding out from the organizations that we give to what their successes are, and whether they are meeting their mission,” says Rebele. “If I’m satisfied that they are meeting their mission, that is the reward. That is the satisfaction. It’s like making a financial investment in a business, or buying stock. When the stock goes up or when the business is successful, that’s the reward.”
Before deciding to give to an organization or cause, Rebele takes stock in their management and administration, just as he would with a business investment. If the organization is accountable and financially responsible, and the cause worthwhile, he is happy to support it.
“I think you need to know what you’re giving to, and make sure that they are totally open and well accounted for,” says Rebele.
The spirit of giving back is not a characteristic that Rebele sees as inherent in certain people, but as a learned trait passed down to the next generation, as he learned to give from his dad.
“People are more interested in what you do than what you say, and when they see you giving back your time and your financial resources, I think they’re moved to model that behavior just like I was moved to model my dad’s behavior as a giver. I think the more we give as older adults, the more our kids and grandkids do the same, and I see that in my kids.”
Lying in the generation between Rebele and Simon, which according to the CAP report, is the second biggest age group of charitable donors in the county, is local venture capitalist and philanthropist Bud Colligan.
Like Rebele, Colligan feels that the spirit of giving is sown during one’s upbringing, which later blossoms with age.
“When you’re an adult, you start looking around at the things you really care about, whether it’s the arts, or the environment, or the hungry, or the homeless,” says Colligan.
In addition to the capital he provides for emerging businesses, Colligan gives to a variety of nonprofits in the county. Most recently, he and his wife provided the Tannery Arts Center with a notable gift to help them build a performing arts theatre.
Colligan and his wife chose to fund the new theatre so that the community can benefit from the performances and lectures that will one day be held there, and to preserve the historical legacy of the Tannery for generations to come.
Even though he has met with financial success in his own life, Colligan feels that socioeconomic status has little to do with an individual’s inclination to give back to the community.
“I think there are many, many people who give enormously, even if they have very little,” says Colligan. “And there are so many different ways to give. It’s not just about money. It’s about organizing. It’s about bringing people together to give small amounts of money, and creating momentum around ideas that benefit the community. Whether a fundraiser raises $1,000 or $50,000, what’s really important is that people are working toward something that benefits something more than themselves.”
Colligan points to the multitudes of Santa Cruz County citizens who regularly contribute their time and skills to the realization of so many community projects like the Tannery’s future theatre, which, after 13 years of hard work, is set to be built by the summer of 2015.
“I think that, especially in this community, there is a wide group of people that care and are active givers,” says Colligan. “Some people give money. Some people give time, and some people give money and time. Without that whole network of people, it doesn’t work.”
Working to connect all of the active givers in Santa Cruz County—for causes ranging from the environment with Save Our Shores to fundraising for the Colligan Theatre—is Angela Chesnut.
Chesnut moved to Santa Cruz after retiring from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where she took on cases concerning drug and human trafficking, among others. Although she has since left her role as an investigator, Chesnut feels that her work as an FBI agent lends to her current employ as a volunteer and fundraising consultant in the county.
“I went from being an investigator, which is basically an advocate for victims—and winning the trust of the witnesses to win cases—and applied that to fundraising. I see there’s a parallel between the two. In fundraising, you earn the trust of your donors to fulfill the mission, much like in a criminal investigation.”
Similar to the tough cases she chose to take on as a criminal investigator, Chesnut is attracted to challenging causes, which others may see as hopeless.
“That’s part of the adrenalin-seeking in me, much like when I was an agent.”
When a number of state parks were under threat of closure in 2009, Chesnut reached out to the California State Parks Association to see if they would be interested in a fundraising event that would bridge together smaller organizations, namely the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.
“They were intrigued because they didn’t know what I had up my sleeve,” says Chesnut.
The park closures reminded Chesnut of the author, Douglas Brinkley, who, at the time, had just penned a book about Theodore Roosevelt and his role in establishing national parks. She contacted the author, and he stopped in Santa Cruz to speak on his book tour, and helped Chesnut raise funds for the parks. He even mentioned the potential park closures on a news program. Through her efforts, Chesnut helped to raise $15,000, and established connections between organizations who had never interacted before.
“I try to be a creative artist around fundraising, even if it’s challenging,” she says.
As a longtime fundraiser with a master’s degree in international studies and sociology, Chesnut has a strong theory about whether the spirit of giving back to the community is learned, or whether it’s an innate characteristic in certain individuals.
“I believe we all come into this world inherently good, and either we’re not all afforded the same opportunities of child rearing, or we’re exposed to a certain culture or religion that is more closely knit,” says Chesnut. “And things change, and tragedies happen. You lose a parent. You lose a pet. You are a victim of domestic violence or things like that. I think that changes you. It erodes away from the core of you being completely innocent and untainted. I think it’s the life experiences that either enrich you, and you get more compassionate, or you get really jaded.”
Although Chesnut feels that there is more of a tradition of donating to charitable foundations where she hails from on the East Coast, she sees the people of Santa Cruz County wanting to give more than just a check.
“They really want to feel it and touch it. They are much more tactile about it,” says Chesnut. “I think it’s definitely more spirited here. It seems to be the mecca of nonprofit organizations, but interesting ones, and creative ones.”