Susan True
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Susan True Steers Community Foundation’s New-Wave Charity

One year into her role as CEO, local nonprofit veteran leads the way on impact funding

PHOTO: JULES HOLDSWORTH

One of the first things Susan True did when she started as CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County was move her office right next to the front door of the 26-year-old organization’s Aptos office.

“I want to be accessible,” says True, a Minnesota native who moved to Santa Cruz to pursue a degree in community studies at UCSC in the early 1990s.

Since then, in two decades of work with local groups like the University of California AIDS Research Program, First 5 Santa Cruz County, and CASA, True has tackled everything from slowing the spread of HIV to court representation for foster children. (In the process, she became a foster parent herself).

An easy conversationalist who jumps deftly from different loan structures to the on-the-ground impacts of income inequality, True estimates that she’s amassed “at least 1,000 data points” in meetings with all manner of community groups during her first year on the job. The challenge now: connecting the dots on issues ranging from housing to public health to youth development.

“We have problems in this county that are bigger than any foundation’s grantmaking can cure,” True says. “How can the Community Foundation promote economic mobility?”

If the task sounds daunting, there are several factors working in the Community Foundation’s favor. For one, the organization’s financial muscle has increased dramatically, to more than $131 million in total assets last year, compared to $46 million in 2009, annual reports show. In 2017 alone, the Community Foundation gave out $6.3 million in annual grants, $15.2 million in agency investments and launched several new impact funds.

Among the programs True has spearheaded is an expansion of low-interest loans to organizations working on issues including local housing and small business assistance.

“She is someone who, when she gets an idea in her head, it’s gonna happen,” says Ian Magruder, a Santa Cruz native who works for loan recipient Landed. “Not everyone we work with has that mentality. It’s been really refreshing.”

The Community Foundation has allocated $1 million to support San Francisco-based startup Landed, which provides downpayment assistance to teachers purchasing homes in expensive areas like Santa Cruz. In the first several months of the program, 10 local public school teachers have taken advantage of the loans to buy homes in Aptos, Ben Lomond and other areas, Magruder says.

Key to the impact fund model espoused by the Community Foundation, along with nearby Silicon Valley donors like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg initiative, is long-term financial sustainability. Rather than a one-time grant or donation, the idea is that teachers will pay back the down-payment loans and provide capital for additional colleagues to use.

“If we were just giving away some free money, we could help some families, but it would be gone overnight,” Magruder says.

Philanthropy 2.0

In 2012, True embarked on an unplanned “hiatus” from Santa Cruz—a five-year tour of the Bay Area that took her through Stanford’s business school for a master’s degree in management and a job as director of education strategy and ventures at Oakland’s Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

While sneaking in weekend trips back to Santa Cruz, True also got a front-row view of the fast-evolving world of “social innovation.” An outgrowth of “traditional philanthropy,” or straightforward grants and donations, evangelists of social innovation—including, as the name implies, many tech industry philanthropists—promote a wider array of investment techniques, tax-advantaged funds and more detailed data on the impact of dollars contributed.

“We have so many tools now,” True says, noting that the Community Foundation has seen a sharp uptick in donations of tech company stock and more individualized “donor-advised funds.” The foundation also offers one-on-one planning for retirement fund disbursements and giving that takes maximum advantage of recent tax reforms.

For Reggie Knox, executive director of Aptos-based agricultural lender FarmLink, a recent $1 million loan commitment from the Community Foundation translates to more early-season capital available to small-scale Central Coast farmers. Like the teacher housing loans provided by Landed, the funding for FarmLink comes from the foundation’s Community Investment Revolving Fund launched after an anonymous donation earlier this year.

“Community foundations haven’t traditionally done a lot of what some people refer to as direct investing,” Knox says. “It’s a really exciting new area.”

While traditional banks rarely lend less than $250,000 to small businesses, FarmLink focuses on “microloans” of $50,000 or less. About 80 percent of those funds go straight to daily operations like seeds, fuel or irrigation supplies, Knox says.

“You have all these up-front costs at the beginning of the year,” he says. In Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties, FarmLink focuses on berry and vegetable farms that span 5-20 acres, including upstart farms that have traditionally struggled to get off the ground. “A lot of people drop out in the first three or four years,” Knox says.

Encouraging local first-time charitable donors is another priority for the Community Foundation, True says. That includes a first-time $20,000 commitment to Good Times’ own Santa Cruz Gives nonprofit holiday fundraising drive. The Community Foundation’s funds will bolster online contributions to 33 local nonprofits working on education, homelessness, public health, the environment and other causes. Organizations with the most community support also qualify for additional financial rewards.

“It gives a spotlight to stellar organizations and creates an easy opportunity to give,” True says of Santa Cruz Gives, which is also supported by the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Santa Cruz County Bank.

Social Tsunami

Though True has deep roots in Santa Cruz, one thing stuck out when she moved back to town full-time last year.

“One thing that has really changed is there are so many new leaders,” she says, thanks in part to a “silver tsunami” of social services leaders like her Community Foundation predecessor, Lance Linares, who retired last year after 22 years as CEO.

Among those that have emerged with a similar mandate of more inclusive economic development are individuals like Maria Cadenas of Santa Cruz Community Ventures, which is working on a community impact fund of its own to support small businesses. Another is Sibley Simon of New Way Homes, which has created a fund to help cover housing costs.

In the last year, True has also worked to round out financing for a $2.5 million endowed Fund for Women and Girls to expand scholarships, grants and related programs. The fund, which is about $90,000 away from the $2.5 million goal, is one example of the Community Foundation’s efforts to both invest in areas important to donors and target the region’s most pressing issues.

“The community foundation is such a unique organization,” True says. “You get to take this different view of the community and think about, ‘How do we bring people together to create solutions to some of our most persistent problems?’”

To see the nonprofits participating in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving drive, and to donate, go to santacruzgives.org.

Digital Editor at |

Lauren Hepler is the digital editor of Good Times and a reporter covering cities, jobs and tech — plus the occasional sports or agriculture story required of all Ohio natives. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Slate. Lauren was previously on staff at the Silicon Valley Business Journal and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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