The new Live Oak Soccer Complex at Shoreline Middle School won’t officially open for at least another month, after the lights and picnic tables are put in. But the soccer field itself is likely to be completed next week, and Bill Simpkins doesn’t want the neighborhood kids he created it for to have to wait one day longer than necessary to start playing on its artificial turf.
“I’m saying, ‘Get the kids on it now,’” says Simpkins.
The Live Oak philanthropist—who has been funding projects in the area for years, including the Simpkins Family Swim Center in the 1990s—first envisioned the complex as an inclusive, family-friendly way to support the local passion for soccer back in 2018, and pledged $1 million to get it going.
As his impatience with the opening of the field suggests, Simpkins doesn’t like bureaucratic red tape—or suffer fools. He had a good relationship with the Live Oak School District, but he knew he’d also have to partner with a philanthropic organization to get the multi-year, multi-million dollar project finished. Based on prior experiences, he was not looking forward to it.
But then he started talking to Susan True, CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. And his attitude toward the word “collaboration” started to change.
“It makes me ill to hear that word,” says Simpkins. “It usually just means more meetings and more B.S. But with her, it’s not. So I don’t like the word, but now I have to use it. You see, there’s two ways these foundations work. One way is they say how big their endowment is. The other way is to really help their customers. That’s what she does.”
Indeed, True oversaw a huge landmark for the Community Foundation at the end of 2019: $100 million in total funds distributed to local nonprofit groups and projects since the organization was founded.
For True, whose primary job is to match philanthropists of all types with the local groups that best represent the causes they care about, that staggering sum represents something fairly simple.
“That $100 million is really a collection of dreams for our whole county. It’s our collective dream,” says True. “People have contributed over our 38-year-old history to things they dream about Santa Cruz being able to do, or be, or become.”
Flood of Donations
The Community Foundation was founded after the infamous floods of 1982 had devastated Santa Cruz County. With infrastructure crumbling and locals evacuating in rowboats, federal relief funds couldn’t come fast enough to help the people who were hit the hardest.
“So the Community Foundation was really formed because of 25 inches of rain flooding down on us,” True says. “People said, ‘We can’t just wait for the feds. We need a local response to help our neighbors faster. That’s how we started.”
The organization’s stated mission is to “bring together people, ideas and resources to inspire philanthropy and accomplish great things.” As it has grown and evolved, the Community Foundation has become a place that on the one hand can champion a huge project like Heart and Home, which will include 57 units of affordable housing, as well as a Dientes oral health clinic and a Santa Cruz Community Health Center primary care clinic on former Redevelopment Agency land at Capitola Road and 15th Avenue.
“We need about $5 million to close that entire project. I mean, just the health clinics in that project is almost $30 million. We’re going to get that done. We’re going to break ground in 2020,” says True. “To serve that many people, from family planning to geriatrics, housing and integrated services for the whole community—I love that project.”
On the other hand, the Community Foundation also provides funding to longtime local community groups like Second Harvest Food Bank, Hospice of Santa Cruz County, Salud Para La Gente, Teen Kitchen Project, Watsonville Law Center and many others.
For instance, in 2019, the Community Foundation assisted Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance by hosting a capital campaign fund for them, making a $275,000 bride loan for the group, giving it a $20,000 Borina Special Places capital improvement grant, connecting it with a donor who contributed a $45,000 grant for a healing garden on its new expanded campus, and more.
“I love that at Community Foundation, we get to do both. We get to help community members who are doing something new and amazing, and we also get to work hand in hand with these stalwart community members who are trying to make sure that nobody goes hungry or that women are safe when there’s a domestic violence incident, or that children have access to child care that is safe,” says True.
“They act as a hub for a lot of different groups. They’re involved in everything,” says Lyndsey Marks, development director for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Cruz County (CASA). “They’re one of the easiest funders to work with, for a lot of reasons. They’re open to innovation, and they simplify their process. Sometimes writing grants can be an ordeal.”
Last year, the Community Foundation gave $40,000 to CASA, the most it has ever contributed to the group. “What I love is that I feel like they value what CASA is doing,” says Marks. “They are really trying to make a good match for their donors. Their goal is to keep it simple, so organizations can do the good work that they do.”
Simpkins is particularly impressed by True’s enthusiasm, which he says helps when the process of trying to get these projects done starts to seem overwhelming.
“It’s infectious,” he says of her energy. “If I get down a little bit, I give her a call, and I’m back up again.”
True says that energy is fueled by her genuine excitement for the community projects the Community Foundation gets to support. “I take the process of vetting projects seriously. We don’t get behind everything,” she says “But when there’s a really good idea that has clear impact, clear sustainability, and is doable, then it doesn’t help to be sort of supportive of it. It only helps to be fully supportive. Once you know it’s a good idea, then be all in.”