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LeBaron: Charity has long history in Sonoma County

5/25/2014:D1: Elizabeth Brown, president and chief operating officer of Community Foundation Sonoma County, has a wealth of experience with nonprofit groups. Founded in 1983, the organization is involved in all aspects of the community, including education, health and the arts. PC: Elizabeth Brown is the president and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

GAYE LEBARON,

As a kind of unwritten rule, in my “dessert years” I write mostly about things past, attempting and sometimes even succeeding in creating a link with the present.

(Footnote: If our youth is our “salad days” as Shakespeare taught us — by way of the fine San Francisco columnist Stan Delaplane — then … well, I think you get my drift).

The old stories can be rough stuff, as in the last offering about a 1970s clash in our community between wanna-be Nazis and garden-variety anarchists.

Today, I am pleased to report, it’s a happy story, about how charity, as the adage goes, begins at home.

This summer Community Foundation Sonoma County celebrated a grant that took it past the $200 million mark, a notable occasion in the charitable business. The 34-year-old foundation is very proud. It was eight years ago that its directors celebrated $100 million. Doubling up in less than a decade is certainly an indication that an institution is well regarded and very necessary to the people it serves.

Since its inception in 1983, conceived by a pair of rather remarkable women — the type that refuse to be deterred — the Community Foundation has compiled a thick volume of success stories.

As it has grown, its impact has become more evident. And it benefits us all in so many ways, from the first grant — which bought a piano for the Santa Rosa Symphony — to the impressive collection of nonprofits supported by the foundation today, including big, familiar charities like Chops Teen Center, Pepperwood Preserve, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Samuel L. Jones Hall, Landpaths, the Schulz Museum and a long list of lesser-known nonprofits.

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WAIT A MINUTE, you say. Chops was a gift from attorney Charles DeMeo. The Dwights, Herb and Jane, bought the land that became the Pepperwood Preserve. The Food Bank raises money for its own use in a variety of ways. Sam Jones Hall, which houses as many homeless as it will hold, is run by Catholic Charities. Landpaths has its own supporters. In fact, almost all of these do. So why is the Community Foundation getting so much credit?

Foundations are complicated to explain. Simply put, they look after other people’s charities. If you have money to give away and don’t choose to do it all at once, the foundation will care for it, invest it and keep it as safe as any money can be in this world.

If you want it to be for a specific cause, all you have to do is say so and it will serve that purpose long after you are gone.

Or, if you don’t have a favorite charity, you can deposit your gift in the foundation for one of the several specific funds, or just to be used at the discretion of the volunteer board of directors that makes the decisions about your money … the community’s money. And, of course, there are significant tax benefits.

On the other hand, if you don’t have enough money for your particular nonprofit project, you can ask the foundation to help.

That’s about as far as I go in explanations

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“OUR” FOUNDATION, Community Foundation Sonoma County, was established in 1983 by two savvy women with community consciences and money to give away: the late Louise Levinger, patron of the arts and widow of the man who founded the first ad agency in the area, and Jeannie Schulz — and, if I have to explain her to you, you are a passer-by.

In the early ’80s, Levinger was part of an informal group of human services administrators and donors who met once a month, calling themselves the “Lunch Bunch.” The table talk was all about ways to better serve the community. She and Schulz were friends, sitting together on the board of United Way. Schulz was involved in a family foundation but had long entertained the notion that a community organization would better serve existing needs.

The embryo foundation was established — the first grant being some $34,000 to the Santa Rosa Symphony for its very own grand piano, which visiting artists still play on the stage of the Green Music Center.

Meanwhile, funds were trickling in, modest amounts were going out, and board members were learning, attending seminars sponsored by charitable giants like the Irvine, Hewlett and Packard foundations. And they took to heart the suggestion of an early consultant to think of community foundations as “the motorcycles of philanthropy,” because they “move much more nimbly than limousines.”

With a working board and a succession of good executive directors — including Virginia Hubbell, whose startup skills got it underway; Kay Marquet, who guided it for 17 years; Barbara Hughes, and the current director, Elizabeth Brown — the Community Foundation has grown even beyond the founders’ expectations. That $200 million is cause not only for reflection but also for honors.

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LOOKING OUT FOR OTHERS is nothing new around here. Sonoma County people have been looking after each other for more than a century. There’s Frank Doyle’s astonishing legacy, of course, which gave controlling interest in the home owned-forever Exchange Bank to fund scholarships for Santa Rosa Junior College students.

But long before, there were individuals who quietly cared for one another, people like Jake Luppold, who ran the Senate Saloon on a block south of the Courthouse at the turn of the 20th century. Jake never talked about charity, but he made regular trips at the start of the school year to McNamara’s clothing store with a list of orphans’ sizes. And when he died, Jake’s heirs found a stack of unpaid IOUs a foot and a half high on his cluttered desk. He never expected them to be paid.

And in the mid-1900s it was the Elks Club, for all their drinking and card-playing, that filled the California Theater with needy children every Christmas. There, they handed out clothing and toys purchased by an annual communitywide (all male, of course) wild pig roast and general revel named the “Pignelligan,” for founder Maury Nelligan.

Charity actually got organized here in the early 1930s when Leonard Howarth, a paraplegic industrialist from Tacoma, Washington, who came here in 1908 to be treated by the infamous Dr. Willard Burke at his Mark West sanitarium, left $75,000 to the city of Santa Rosa upon his death.

That was a lot of money in the Depression years and civic leaders formed the Santa Rosa Foundation, the county’s first, to administer it. Fred Rosenberg, a trustee along with editor Ernest Finley, Judge Hilliard Comstock and Finlaw Geary, added his own family foundation funds and it was carefully tended and disbursed for more than 50 years.

In 1984, after watching Community Foundation Sonoma County carefully through its first year, the Santa Rosa Foundation handed over the $90,000 in its treasury and disbanded.

And so began the 34-year march to the landmark $200 million in grants.

And, as current exec Beth Brown is quick to point out, it has $160 million still on hand — just waiting for the next chance to do good, if not perform miracles.