Community Foundation Sonoma County connects donors, local charities

In the wake of the presidential election, nonprofits around the country are reporting a surge in donations. Community Foundation Sonoma County, the county’s charitable hub with assets of $160 million, is helping local donors make a difference.|

Healdsburg philanthropist Quincey Imhoff was already writing big checks to Community Foundation Sonoma County when something happened this fall that inspired her to do even more.

In a stunning victory, billionaire businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump was elected president on a platform that threatened many of the things Imhoff holds dear - environmental conservation, sustainable farming and maintaining women’s reproductive rights.

Within days of the election, Imhoff, whose parents founded The North Face and Esprit clothing lines, was meeting with her accountant to max out her charitable contributions for the year.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, deeply worried about all the rollbacks,” said Imhoff. “I realized it was time to turn up the volume on the philanthropy we’re going to do.”

In the wake of the election, nonprofits around the country are reporting a surge in donations as liberal benefactors pull out their wallets to fight what they fear will be cuts to cherished programs by a Republican-controlled government and attacks on hard-won rights for same-sex couples, immigrants and others.

Community Foundation, the county’s charitable hub with assets of $160 million, has experienced an uptick in donations of late, although administrators can’t say for sure why that has occurred. The organization is nonpartisan, and giving is a bipartisan enterprise, but there is something about this moment in history that is creating a hunger for local involvement, said Elizabeth Brown, president and CEO of the 33-year-old nonprofit organization.

“It’s really positive that some people discouraged by national politics are saying it’s not time to check out,” said Brown. “It’s time to double-down on our community.”

The Santa Rosa-based foundation, which connects wealthy donors to charitable causes, received more than $15 million in 2016, up by about $500,000 from the previous year, said J Mullineaux, vice president for philanthropic planning.

In 2015, it gave away $12 million to 400 organizations supporting health and human services, education and scholarships, environmental protection, animal welfare and other causes. The amount doled out last year was expected to be higher, with exact figures not yet available.

“The more money we manage, the more that is going out into the community,” said Barry Weitzenberg, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors.

The nonprofit ranks among the top 100 of about 800 foundations like it nationwide and is similar to larger organizations in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County.

It is fueled by the generosity of several hundred wealthy families who give thousands or even millions of dollars each year. They did well in business or received an inheritance and want to give something back. Many are older people. For some, the region is a second home.

“There is a high concentration of wealth here,” Brown said.

Her staff of 12 administers their wishes and advises them how to make the biggest impact, whether the goal is to fight climate change, end homelessness, help the children of recent immigrants attend college or to support the arts. In some cases the foundation pools many smaller donations to one particular cause.

Donors satisfy their desires to do something while getting a tax write-off.

“It’s not hard to write a check but it can be challenging to be a really effective grantmaker,” Brown said. “What our team does is work with donors to define their giving priorities ... and plan their legacies.”

Recipients are individuals and other nonprofits doing work in the community such as LandPaths, Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), 10,000 Degrees Sonoma County, the Ceres Community Project and Catholic Charities, just to name a few.

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, said the foundation gives her nonprofit more than $100,000 a year to spend on safe havens for homeless people, a program for single moms and a family support center.

Foundation members also help Catholic Charities plan future projects and strategize how to best use resources, Holmes said.

“They are amazing,” she said. “Their grants are a substantial part of how we accomplish our work.”

The community foundation concept goes back more than a century. It was envisioned as a way to gather donations into a coordinated effort to improve social conditions in a geographically defined area. The Cleveland Foundation, established in 1914, was the first, with current assets of more than $1.6 billion. The largest community foundation in the nation is the massive Silicon Valley Community Fund, with $7.3 billion in assets.

Donors to the Sonoma County foundation, started in 1983, have a range of options that include allowing the group to decide where to put their money or directing it to a specific cause. They can give a lump sum or create an endowment that pays over time. Donors can be recognized by name or remain anonymous.

Nonprofits and individuals apply for grants once a year. In the 2016-17 cycle, the foundation gave money to a long list of charities, from food banks to children’s theater.

Donations received by Catholic Charities paid in part for a homeless shelter where Santa Rosa resident Ronnie Chambers and his 7-year-old daughter, Sameeah, have spent the past three months.

Chambers, who is working again after his personal training business went bust, said the shelter has allowed him to save for an apartment that he might not otherwise be able to afford.

“I’m very glad this is available and we’re allowed to have our own space,” Chambers said.

The foundation also offers scholarships and supports community projects such as the Healdsburg Farmers Market.

Hoping to close gaps in funding for the county’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender residents, the foundation oversees a “giving circle” in which donations of $500 apiece are pooled for grantmaking.

Santa Rosa attorney Naomi Metz, who sits on the 115-member group’s steering committee, said it gave out $100,000 over the past two years to support LGBTQ seniors and youth, to pay for attendees at a transgender conference and for cultural competency training for county employees.

Metz said it is a “scary time” right now in the LGBTQ community, with concern growing about a potential rollback in rights and protections under President Trump and the future makeup of the Supreme Court hanging in the balance.

“We certainly need to be supporting our organizations that nurture our community going forward,” Metz said. “Knowing you have someone on your side is really important right now.”

Others echoed that sentiment.

Philanthropist Ben Cushman, a retired Sebastopol corporate executive, said giving through the foundation ensures his dollars will have a bigger impact on the issues he cares about, including helping refugees and fostering educational opportunities for the less fortunate.

“The world’s a tough place in a lot of ways and it is essential that we stand together and contribute to each other’s well-being,” Cushman said. “I believe in many ways we are our brother’s keepers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.

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