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The Next Generation of Philanthropists

Who will open their checkbooks to support the future of Orange County's civic and cultural institutions?

Lisa Merage

Her mother cooked dinners for struggling families, and his parents put him in Boy Scouts. But while Reshma and Ryan Block came from civic-minded homes, philanthropy wasn’t yet on their radar. Not until they hit a low point.

It was about eight years ago, during the recession, and Reshma had lost her job in the IT industry. The Aliso Viejo couple, who had just adopted their first child, were burning through their savings. Then a friend described a give-to-receive philosophy: Might their own financial situation improve if they gave away money? They made their first donation, for $1,000, to Children’s Hospital of Orange County. A few months later, Reshma found work as an IT consultant. Even without the turn of fortune, however, the Blocks were hooked.

Today their family foundation gives away as much as $70,000 a year to such organizations as CHOC and the South Asian Helpline and Referral Agency, an Artesia-based group for domestic violence survivors.

And they aren’t just cutting checks: Reshma, now 41, joined SAHARA’s board and helped overhaul the organization’s operations; Ryan, a 44-year-old software consultant, is a cast member of CHOC Follies, which puts on popular fundraising shows for the hospital.
“Being involved is a critical part of giving,” says Reshma.

In many ways, the Blocks are the face of the new generation of philanthropists: highly engaged, professional, results-oriented. “They say, ‘I don’t want to just sit on a board, I want to serve,’ ” says Sharna Goldseker, executive director of New York-based 21/64, a consulting group that specializes in next-generation philanthropy. “They still write checks, but they’re more interested in giving their time and talent.”

Unlike their parents or grand-parents, who were often loyal to one organization or cause, young philanthropists’ loyalty often depends on whether they see measurable impact on the community. In an information age, where “metrics” is the favored buzzword of industry, people expect to see results.

“They think in terms of return on investment,” says Terry Dwyer, president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

He notes that many of Segerstrom’s younger patrons want to learn about the center’s outreach programs, especially for disadvantaged children. “We think it’s important the arts lean in and not just present great art and hope everybody loves you,” he says. It’s mission, but it’s also survival: Younger donors, he says, “don’t want to support just a fabulous arts organization.”

That’s something Andrew Low has observed – both as a wealth-management expert and a 54-year-old philanthropist who is a financial supporter of Segerstrom Center. “I would call it strategic philanthropy. I want to get the biggest bang for my buck,” says Low, a vice president with BNY Mellon Wealth Management in Newport Beach. “Often with the older generation, they give here and they give there.”

Though he’s a lifelong music lover, Low became a Segerstrom donor because of its programs for children. He is the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a laundromat while raising their five children in a one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Low has distinct and fond memories of a school district social worker who spent time with him. “When I see these kids get exposed to the arts,” he says, “they come alive.”

Other younger donors assumed they’d one day give back because of the influence of their philanthropist parents. But giving comes in its own time. Tracy Schroeder, for instance, grew up watching her parents – Donna and Ernie, the president of a Newport Beach apartment management company – give their money and time to Orange County arts organizations. Schroder knew she’d eventually do the same, but she was still young. She left for college in Los Angeles, then for life in New York.

When she returned home to Newport Beach a few years ago, she was hungry for the contemporary arts scene she’d left behind in New York. She realized her heart lay with the Orange County Museum of Art, where she has become one of the organization’s most active young donors and even helped start a social group for young patrons called Contemporaries.
“I really believe in it,” says Schroeder, a 37-year-old interior designer and partner in her family’s company.

Like Schroeder, Felicia Jao, 35, was inspired by her parents’ giving. Her father, Frank Jao, was one of the early developers of Little Saigon; the family started a foundation that funds educational programs, including an oral-history project of Vietnamese refugees.

But Felicia, who works with her family’s development company, began thinking about what charities fit in with her interests. On her own, she met some leaders of Laguna College of Art and Design. Inspired in part by her husband, Jason Tomas, a 3D animator and product developer, Jao liked what she learned.

“Art and design is so integral to innovation,” she says. LCAD “has been able to focus not only on fine arts but also on applied arts.” Almost two years ago, she became a donor and joined the college’s board of trustees. She said older leaders seem to appreciate her young perspective.

“As the younger generation gets more established, we’re going to play a more active role in the philanthropic sector,” she says. “We may not write six-figure checks yet, but we give in ways we can.”

Philanthropist Lisa Merage says many in her social circle, busy with families and work, may not have been exposed yet to charitable giving. That wasn’t the case for her. Her parents, Raj and Marta Bhatal, founders of manufacturer Raj Swim, are major donors to Chapman University, where the student services building bears their names, and Segerstrom Center, where Marta serves on the board of directors.

Her parents, she says, instilled in her a sense that good fortune comes with responsibilities. “They taught my brother and me how important it was to give back,” says Merage, who declined to provide her exact age.

Merage, a co-president of Raj and also founder of her own swimwear line, Luxe, says she’s chosen organizations – Segerstrom Center and her children’s private school, St. Mary’s – where she can see results.

“It is something very important to me to be involved in a charity where I can see how my money is being used,” says Merage, the daughter-in-law of Paul Merage, for whom UCI’s business school is named.

But she says she’s been equally as happy when she can offer something other than a check. For instance, she met a representative from the Jessie Rees Foundation, which among other philanthropic activities makes blankets for pediatric cancer patients. Learning that the blankets were cut by hand, Merage offered to have the Raj factory cut them far more quickly.
Jaynine Warner (who declined to give her age) of Laguna Beach has a similar appreciation for offering something in addition to financial support. A professional airline pilot who stopped flying after her child was born, Warner put her organizational skills to use at Court Appointed Special Advocates, helping run board meetings and organizing fundraisers for Friends of CASA. “I love to use my skills to help an organization,” she says. “I like to volunteer and get involved first to decide if it’s where we want to give financially.”

When she moved to Orange County from San Diego in 2005, she already knew she wanted to get involved. Growing up, her parents hosted fundraisers and were heavily involved with the San Diego Chorale. Arts were also a big part of her life, so she became a donor with Segerstrom.

“It’s incredible in so many different ways,” she says of giving. “Just to know you’re helping someone.”

The question for nonprofits is how to best engage more people from these younger generations. It’s a relatively new quandary in Orange County. For much of its young history, the county saw the bulk of its largest giving come from a small circle of megadonors. Think of those prominent real estate pioneers – Irvine, Segerstrom, Lyon, Kennedy, Bren, Knott – who made their fortunes as farm fields and ranches gave way to houses and office parks. These men and women expanded universities, founded cultural centers, and buoyed museums, parks, hospitals and charities.

But few in the nonprofit sector expect many more huge, headline-making donations. “That model may not be coming back,” says Shelley Hoss, president of Orange County Community Foundation in Newport Beach. “Nonprofits are in the middle of a brave new world.” Dwyer, the Segerstrom president, says it’s just unclear what philanthropy will entail in a decade. “There’s no question in my mind that there are significant visionary philanthropists in the making,” he says. “They’ll probably just do it in a different way.”

Much of people’s giving habits, of course, depend on where they are in life. Jeff Swanson, senior vice president of philanthropy at Orange County United Way, says it’s important for nonprofits to begin cultivating younger donors even when they may be able to do little more than volunteer. Because one day that could change. “The challenge is if you’re not engaging with them early on,” he says, “why would they choose you once they have success?”

As their numbers have begun to diminish, the older generations of wealth makers stand ready to pass the baton to younger philanthropists.

 “The baton,” says Hoss, “is in midair.”


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