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The Tricky Intersection Of Politics And Philanthropy

— The worlds of politics and philanthropy collided earlier this summer when the San Diego City Council approved a controversial plan to revamp parts of Balboa Park. The man behind the plan is billionaire Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. Some praised Jacobs for his involvement. Others blasted him for using his money to get what he wants. But Jacobs is certainly not the only philanthropist to weigh in on the city’s future.

Aired 8/9/12 on KPBS News.

Like many other cities, San Diego is increasingly relying on public-private partnerships to help get things done around the city. That’s raising some difficult questions for everybody involved.

An aerial view of the proposed Plaza de Panama project slated to begin this y...
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Above: An aerial view of the proposed Plaza de Panama project slated to begin this year and be completed by the 2015 Centennial of Balboa Park.

Philanthropy has long played a role in shaping San Diego, whether the gifts come from everyday citizens or bigger donors. And recent talks about renovating Balboa Park have started a discussion about the role philanthropy plays in local government.

Since San Diego was founded, the names of influential men have graced buildings around town, from the Horton Theater to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. But University of San Diego history professor Iris Engstrand said back in those days, people didn’t have a lot of extra money, so they weren’t really philanthropists like we think of them today. Rather, they were businessmen looking to make a profit. She said the first real San Diego philanthropist was a woman, Ellen Browning Scripps.

"She spent most of her time trying to figure out ways to help the city and the natural history museum," Engstrand said. "Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Hospital, Bishops School."

Today the name Scripps can be easily found around town, along with the names Copley, Prebys and, of course, Jacobs. But while these high profile donors receive a lot of attention, Charlene Pryor with the San Diego Foundation said the majority of giving comes from everyday people supporting causes close to their hearts. She said that’s evident in the connections the Foundation makes between people and charities.

Those include "1,800 relationships of all sizes, shapes and colors, and forms and interests," she said.

Religion generally tops the list of causes to which people donate. Pryor said health and environment issues are also popular and arts and culture are growing.

Laura Deitrick agrees that sometimes causes get trendy. She’s the executive director of the Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego. Deitrick said such trends can be tricky for governments.

For instance, right now Price Charities is focusing a lot of resources on San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood. While that neighborhood is receiving much needed attention, Deitrick points out other areas with similar needs aren’t as lucky. She said that’s something that needs to be dealt with as public-private partnerships become more common.

"You know, the rulebook isn’t really written for that," she said. "I think it’s going to put a lot of pressure on public officials and politicians, just like any special interest group, or anybody that comes with big money, be it a corporation or a lobbying group or whatnot, for those public officials to really hold the public’s interest at the forefront and to be the guardian of that."

But what being a guardian means is up for debate. That was made clear at the City Council meeting about making over Balboa Park. For more than five hours, the public passionately testified about both the potential harm and benefit a bypass road and parking garage could bring the park. In the end, the council voted to approve the renovation, with many councilmembers saying it was both a good move for the park and an opportunity the city couldn’t pass up because of Jacobs’ involvement. Critics of the plan said the council was pushed into a bad decision because of the money Jacobs will bring to the project. Deitrick said there needs to be a different kind of conversation.

"We need government officials and philanthropists and non-profit leaders sitting down and talking about, what are the needs, not making assumptions about what the needs are in our various communities," she said. "How do we best address those needs? How do we work together to best address those needs?"

And as government budgets shrink and community needs grow, it’s a question cities will likely be asking themselves a lot in the future.

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Avatar for user 'Syntropic'

Syntropic | August 9, 2012 at 11:18 a.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

San Diego, as a City and as a Region, should be thinking about how it can best develop and demonstrate technologies and thinking toward addressing the needs of the community while creating a sustainable world. The Jacobs/Sanders plan demonstrates the mid-20th Century thinking which removed the electric streetcar (trolley) lines in favor of promoting the private auto and inadequate bus transit systems.
In my unsolicited ideas surrounding making 2015 a Regional Celebration instead of a Balboa Park focused celebration, I suggested that the City consider public/private implementation of emerging technologies within Balboa Park that address pressing social, environmental, and economic issues. These include removal of private autos and implementation of an internal transportation system of automated electric vehicles that operate in tram/platoon mode or independently; use of pavers made with titanium dioxide derived compounds which remove volatile organic compounds when exposed to sunlight and have self-cleaning properties; establishment of an energy station on the Arizona Landfill within Balboa Park that creates hydrogen and oxygen from the aquifer underneath the Park which are used with geothermal, solar, wind, and methane to produce power for fuel cell or induction charged vehicles; the use of hydrogen fuel cell buses manufactured in California to establish an external transit system connecting Downtown with Uptown/Hillcrest/University Heights.
Our communities need transportation that supports aging in place, local power generation from renewable energy sources, cleaner air, and innovative projects which generate jobs and interest within the region. They do not need more private autos and valet parking.

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Avatar for user 'NancyJamison'

NancyJamison | August 13, 2012 at 10:56 a.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

The Balboa Park situation is reflective of both San Diego’s tradition of philanthropy as well as the increase of instances where government looks to philanthropy to help fund community services and improvements. Though philanthropy has far fewer dollars to spend than government (even in the best of times), it can be a critically important partner in social solutions.

There will always be healthy debate about the influence of power and money over public issues and what is in the public interest – such debate is a hallmark of democracy. But if there’s authentic motivation to collaborate and leverage resources of all kinds, and to engage stakeholders of all types in identifying the problem and solutions, we are all better off.

In my work as Executive Director of San Diego Grantmakers, I see how philanthropic individuals and organizations can embrace the challenges and opportunities of working in partnership with other stakeholders. This is far easier said than done of course, but there have been many successes. Locally we can point to the cross-sector development of a multi-faceted plan to end family homelessness (, the Home Again ( plan to end chronic homelessness, and recent work on education in City Heights and Chula Vista, among many others.

I agree with Laura Deitrick that we must carefully consider how all sectors – philanthropy, nonprofits, government, business and academia – can work better together to address the challenges that lie ahead because of constrained public resources. It is indeed a tricky, tricky intersection, but one which we must navigate because there simply is no choice.

Nancy Jamison
Executive Director
San Diego Grantmakers

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