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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.

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.

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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