“The test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
– Pearl S. Buck

Throughout the ages, there have always been individuals in societies who were concerned with promoting good will toward men. While this mind set has been prevalent in Western civilization, its origin can be traced back to Greece, Egypt and the ancient Middle East, and was often prodded by religious beliefs. Plato’s will stated that his farm should be left to his nephew, with instructions that the proceeds be used to help support students and faculty members at the academy he had founded. Charitable giving has evolved through a medley of cultural influences. More traditionally, philanthropy can be traced to Judaism, where one-tenth of a person’s income or harvest was put into a storehouse to help those in need. During the sixth century, this idea was carried over into the Christian church, seen with the practice of financial giving and stewardship. While plenty of non-Christian philanthropists have been committed to benevolence, American charities had often some Christian alliance, and the effects have influenced western philanthropic tradition.

Andrew Carnegie, who wrote a famous essay on the history of American philanthropy entitled The Gospel of Wealth, largely influenced philanthropy in America. In his essay, Carnegie spoke favorably about American democratic capitalism and his belief that capitalism would help empower ordinary men and women to become active within their communities. Carnegie was instrumental in providing the financial means to help build nearly 2,000 libraries throughout the United States.

In his book Inside American Philanthropy: The Dramas of Donorship, Waldemar A. Nielson says, “Donors on the whole are revered figures in the American context. Yet, oddly enough, they tend to become the forgotten factor in American philanthropy. Their fundamental role and special characteristics are often displaced by the changing outlooks of successive generations of their trustees, and even more by the preoccupation of staff professionals responsive to changing academic, intellectual and social trends.”

2Whatever the reasons behind altruism, it is clear that philanthropy has had a wide-ranging span of influence here in America that has shifted somewhat over the years, and its effects can be seen everywhere.

In Ventura County, a number of organizations continue to give support to charitable causes. Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help low-income families get homes. Stacy Swanson, the executive director for the Ventura County chapter, says, “We identify a family that is suitable for a home that we’re building.” Habitat for Humanity looks for low-income families that are living in a substandard condition, such as living in a car or garage.

Volunteers partner with the low-income family, which is required to invest 500 hours of labor – “sweat equity” – into building their home and the homes of others. Once a house is built, it is sold to the low-income family at no profit without any interest charged.

Even in a depressed economy, it is common knowledge that home ownership lends itself to stability and a lot of other assets within a community. Swanson says, “Property taxes help a community, and Habitat for Humanity helps families who ordinarily would never be able to own a home become an asset to the community.”

“There’s such a huge housing need here in Ventura County, we are only a piece of a very large puzzle,” he says.

Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County is a Christian-based organization that utilizes Christian principles in its approach to charity. For example, as an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, it gives 10 percent of its donations to an affiliate in Malawi, Africa. “While there are no religious restrictions as to the people that we assist and build a house for, the idea of giving back 10 percent to another affiliate organization in Malawi is rooted in Judeo-Christian principles,” Swanson says.

Construction is funded through the generosity of donors. Habitat for Humanity counts on the generosity of individual donors and philanthropic organizations to step forward with financial help. St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church in Westlake Village is currently sponsoring one of the houses. Another house that is presently being built in Thousand Oaks was sponsored by Los Robles Hospital’s parent company, Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA). Swanson says, “Los Robles Hospital is a very engaged sponsor. They send volunteers out and are involved in what’s going on with Habitat for Humanity here in Ventura County.”

Fundraisers have become a very popular way for charities to raise money for their causes. For example, on Oct. 14, a benefit concert at the Ventura Theater for Habitat for Humanity featured Los Lobos.

With a grass-roots beginning, Habitat for Humanity was conceived by Millard and Linda Fuller. Millard was a millionaire who gave away everything and started over. He believed that everyone deserved a home. Even though this organization has taken more of a corporate role today, Swanson says, “It’s still very much hands-on.”

3Recently, nearly 40 billionaires signed the 2010 Giving Pledge, designed by world-renowned philanthropists Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. The pledge is an invitation to America’s wealthiest to commit to giving the majority of their wealth for needy causes. This pledge has provoked some rethinking among humanitarians and nonprofits as to the best way to see lasting success and the best way to bring about change through giving.

Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF) is a family of charitable funds created by citizens who care deeply about strengthening the community, preserving and expanding its cultural resources, and helping those in need. Hugh Ralston, the president and CEO of VCCF, says that a “paradigm shift” has occurred within the philanthropic world, and this shift is definitely related to what has happened in our economy. “This paradigm shift is probably exemplified most in the Gates Foundation, where they are tackling issues like reform and malaria,” he says.

Donors today are trying to figure out where the new normal is.

Economically and as a country, America is undergoing profound changes. The impact of the Internet alone has completely altered the business world, especially as consumers increasingly purchase things over the Internet. With this shift, donors now have to think much more creatively.

The opportunity through community philanthropy is immense. Ralston says, “We need to focus on developing strategies and answers for our own community.” Most of problems stem from larger problems. Problems like 100,000 people in our country that are food-insecure, and the number of children now on Medicaid. These problems have been on the rise for the last 50 years. Ventura County is no different. It is a broadly diverse community, and now it is dealing with things that have been in the works for many years.

Ralston says, “It is a time of great ferment, and we are committed to keeping this kind of collaboration alive. It’s a time where the community can truly help.”

No doubt the mindset of giving has evolved with time. Claudia Armann, the executive director for the McCune Foundation, says, “While a lot of corporations today have foundations, about 75 percent of philanthropy in this country is ‘still’ being donated by individuals! Foundations make up about 13 percent of charitable contributions, 7 percent are bequests and only 5 percent are corporations. In short, everyone’s donation counts.”

George D. McCune and Sara Miller McCune established the McCune Foundation in 1990, with the mission to be an agent of productive change in society by supporting the growth of the social capitals within a community.

The McCune Foundation is focused on building capital in both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Armann says, “We are not traditional philanthropists.” The foundation funds organizations that are focused on systemic change, groups that want to see certain issues changed at the root — issues like a transportation act to assist low-income people in Santa Barbara.

In Ventura County, the McCune Foundation works with CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), which stands for social justice, and works with local organizations and individuals to bring about the changes that are needed within a community.

Armann says, “The approach that we like to take is to build the power of the people who have been marginalized — building social capital.”

Global Resource Alliance Inc. (GRA) is an all-volunteer 501(c)3, nonprofit organization located in Ojai. With a background in manufacturing and finance, Lyn Hebensteit founded GRA in April 2002 to assist community groups with financial and technical support in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania. GRA pursues a natural, holistic and sustainable approach to poverty by educating local communities and encouraging them to address necessary social, economic and ecological challenges.

Hebensteit says, “Poverty isn’t cheap, and it takes a lot of effort.” He believes that solutions already exist in nature.

GRA looks to permaculture instead of genetically modified solutions. GRA’s approach to poverty is different than that of other charities, like the Gates Foundation, which is more technologically and scientifically driven. In addition, GRA is a much smaller organization, with a lot of donations coming from individual sources instead of larger foundations.

The word “permaculture” was first used in 1978 by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison to describe permanent agriculture.

While the relationship with sustainable agriculture and designing ecologically human habitats is paramount, permaculture involves much more than housing and food production. “Permaculture designs have the same diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems,” Hebensteit says. “Permaculture is a hot topic right now, especially in Ventura. In fact, Santa Barbara City College has classes that you can take as a part of a career focus in permaculture.”

Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Ventura County (BBBS) is part of a 501(c)3 nonprofit national youth mentoring organization that was started more than 100 years ago by Ernest Coulter, a New York City court clerk who was concerned about the boys he saw come through his courtroom. He believed many of those boys would have stayed out of trouble with encouragement and a good example from caring adults, and so he began the search for volunteers.

BBBS’s chief officer, Terri Felix, says, “This is a preventative organization, with a goal to match a friend with these children as a mentor – someone who is a good listener and a great role model so we can help give the children quality attention and positive guidance.” Because BBBS is staffed with social workers, and background checks are run on every potential volunteer, we are able to have qualified, controlled guidance coming from trained professionals.”

This organization works side by side with foster care, and has more than 400 agencies throughout the United States. Coulter’s vision is still very much in play, as the mission of this organization is to help children between the ages of 6 and 18 to reach their potential through professionally supported one-on-one relationships.

Felix says, “From the philanthropy side of things, money comes from several ways. We have four major fundraising events annually, donors that make yearly contributions, grant funding, corporate money, grants from corporations and estate money. We get wonderful support from various sources.”

Last month, the Ojai Peace Coalition presented its 2010 Noble Peace Prize to the Ojai Valley Defense Fund, founded by Dr. John Broesamle. Broesamle, former president of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and former history professor at California State University, Northridge, speaks to various public and private high schools about the changes that have been instrumental in transforming America over the last century. Previous honorees are Clive and Marion Leeman of the Ojai Peace Vigil, Tara Blasco and Lyn Hebenstreit of the Global Resource Alliance, and Sally Carless of Global Village School.

Giving is something that is a part of American heritage, and it is vital for community existence today and tomorrow.

It is not simply a nice thought, but a mind set that promotes human welfare, and it is a building block for healthy future generations. While diversity within philanthropic organizations is vast, charity has no boundaries. Sir Francis Bacon, in his 1625 essay Of Goodness, and Goodness of Nature, says, “In charity there is no excess.”