A Giving Pledge Donor Talks About Philanthropy’s Role Right Now

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by Maria Di Mento

By the time Melanie and Richard Lundquist signed the Giving Pledge in 2018, they had already given about $190 million, primarily to education and health care nonprofits. They gave one of their biggest and most consequential gifts in 2007 when they donated $50 million to help create the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an effort to improve student success in some of the city’s highest-need public schools. They invested an additional $35 million in the partnership in 2019. They’ve also given large sums to Torrance Memorial Medical Center, the Lundquist Institute, and other organizations.

The couple are real-estate developers but spend much of their time taking a hands-on approach to their philanthropy. Melanie Lundquist is not afraid to speak her mind about where she and her husband think philanthropists need to focus their giving and what role philanthropy must play in society today.

The Chronicle recently invited Melanie Lundquist to share her thoughts in an online briefing on the role philanthropy should play during this historic moment of crises.

Melanie Lundquist said the times that we are living through right now make her and her husband feel deeply committed to the causes they support, especially efforts to reduce racial and socioeconomic inequities in education and elsewhere.

Why Public Education?

Lundquist said K-12 public-school education is a top giving priority because she and her husband believe everyone deserves a top-quality education regardless of where they live or how much money their family makes.

“Equality in education is one of the most important civil rights,” Lundquist said.

Inequities in education disproportionately hurt people of color, Lundquist said. Finding “true systemic solutions” to improve struggling public schools motivated her and her husband to help start the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, she explained.

Systemic change requires donors to work within the system, she said. That way they know what the obstacles are, and they can help to find sustainable solutions. She also said one of the best paths to ending systematic racism is to improve access to education and close the digital divide for students from underserved neighborhoods.

Call to Action

Lundquist had strong words for her fellow philanthropists.

She said wealthy donors should give “every penny that’s been tax deducted” in their private foundations and donor-advised funds to nonprofits that help people who are most in need. She thinks Congress should work harder to increase foundation payout requirements beyond the 5 percent grant makers are currently required to give each year. She argued that current tax laws “don’t do enough to incentivize” big giving from foundations and donor-advised funds.

“Charities are in a total state of crisis, so philanthropy needs to accelerate its efforts to address the absolutely unprecedented needs we’re facing right now,” Lundquist said.

She also thinks Congress should bar foundations from paying the salaries and travel expenses of a foundation’s family members so the foundation can meet more robust payout obligations.

What She Looks For in a Nonprofit

Lundquist said she and her husband are driven by a desire to create systemic change, and they look at the big picture of what a nonprofit is trying to do. They like nonprofits that “look beyond their own front door” and work to improve every aspect of their beneficiaries’ lives.

She said she is drawn to organizations that express “a deep sense of urgency to their missions” and are open to long-term partnerships between public and private entities. Such partnerships are important right now, she said, because there isn’t enough public money to meet the needs of society today, and it’s crucial for philanthropy and government to work together to help more people.

On Building Relationships With Charities

“It’s all about collaboration,” said Lundquist.

Working with the staffs and boards of the nonprofits she and her husband support helps the couple stay engaged with the charities’ work and with the people each nonprofit is working to help. In the case of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the Lundquists go to the schools and get to know students, parents, teachers, and the principals.

One of the best ways nonprofits can build relationships with donors like her is to tell good stories about their successes, she said. Charity leaders can capture donors with stories about their charities’ beneficiaries.

“It’s that kind of personal connection that moves me.”

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