Grantmaking Takes Root: The Role of The Parker Foundation in San Diego’s Funding History

Monday, June 20, 2016

This is one of a series of profiles highlighting the work of our longtime members to commemorate the 40th anniversary of San Diego Grantmakers' founding in 1976.

Few not-for-profit leaders can say they played an integral role in the development of San Diego’s grantmaking community. Judy McDonald is one of these people.

Having dedicated more than 30 years to connecting hundreds of San Diego charities to vital funding as a board member of The Parker Foundation, Judy’s history also includes being part of a handful of grantmakers who played a fundamental role in developing the group that would eventually become San Diego Grantmakers. 

The Seeds of Modern Grantmaking Are Planted

The story of how The Parker Foundation and San Diego Grantmakers converge starts in 1971, when Inez and Gerald Parker of La Jolla, through part of their estate, established a private foundation that was to be used to better the lives of the people of San Diego. 

“One of the tenets of The Parker Foundation, since the beginning, has been that the not-for-profit sector rises to do what government can’t or won’t do,” says Judy. “Our philosophy is to strengthen individual organizations rather than give to particular causes. We are very general in our giving, investing in organizations that fulfill a need that others don’t and that do a good job in their niche. These are the ones that tend to really need funding.”

Grantmaking Best Practices and Risk-taking

The foundation has given over $40 million to San Diego not-for-profits since its founding and is able to fund not-for-profit requests that other grantmakers might find too risky or not glamorous enough, according to Judy. These types of donations have included funding things like long-term strategies for door-to-door canvassing, storage unit rentals, and hiring a full-time volunteer coordinator. 

Judy says that “somewhere along the line, people got the impression that not-for-profit organizations were spending too much money on things like administration and fundraising, and they began to penalize them for that. There is a real overhead cost, as we know, to being able to deliver these services. We like to fill in the gaps and pay for this cost.”  

Judy also explains that allowing people to ask for money for what they really need it for helps keep the relationship honest by not putting them in a position where they feel they have to make their grant application look like they spend money differently than they really do.

In spite of proudly taking risks with their funding, The Parker Foundation seems to have found a sustainable formula. They maintain an all-volunteer board of directors, most of whom have been in their roles for 20 years or longer. They have only one paid staff member who runs the organization’s administrative operations. 

The foundation is also very strict about never tapping into their $40 million corpus, giving away roughly 5 percent of their endowment every year. This, according, to Judy, allows them to provide grants consistently, even during economic downturns. They have helped thousands of local not-for-profits over the years, ranging from arts & culture to health & human services to organizations that promote important civic issues. Donation amounts range from $5,000 to $150,000.

Part of San Diego Grantmakers from the Beginning

Early on in The Parker Foundation’s history, according to Judy, there was really no structure around grantmaking in the not-for-profit community. Once Judy came on board with the foundation, she started learning about various informal regional associations and the advantage of working with them to learn what other grantmakers were doing. In her role at The Parker Foundation, Judy was among some of the first grantmakers in San Diego to begin meeting at luncheons in the mid- to late-1970s that were designed to help them network, learn, and support each other. These small lunch groups were the predecessor to what would later formally become San Diego Grantmakers.

“Formal regional associations like San Diego Grantmakers weren’t really a thing at this time,” adds Judy. The formation of this group was part of a larger movement happening nationally in the context of the growth of formal philanthropy in the United States.”

Judy also served as the founding chair of San Diego Grantmakers and is proud of what the organization has become:  “I set high expectations for work, but I think San Diego Grantmakers has been successful in their mission. There are more people in our field acquainted with each other, more conversations, more education and more collaboration. They support finding creative solutions. The most important thing, though, is that they have created a community where there was no community before.”