April 2 2014 11:21 AM

City's donor woes resurface amid Balboa Park Centennial, San Diego Opera dramas

Hey, San Diego Opera! How about a Faulconer / Gloria production of “That’s What’s Left for Nonprofits?”
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

"Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures."

—Oscar Wilde

Who the hell is advising the relics over at San Diego Opera? Perhaps the same people behind the Balboa Park Centennial debacle? If ineptitude were a valued skill, these folks would be earning their hefty paychecks in spades!

But it isn't—repeat, San Diego: Ineptitude is not a valued skill— and now the world can look upon our sunny city once again with a puzzled face, an eyebrow raised.

Just how goofy must we look from the outside?

Let's start with the Balboa Park centennial plans. City leaders are now demanding an accounting of exactly what San Diego got for the $2.6 million the disbanding Balboa Park Centennial Inc. says it spent on planning while simultaneously failing to attract whale-sized donors for the $35-million, year-long international extravaganza.

The outgoing centennial planners would prefer to blame this whole thing on former Mayor Bob Filner's over-reaching dream of international attention for the party, but there wasn't a booster in sight who didn't tout the world-drawing potential. So stow that excuse, folks.

Here's new Mayor Kevin Faulconer in October 2011, when he was a mere City Council member/cheerleader:

"When we were talking about this in committee, we talked about the ability not only to attract obviously visitors from outside the San Diego region, but this will be on the state, national and, we hope, an international level as people understand the history of this and what it means to the United States."

Does that sound anything like the small, subdued celebration that he and Council President Todd Gloria now tout as the 100th-year solution?

Then we have the situation over at San Diego Opera. Seems the company that's yet to find itself in the red financially can see the red writing on the wall and has opted to perform a quickie harakiri on itself, only to say, "April Fool's! We'll give you folks who claim to care about opera a couple weeks to come up with $10 million to keep us afloat."

First bit of advice, San Diego Opera. Keep board President Karen Cohn as far away from the media as is physically possible, given her inability to appear anything but condescending. A clip of her on KUSI this week should be studied by PR students.

Instead of showing appreciation for the public groundswell of support for the institution or appearing to heed the advice of visiting Opera America President Marc Scorca to "do whatever it can with available resources in order to function responsibly," Cohn stuck to her script, telling KUSI, "Come forward. We need at least $10 million to keep our season going."

The problem, as it always seems, is about money. How much is enough? Who pays? Who's getting paid how much? Did any bang emerge from those bucks?

In its "State of Nonprofits" annual report for 2013, the University of San Diego's Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research found that San Diego faces a bleak charitable future.

The report found that "the overall philanthropic climate in San Diego is under-resourced as nonprofits are highly dependent— actually, disproportionately dependent compared to their counterparts throughout California and the nation—on government support and earned revenue.

"For nonprofits in San Diego, a leg of the revenue stool is essentially weak."

Why is this a problem, you ask? As the report explains, "The absence of comparable capital from private foundations means that San Diego nonprofits are at a distinct disadvantage in their ability to take risks with new types of programs and initiatives."

Sound familiar, anybody in San Diego who's tried to be innovative? It's hard to imagine how San Diego competes going forward with cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where foundations outpace San Diego's by a factor of 10 and more.

"San Diego is challenged philanthropically with far fewer grant dollars available per nonprofit than in many other regions in the country," the 2013 Caster report notes. "The disparity in California is striking, specifically total assets held by San Diego's foundations are $3 billion compared to $43 billion held by Los Angeles foundations and $29 billion held by foundations in San Francisco.

"In practical terms, this rep resents less capacity for nonprofits to access the kind of working capital typically offered through foundation grants and used by nonprofits for innovation, experimentation and expansion."

Hold the phone there, Spin, you might be saying. There are wealthy folks in town dropping their hard-earned cash into worthy causes all the time. Yes, that is true. But check out where the bulk of that goes—into new medical wings or biotech centers emblazoned with the names of their generous benefactors.

All very noble and forward-thinking, economically speaking—perhaps with a little ego thrown in. But when it comes time to prop up a cultural institution or hop on board the Balboa Park birthday-bash bus, is that too much to ask for without plastering company banners all over the proceedings?

Perhaps in today's what's-init-for-me world, such generosity has become endangered, leaning toward extinct. Coupled with Faulconer's recent proposal to divert federal anti-poverty dollars away from nonprofits into infrastructure projects, maybe the writing is on the wall.

Maybe it's fitting that the San Diego Opera ends short of its golden anniversary with its zillionth production of Don Quixote, the farcical tale of a delusional knight who battles windmills he thinks are giants just to recover the necklace of a woman who, in the end, rejects him.

And maybe, too, it's a good thing that attracting San Diegans and not kings and queens will be the focus of Balboa Park's centennial celebration.

For both, the solution seems simple: Stuff the arrogance. Swallow the pride. Keep the public in the loop. Proceed ahead.

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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