On a recent Friday afternoon, Pasadena Community Foundation President and CEO Jennifer DeVoll was on cloud nine.
It’s not quite typical for the determined, hard-working CEO, but heading into her 15th year at PCF, DeVoll could safely feel she was coming off a big win.
The night before, PCF presented “Big Heart Small Film,” a culmination of a year’s planning and collaboration with Alibaba Pictures to produce short films about some of the most successful nonprofits the foundation represents. Nine films were featured, highlighting the critical work of Pasadena nonprofits meeting valuable needs in the Pasadena community.
“We brought the community together in a way that seemed to really move people,” said DeVoll, who lavished praise on the filmmaking volunteers and community members who stepped up to help lead the project. “We asked a lot of both parties … the nonprofits had to suspend their preconceived notions of the message they wanted for their image, and we asked the filmmakers to respect their brand and their mission.”
The event, held at the Huntington Library’s Rothenberg Hall, attracted nearly 400 attendees, including some of the entertainment industry’s prominent insiders, and raised about $200,000 for the foundation’s grant-making programs. The short films, sensitive in nature due to the vulnerable needs the nonprofits address, brought more than a few tears to the audience.
Fran Scoble, former head of Westridge School and PCF incoming chair elect for 2018, noted the “Big Heart Small Film” event succeeded beyond expectations.
“The quality of the films, the size of the turnout, it was just spectacular. The partnership with Alibaba brought a lot of people to the table that don’t often come to our events or know of our nonprofits. It was an ambitious project by any means, and I think one that gave Jennifer more than a few heart palpitations,” said Scoble with a laugh. She encourages others to watch the films available on PCF’s website. “It really exceeded everybody’s expectations and it was a big win for the foundation.”
But drawing publicity to the causes closest to DeVoll’s heart is just the icing on the cake of a 15-year career that has dramatically changed PCF, leading it from a small foundation representing some $16 million in assets to a powerhouse of $77 million in assets as of the end of October.
Sitting down to discuss her tenure, DeVoll addressed one of the great urban myths of Pasadena, often called the city with the most nonprofits per capita in the world. Technically, that may be true, she noted, if one were to count them up on GuideStar USA Inc., an information service specializing in reporting on nonprofits nationwide, and where there are about 1,800 nonprofits listed for the Pasadena area.
But of that total, she said, some are private foundations, churches and simple P.O. Boxes that are listed to serve Africa.
“If we were to clean up that number we might get about [1,200] … so I only know that we have a lot. But the interesting thing to me is that you can also break down the national average of charitable donations, and if you look at people giving, you’ll see that Pasadena is a most generous community — more generous than the national average.”
Leading that charge, DeVoll said is an honor, and one she takes with great pride to make PCF reflective of the community it serves.
As a tax-exempt public charity created by and for the people of Pasadena, PCF provides a permanent endowment for public good. It works with individuals, families and organizations to establish philanthropic funds, invests and builds endowment funds, and provides grants to local nonprofits. It focuses on six areas of local interest: arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services and youth. Established in 1953, PCF was modeled on other community foundations around the country, where there are now about 800 nationwide. In California, there are about 30 similar foundations, although they vary greatly in size and reach, from some $150,000 in assets to others with more than $1 billion.
But PCF, representing a relatively small community, is a “nice medium mix” as an umbrella group for approximately 315 charitable funds. Of those, there are about 150 donor-advised funds and 110 funds over which the PCF has discretion, meaning its board and committee decides how to allocate the money to different nonprofits.
Starting in 2018, PCF’s assets have grown so much that it will be able to grant more than $1 million to funds dedicated to servicing Greater Pasadena, almost double what it has been guaranteed to allocate in the past.
That growth has been a big part of DeVoll’s vision, to bring more money to make more impact to deserving nonprofits, Scoble said.
“The most impressive things to me are these little grassroots organizations that are meeting a real, specific need in the community and that are making real change and impact. These are organizations that make the difference between a good life, and one that is a constant struggle,” she said.
She praises DeVoll’s “stick-to-it-ness” as part of her success at PCF. “She’s incredibly persistent. I’ve seen tremendous growth in her as a leader and director. She’s become a true CEO,” Scoble noted.
DeVoll also noted that the $1 million in perpetual grants will make a big difference going forward, leading to another of her steadfast focus: making the most impact. This often means weeding out nonprofits that don’t quite meet PCF’s requirements for a grant.
“It used to devastate me to say no to somebody, but now with a little perspective, I realize it’s not ‘no’ forever. There’s always next year, and we can come back to this,” she said. “We want to be sure we are granting to organizations that are efficient and healthy and have the capacity to deliver on their promises, and also that are meeting the highest needs.”
By definition, a community foundation is a publicly supported philanthropic institution that serves three public segments: donors, the nonprofit sector and the foundation’s designated community as a whole. The reason a foundation might bring its fund money under PCF’s umbrella is twofold: It can benefit from PCF’s robust assets and investment expertise (run by a financial committee and Vanguard International), and it receives full “wraparound” administrative services, such as oversight, bookkeeping, accounting and technical support, as well as a mailing address and meeting rooms. This leaves the nonprofit, often a group of volunteers with limited time and resources, to focus on its mission at heart: to identify and interact with the people they want to help.
Although the foundation has become much more collaborative with “living” donors, many of PCF’s early gifts were bequeaths. No matter what the circumstance, DeVoll says she strives for the foundation to be the best steward possible.
One example, she notes, was a large bequest left by a woman, Cornelia Eaton, who left her estate (now an endowment worth about $1.4 million) to PCF, requesting that the money be left to serve seniors. Instead of just earmarking the money to organizations already serving seniors, PCF suspended grant-making for one year while it created a task force and researched the highest needs of seniors in the Pasadena community. The result: food insecurity. PCF then focused grant money toward nonprofits providing meals and grocery distribution to low-income seniors.
“It was surprising, but that was one of the outcomes of doing our research and wanting to make more impactful and relevant grants. We had been entrusted to be the stewards of this money, and we wanted to be sure that we were having the best possible impact with the dollars we had been given,” DeVoll said. “We have tried hard to be good stewards and to make the most impact with the grant money available.”
Bill Bogaard, former Pasadena mayor and PCF board member, said he thinks PCF’s credibility is a great part of its success.
“I’ve been truly impressed with Jennifer’s leadership, her thoughtfulness and thoroughness in the foundation’s practices in making grants, especially in regard to what the donors want and recommend,” he said. “Its due diligence in evaluating grant applications and the follow-up afterward in that grant-making process is commendable; grants are made promptly and effectively for the purposes intended.
“I think that has lent high credibility with the people of Pasadena, who we know to be very generous in supporting nonprofit causes.”
Going forward, DeVoll envisions perpetual grants for each of its focus groups. Instead of social services competing with landscaping or environmental causes, all of which are important and make Pasadena a beautiful place to live, she noted, they will have separate pools of money.
“What I’d like to see, eventually, is that we can create this pot of unrestricted money that is nimble and can pivot to the needs of the community while also reflecting the passions of the community,” she said. “I have the vision of a community foundation that has really robust endowments for all of these areas.”