Local folklore has long claimed Pasadena to have one of the largest numbers of nonprofits per capita in the nation.
And for anyone living here, it would be difficult not to be touched by one, whether it be on the soccer field with AYSO, through efforts to achieve a carbon-free city, at a university like Caltech or Pasadena City College, the local theater, museum, church or even Huntington Hospital.
Some of the city’s stalwart nonprofits, in fact, have endured for more than 100 years, standing by services that have helped develop rich cultural and artistic centers, beautiful parks and libraries, green spaces and great schools. Although local residents are acutely aware of the importance of their nonprofits, the exact number of such organizations in the city has been less definable, due mainly to the challenge of sorting out the active versus nonactive and the wide variety of organizations able to file for tax exemption.
One local nonprofit, Leadership Pasadena, set out to establish not just how many nonprofits there are but also their fiscal impact in the city, commissioning a special report from the California Association of Nonprofits that broke down the number for Pasadena proper, excluding Altadena, Sierra Madre or South Pasadena. CalNonProfits concluded that there are 1,021 nonprofits in Pasadena. Using a population of 141,000, that means there is one nonprofit for every 138 Pasadena residents.
“What is really remarkable is that it is its own self-sustaining industry,” said Mayor Terry Tornek. “When I describe Pasadena and what makes it unique, of course I talk about the New Year’s parade and football game and the world-class institutions like Caltech and [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], but the thing I cite most often is the number of nonprofits. I’m confident it’s the highest nonprofit ratio per capita in the world. It sets us apart. It flows directly from the culture and attitude about philanthropy and public service that our founding fathers had — it has persevered.”
In the number of nonprofits per capita, Pasadena ranks as one of the top cities in the nation, said Cindy Bengtson, executive consultant for Leadership Pasadena. That would put it close behind Washington, D.C., commonly acknowledged as having the most due to its concentration of political affiliations.
And, perhaps more important, she noted, the economic impact of those nonprofits is far reaching — they generated revenue of about $5.267 billion in 2016, although that also includes churches and Caltech. The university’s revenue alone was $2.598 billion. This means $2.669 billion in revenue was received by Pasadena nonprofits, including churches but excluding Caltech (higher education institutions often file as 501 (c)(3), and also can differ between private nonprofit colleges and public nonprofit colleges).
“It was always my interest that people recognize the economic impact of nonprofits in Pasadena as employees and revenue builders for the city — not just as do-gooders but as having real economic importance,” Bengtson said. “We are honored to provide a well-researched, informed, reliable number of nonprofit organizations in Pasadena.”
For the CalNonProfits statewide report, a team at the University of San Diego gathered data based on research conducted up to March 2014 from the IRS, Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Foundation Center Data, the U.S. Census Bureau Information and the California Employment Development Department. For the Pasadena report, CalNonProfits ran two analyses: They determined the total number of all organizations that file under IRS code 501(c). That includes all the nontraditional nonprofits, including civic leagues, churches, labor unions and credit unions, among others. CalNonProfits determined there are 1,607 of these groups in Pasadena as of March 2017. However, after a more focused analysis of more traditional charities, using only the IRS Code Section 501(c)(3), it came to the conclusion there are 1,021 local nonprofits.
CalNonProfits CEO Jan Masaoka emphasized that the number is an estimate, and that comparing it to other nationwide nonprofit studies is difficult, as most incorporate Pasadena into the larger Los Angeles County number. In its “Causes Count” statewide report, the organization wryly quoted Albert Einstein’s famous statement, “Not everything that matters can be counted.”
CalNonProfits, a statewide alliance with more than 10,000 member organizations, brings nonprofits together to advocate policy for the causes they represent. Although based in Sacramento, Masaoka has family in the Pasadena area and is familiar with the city’s strong dedication to charity. Her own family has been rooted in local causes, she noted.
“In general, where there is a very high quality of life there are a lot of nonprofits — great schools, museums, parks — they point to all the things nonprofits do, and Pasadena certainly has more nonprofits that are connecting with each other than what we see in other cities,” Masaoka said, noting that the city’s nonprofits are especially apt at collaborating with each other for services.
“It’s a generous community, for sure,” she added. “The people of Pasadena are already unusual in recognizing the importance of their nonprofits and are exceptionally proud of them. I would say that I wish more cities were like Pasadena, rather than what Pasadena could do differently.”
According to a Pasadena Chamber of Commerce business directory and community guide, some of the city’s largest employers are nonprofits, with five such organizations within the top 10 list of largest employers. Those include Caltech, 3,900 employees; Huntington Memorial Hospital, 3,200; PCC, 2,619; Pacific Clinics, 1,100; and ArtCenter College of Design, 883. Hathaway-Sycamores is listed as the 11th largest employer with 657 employees.
The instrumental role that the nonprofits play in making Pasadena an economic driver, as well as a champion for change, doesn’t come as a surprise to former four-term Mayor Bill Bogaard.
“Pasadena is unique in many ways, including its architecture, its neighborhoods and fabulous homes, its academic community, JPL, its internationally recognized art and culture institutions, the Tournament of Roses festivities each year and the Rose Bowl and the entire Arroyo Seco. It is also unique in the number, quality and compassion of its nonprofit organizations,” Bogaard said. “Such organizations address various needs of the community or offer world-class cultural opportunities, such as … the Norton Simon Museum. Many cities have an outstanding cultural or charitable institution or two, but Pasadena’s concentration of nonprofits is unique!”
Nonprofits have come and gone over the years in Pasadena, and have faced some compression amid fallout from the 2008 recession. Yet the ones that resisted have become nimble in pivoting resources, maintain low overhead costs with a large volunteer base and find ways to collaborate and synergize services with other nonprofits, local leaders have said.
The industry as a whole is also addressing huge challenges, such as homelessness and lack of affordable housing within the city, said Pasadena Community Foundation President and CEO
“In general, we are seeing some exciting vibrancy in areas of our community — it’s a conversation that people are having, although trying to find solutions to some of these issues is quite complex,” DeVoll noted. “It’s a changing landscape here, but I think it’s exciting, there are so many great things about Pasadena and the spirit of generosity really affects newcomers. Organizations that have been headquartered here have always been very generous and have a socially minded aspect they take responsibility for.”
DeVoll has noted in the past that there might be a total of 1,200 traditional nonprofits throughout the Greater Pasadena area, but that more important are the causes they represent and the impact they have on quality of life.
“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,” she said.
The city’s generosity is something Tornek said he continues to admire, especially when it comes to voting on issues that might make a difference in the homeless crisis and affordable housing. In November, Pasadena approved tax hikes through Measure I and Measure J, which respectively increase the city sales tax and guarantee that money be allocated to local needs, including city emergency shelters; address homelessness; and fund children and youth programs and public neighborhood schools, among other needs.
“This is a city that voted to tax itself 2-1 because it wants us to maintain first-class services,” Tornek said. “When you’re confronted with enormous issues such as homelessness, you either throw up your hands or you go at it. It’s been the Pasadena way not to surrender to these problems but to go at it head on, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re going to make progress.”
Tornek added that the long history of philanthropy among families in town is at the heart of the charitable industry.
“Some of these nonprofits have been around more than 100 years, from generation to generation,” he said. “We have a depth and breadth of people willing to serve in this town that is unequal to anywhere else.”