Saving Seniors

The Pasadena Community Foundation’s blueprint for philanthropy by and for the elderly

You might say that Cornelia Eaton is a patron saint of Pasadena’s seniors. When she died in 1995, she left her entire estate — $816,225 — to the Pasadena Community Foundation, dedicating it to the city’s elderly, in a gift that keeps on giving in a way she couldn’t have imagined.

Eaton requested that the PCF use her bequest for only one purpose: to help local senior citizens who are financially, physically and/or mentally frail. Her gift is making a big impact in Pasadena, yet little is publicly known about her beyond her philanthropy and her modest home, which was razed to make way for the 210 Freeway. Jennifer DeVoll, executive director of PCF for the past 14 years, says neither she nor the foundation has information about Eaton’s life, but she knows almost everything about Eaton’s donation: Since the mystery woman’s death, the foundation has distributed more than the original $816,000 to charitable groups in the Pasadena area, DeVoll says. As of this year, the Cornelia L. Eaton Endowment for Assistance to the Elderly fund has amassed an additional $1.6 million yet to be distributed — and it’s still growing. Ms. Eaton’s name and fund will live in perpetuity, DeVoll says, and that’s just one of the beauties of giving to a community foundation.

The idea of giving locally can be particularly intriguing in an engaged community  like Arroyoland, where so many families live in bucolic splendor and have such passion for preserving their neighborhoods and cultural institutions while helping those less fortunate who may live nearby. Arroyo Monthly interviewed Jennifer DeVoll to find out more about Pasadena Community Foundation and the benefits of local philanthropy. The bottom line, it seems from listening to DeVoll, is that if you love where you live and want to preserve and maintain your neighborhoods and the people who live in and near them, then you might want to give to a foundation that works to uplift and sustain the local way of life. Of course, there are a million worthy causes, but one that stands out is helping those close to home — your neighbors in need.

ARROYO MONTHLY: What is the Pasadena Community Foundation?

JENNIFER DEVOLL: Community foundations, in general, are a unique type of charitable organization. They’re tax-exempt public charities, typically organized with an interest in a particular geography. They do fund-raising and grant-making primarily for local nonprofit organizations, so they work with local donors to establish and amass general funds and then make grants from those funds with an emphasis on giving locally. So far, PCF has distributed over $40 million through donor-advised funds. We work with individuals and their advisors to establish charitable funds for groups they care about today, and also to create a permanent legacy for the future.

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What geographical area does PCF cover? Is it only Pasadena?

No, it’s the greater Pasadena area, including all the communities that border Pasadena.

Can you give some examples of organizations to whom you make grants?

In general, we cover six areas of interest locally: arts and culture, education, environment, health, youth and human services, with a special emphasis on the elderly. Individuals leave bequests for seniors to our organization, we invest the money and create a perpetual fund. The Eaton Endowment, for example,  is part of PCF’s senior grants program to aid seniors in need through such organizations as the Senior Care Network at Huntington Hospital, Meals on Wheels, the Pasadena Senior Center and Pasadena Villa, to name a few. But this is just one example. Others leave bequests for a variety of different uses, which we invest to create perpetual sources of support for whatever group or institution they’re particularly passionate about and wish to support.

Do you do any work with those who might want to volunteer their time to help these charitable groups?

No. We’re really a grant-maker and funder. We read applications, we do site visits, we meet the executive directors of local nonprofits. We concentrate on having very strong relationships with local nonprofits and our community in general, so we know who is really doing a good job, and what kind of impact they’re making on the local community. We focus on those who are making a difference right now in any area of interest.

How did you manage to distribute nearly all of Ms. Eaton’s original bequest and still have $1.5 million left, and growing, in her endowment?

We have $64.5 million in 300 different charitable funds that we manage through a Vanguard stock and bond portfolio. We have an extremely sophisticated finance investment committee on our board that oversees the Vanguard [investments]. They are all volunteers. For example, one of our investment committee volunteers is Sandra Ell, who was the chief investment officer for Caltech for many years. Now she volunteers helping with our investments. We make distributions every year from the earnings of our funds.

Who typically donates to PCF?

Last year we received $17 million in donations, mostly from Pasadena and surrounding-area residents,  along with bequests from people that have lived here. We also receive donations from organizations that partner with us. They give us their endowment to manage because we have a good, large diversified portfolio that has done well. We have a few instances where nonprofits have gone out of business and have a little money left, and they give an endowment to us to sort of carry on their mission.

Has there been any recent shift in services to the senior population?

Yes. A few years ago we suspended our program while we did research to find the biggest impact we could have on our senior population, and looked at the many providers of service to seniors in the community. We found an emerging food insecurity. Seniors were going hungry. The rising costs of health care and medications were causing them to sacrifice buying food so they could try to pay for medicine and care. So we changed our focus on senior grant-making, so that a larger part of it goes to food programs like those at the senior center, Meals on Wheels and the food pantry.

Do you have any specific programs for seniors who want to donate?

Yes, we have a new one called a Charitable Gift Annuity that’s for people 65 or older, with a minimum donation of $10,000. Based on your age and the size of your donation, you’ll receive an income stream for life. An 85-year-old person, for example, will receive 7.8 percent interest on whatever amount they donate. So if you give $100,000 you get a guaranteed annual income of $7,800 for life. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a way to give money for a local cause you believe in, and yet get something back each year to assist with your own living expenses.