"The Model Works." A Look at How the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles Is Doing

If you're a New Yorker plugged into the nonprofit world, the idea that a mayor can galvanize private fundraising to support city priorities will seem old hat by now. The Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City has been around for over 20 years, and even bigger money has been raised through a fund for Gotham's public schools. 

Elsewhere, though, such funds remain a novelty. Not many cities have mayor's funds, and it's an open question as to how widely this public-private model is likely to spread. With cities increasingly strapped for resources as pension costs climb, our bet is that a growing number of mayors will be shaking the trees for private help in achieving their goals. Less clear is whether donors will go along. That's one reason why we're keeping a close eye on the still new Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, an ambitious effort catalyzed by Eric Garcetti to bring new philanthropic muscle to bear to advance L.A. 

The fund recently released its second annual report, which makes this a good moment to take a closer look at how the effort has been shaping up.


As we reported earlier, the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles kicked off with a bang, and that momentum has continued. It raised $12 million in its second year, money that's supported a range of programs.

Most of the money has come from individuals (38 percent) and foundations (37 percent), with the rest largely from corporate funders.

The list of donors that have backed the fund offers an interesting, if partial, snapshot of Los Angeles philanthropy. You'll find legacy foundations like Wasserman and Annenberg; entertainment money, like the Eisner and the Lear foundations; some top billionaires foundations, like the Broad and Karsh foundations; and some corporations. 

Los Angeles philanthropy is really booming right now, driven by this mix of donors. There's a lot more pools of wealth around than there used to be, whether it's the historically large entertainment fortunes or the many zillionaire types who call Los Angeles home. The Mayor's Fund has emerged at a good moment, not just because of this growing wealth, but because of the strong sense of civic energy in L.A. right now—a city that's finally even winning the grudging admiration of New Yorkers. 

RelatedSurf's Up: Why Southern California Philanthropy is Taking Off

At the same time, it's hard to ignore L.A.'s serious problems, and more affluent Angelenos are engaged in trying to address them. The fund offers a way for them to help do so across a range of issues. Its priorities are economic prosperity, community resiliency, quality of life, and government efficiency. Grant money has been pretty evenly split between economic prosperity (42 percent) and quality of life (40 percent). And in both 2015 and 2016, approximately 92 percent of funding comes in the form of program expenses, with very little going to operating costs.

The fund’s president, Deidre Lind, told us, “We've worked hard to keep a low overhead, which is conducive to our type of organization.”

The Mayor's Fund is a very different type of grantmaker than the other types of foundations we usually cover in Los Angeles. Lind elaborated on this point, saying:

The biggest difference is that we directly support city programs. We provide an opportunity to form partnerships in support of what the city does best or needs most.  We allow for new resources to make good civic programs work better and reach farther. Most nonprofit organizations do their work next to government, but the fund works with government. 

One advantage of the fund is that it can do things that are hard for government to do. Private grant dollars are more flexible and can be deployed more quickly as well as for projects that are risky. When public officials hit roadblocks, as can often happen in city government, it's good to have this kind of money handy. 

From the beginning, solid marketing campaigns have been at the heart of the fund’s success. It began with a strong roll-out and pitching points and has excelled at getting messaging in front of Angelenos. For example, Lind told us how California's devastating drought challenged the siloed structure of city government and how a creative campaign that went beyond the capacity of any individual city department was needed to change public behavior.

The campaign was called “Save the Drop." Lind said that it "coordinated private resources, including some of the best marketing expertise, and the result was millions of impressions, an award-winning creative campaign, and a huge shift in LA’s water usage towards conservation."

Just to be crystal clear: How the fund's money is spent is up to its board and not the mayor’s office. This is not some kind of slush fund for Eric Garcetti, and initial concerns that it would offer a back door for donor influence have faded. 

Another thing to know: Although the fund is in constant conversations with city departments, the mayor’s office, and the philanthropic community about partnerships and programs to address critical issues in Los Angeles, there’s still no clear path for local nonprofits to apply for grants. The fund doesn't accept grant proposals or solicitations.

But if things keep going as they have been in 2016, the fund looks poised for sizable growth in the years ahead. It's generated tremendous interest and, judging by its list of donors, still hasn't roped in plenty of obvious funders who should be supporting it. We suspect many of those funders will eventually come around. How do you keep saying no to an effort like this, one that embodies the surging sense of civic hope that a lot of Angelenos feel right now? 

Regarding our earlier question about whether mayor's funds will spread more widely to other cities, Lind thinks so. “With just two years under our belt, it’s exciting to see how much interest there is in this model from municipalities large and small... Cities are able to better impact challenges swiftly, creatively, and with maximal public engagement when a tool like the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles exists. The model works.”