Rancho Santa Fe Community Center’s survival depends on community support


By Cameron James

Special to the Review

In 1971, 19 dedicated residents who understood that recreational, cultural and educational programs would enrich community life founded the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center and called it Rancho Youth. Since then, the center has dedicated itself to enhancing the spirit of community through recreational programs, events and services for the benefit of all ages.

As the Community Center’s 40th anniversary approaches, it finds itself in the midst of an economic downturn that has seen philanthropic dollars dwindle and membership numbers fall 43 percent since 2006. With cash reserves at an all-time low, the center is looking to the past to inspire funding for its future.

The center’s original facility was built in 1975 with a $250,000 loan secured by the personal guarantees of 17 residents, many of whom were also founders. In 1998, a $7.2 million capital campaign was launched to fund a new 7,800-square-foot building that would house a large multi-use room, two activity rooms and offices as well as fund an endowment. The capital campaign goal was reduced to $3.5 million, which was met in 2003, and the center moved into its new facility in August 2001.

Patty Brutten, 15-year Rancho Santa Fe resident, was involved in the capital campaign and has been a major supporter of the center ever since. She said the fundraising climate was different then and money flowed more freely.

“But even then it was a challenge to raise that much money in the community,” said Brutten via e-mail. “The elementary school does a great job of fundraising as well, and that puts more pressure on the parents to consider both causes when making their decisions about donations.”

However, unlike the school, the Community Center receives no taxpayer funding, and it has no safety net. It is entirely dependent upon the community to finance its operations.

In 2009, 51 percent of the Community Center’s funding came from programs and membership. Since 2000, the center has seen a 30 percent drop in participation of its kindergarten through 4th grade programs. Membership and fundraising events such as the popular annual gala and spring luncheon, which accounted for approximately 32 percent of the center’s revenues in 2009, make up the bulk of the center’s funding. But in an era of philanthropic fatigue where humanitarian and education funding are priorities, sponsorship, attendance and participation in charity events throughout the country have suffered.

As an example, in 1994 the first Annual Golf Classic chaired by Craig Edwards and Keith Eck raised $37,000. In 2009, the Golf Classic contributed $72,000 to the community center’s coffers, down from $170,000 in 2005. This year, the event concept was modified to include family golf and tennis, and revenue projections were adjusted downward to reflect lower sponsorship and participation levels.

“Our organizational culture has changed such that we can no longer solely rely on the revenue generated from fundraising events,” said Community Center executive director Erin Leahey.

In response to reduced membership, fundraising revenues, and direct giving, the center has cut staff 25 percent since 2008. It’s on track to reduce expenses 24 percent and projected expenses this year are $775,000, approximately the same level as 2001. Despite adopting these cost-saving measures, the center’s cash reserves are running low, according to Leahey.

A small endowment was established for the center in 1986 from which the center receives an annual distribution of around $20,000. But Leahey said an active endowment campaign never came to fruition, in part due to a 2005 feasibility study that determined the community would not support it. Since then, Leahey said the board has worked to build reserves rather than adding to the endowment.

In 2009, direct giving represented just 17 percent of the center’s funding.

“As a result of the past few years, we are now left with no cash reserves and a small endowment compared to our annual operating budget,” said Leahey. “Our annual distribution barely makes a dent in our operating budget.”

Nearly 75 percent of the center’s programs and activities are geared toward families and 25 percent toward youth activities offered through Rancho Santa Fe Youth and Community Theater programs, both of which have been operating for 39 years.

In 1987, when the Junior Dunkers basketball program started with a $1,000 grant from general contractor Don Thayer, over 90 children enrolled. Now in its 24th year, 175 boys and 18 volunteer coaches are participating. According to Leahey, Junior Dunkers is a major part of the center’s operations.

Brutten and her husband, Marc, have three children, all teenagers who went to R. Roger Rowe Elementary School and enjoyed many of the center’s programs at the time.

“Our children loved the Community Center and participated in many of the after school programs, like gymnastics, soccer, kids night out, and of course the annual favorite, the Sock Hop, complete with lip sync contest!” said Patty Brutten.

The Brutten children, now in high school and college, are not attending the Community Center now, but Patty Brutten said, “You can’t just forget about what makes the community a great one, and you need to continue your support of programs, and things in the community you care about, if you can.”

In June the Community Center board appealed to the Rancho Santa Fe Association for $50,000 in funding for each of the next three years.

While the Association board decided it was not responsible for financially supporting community nonprofits, an article about the appeal for financial support appeared in the Rancho Santa Fe Review and resulted in an anonymous donor contacting the Association with an offer of a $25,000 matching gift fund.

The Rancho Santa Fe Foundation then stepped in to manage the Anonymous Fund at the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation on behalf of the donor, a family with long-term ties to the community, to ensure the donor’s anonymity and manage the distributions according to the donor’s wishes.

“They understand how important the center is to the fabric of this community,” said RSF Foundation Executive Director Christy Wilson, who was authorized to speak on behalf of the anonymous donor.

“The Community Center has been here almost 40 years and plays a very important role,” said Wilson. “Almost everybody who lives here has been touched by the Community Center in one way or another. Their gift is another validation for keeping our nonprofits strong and healthy.”

The Foundation will release the anonymous donor’s funds as the Community Center raises matching funds.

“It’s a wonderful message to the community that when people do step forward with a sum of money, it gives others in the community an opportunity to match it and everybody wins,” said Wilson.

In response to the appeal for financial support, the Bruttens stepped forward with a $10,000 contribution. According to Wilson, the matching funds have already been released.

Having served on the RSFCC board for several years, Patty Brutten is acutely aware of the challenge of running an economically sound program there.

“The Community Center survival depends on financial support from the residents of this community,” she said. “I am sure that there will come a day where we will seek out programs that the CC is offering, and I will want to know that that place will still be here, for us, in this great little city!”

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Written by Cameron Leigh James on behalf of the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center