John Watts, an 82-year-old planned-giving specialist at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, calls himself “active-oriented, but not hyperactive.” His expansive list of accomplishments — from the Navy to seminary school and fundraising — reflects an active, involved citizen whose dedication and collected wisdom are vital for his planned-giving work at the Rescue Mission.
The Rescue Mission provides food and shelter 365 nights a year to those with nowhere else to go, and a 12-month residential recovery program for men and women trying to break free from cycles of addiction, poverty, homelessness and crime.
At 82, Watts is more active in the South Coast community than many people half his age.
“I can’t sit. In fact, it’s hard for me to sit and read,” he said. “I want to be doing something. I just naturally like it. Working outside is very therapeutic for me after pouring over books and reading.”
Born in 1929 in Chicago, Watts and his family moved to Altadena when he was 10. When Watts was a senior in high school, he ran away from home to work on his sister’s ranch in Montana, citing a stepfather with whom he didn’t get along and a love for the great outdoors as reasons for his choice to flee his Southern California home.
After finishing high school in 1947, Watts enrolled at the University of Virginia, but his collegiate career was cut short at that institution. He joined the Navy in 1948.
“The draft was still around in those days, so instead of being drafted, I joined the military through the Navy Corpsman,” Watts said. “Joining the Navy enabled me to learn some things about life. I lacked discipline because of my parents’ divorce, my running away from home, and I had been a careless student and hadn’t really applied myself.”
Watts said his fear of failure motivated him to succeed during his stint with the Navy.
“An older brother always referred to me as dumb, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself,” he said. “A big fear of failure drives you to be well-prepared, and it helps you do those things to succeed.
“Even to this day when I was at the National Planned Giving Institute, I prepared, rehearsed and worked very carefully to avoid failure.”
After leaving the Navy, Watts married, finished his undergraduate studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and graduated cum laude from Grace Theological Seminary.
Watts then worked for a nondenominational Christian ministry called The Navigators, a group famous for teaching children how to read the Bible and pray. In 1971, Watts joined the faculty of the National Planned Giving Institute at the College of William and Mary. As assistant to the president from 1983 to his semi-retirement in 1996, Watts helped Westmont College re-establish its planned-giving program.
Watts’ roots in Santa Barbara run deep. His mother lived in Santa Barbara for many years, and all three of his children and one granddaughter are Westmont alumni.
Since leaving Westmont, Watts has volunteered his planned-giving expertise to the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, where he fundraises by helping donors maximize contributions to the mission through estate planning, tax planning and their wills.
“It’s very fulfilling for me to help people accomplish their objectives,” he explained. “The first thing I want to know about them is the people if their lives. I love helping the donor make the right kind of gift that will be more beneficial to them and also charity they love.
“It’s important for you to care about your family before you care about your extended family. One of my goals in life is to make sure the donor protects their family first.”
Watts said giving cycles as people age. From ages 20 to 40, people learn to give to charities they care about. People begin to make more sizable donations out of their income to receive tax benefits from ages 40 to 60. Watts works primarily with people age 60 or older who make bigger gifts out of accumulated assets, people more property rich and income poor.
“Up until recently, property values were generally increasing, and the people older than 60 have a vivid recollection of the Depression,” he said. “It’s common to have a millionaire next door, someone you’d never guess is that wealthy. These people don’t go to Nordstrom, they go to JCPenney; they don’t buy a Rolex, they buy a Timex.
“In 2009, the 50 largest gifts to charities in this country came from people with a median age of 75.”
But Watts said he doesn’t encourage donors to give outside of their means.
“I make sure donors don’t give away too much,” he said. “I’m a strong proponent of not giving gifts irrevocably to jeopardize gifts in the future. I do a lot of deferred planned gifts, in donors’ living will or trust, so they have more money while they’re seniors.”
Watts has been successful with his work at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission.
“The reason why John is so good at the work he does is because he’s talking with people about things that are precious to them,” said Rolf Geyling, president of the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. “They talk about what’s going to happen after they die; people only usually have those conversations with good friends, people they trust.
“When you’re a senior citizen, you get scared because you don’t know if people have your best interests in mind. Donors know that (Watts) has their best interests in mind.
“Anybody who knows John knows he’s very personable, kind and caring. We have a pretty hectic office schedule here, and people come in with extreme need. I always like when John comes in and wants to see how you’re doing.”
Watts is also active in his church and is an avid traveler, having gone on more than 15 cruises. During summers, Watts and his wife of nearly 60 years, Patty, take their truck and trailer and drive around Colorado, Montana and Wyoming to explore Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park and other landmarks.
“We’re just busy spending the children’s inheritance,” Watts said with a laugh.
Last year, Watts spent time working to create the Geroge W. Bush Foundation in Dallas.
“I like to take projects like that and run with them,” he said.