When the nationwide Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, Santa Barbara’s Mental Wellness Center felt its deep impact.
The center had moved into a new building in 2009, but financial struggles left many spaces in the large building unused. The Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness also faced cutbacks, which cut the Mental Wellness Center’s contract in half and forced the nonprofit organization to move to a four-day work week, said Annmarie Cameron, the center’s executive director.
“It was a taxing set of years,” she recalled.
One thing is for certain, however: the bequests the Mental Wellness Center received in the years following the recession were “transformative” for the organization, Cameron said.
A bequest is a planned gift, usually in the form of money or property, that a person leaves to another person or organization in a will or trust.
Over the past 26 years, the Mental Wellness Center has received about 10 bequests ranging from $20,000 to $2 million. The planned gifts most often come in the form of a bequest, which includes specific, percentage and residual bequests, as well as a Special Needs Trust and an IRA charitable rollover.
The gifts have funded the center’s educational programs and housing units, and have paid off much of its debt.
One of the most impactful gifts the center has received was from Polly Mack, whose planned gift largely funded the center’s newest residential facility, Polly’s House.
Mack was a mother who attended parent support groups at the Mental Wellness Center while her son, Phillip, participated in its Fellowship Club. She left a Special Needs Trust to help support her son for the remainder of his life after she died, naming the Mental Wellness Center as the ultimate beneficiary.
When Phillip Mack died in 2014, the remaining trust assets — which included both real estate and investments — went to the center.
The center’s board of directors leveraged one home for six people into long-term rentals for 17 clients, as well as a new house for 10 clients, which became Polly’s House. The gift also allowed the center to pay off debt, increase cash flow and build a reserve fund.
“We began to see how these bequests can be amazing for small nonprofits,” Cameron told Noozhawk. “Gifts allow you to do what you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.”
Darcy Keep, a Mental Wellness Center board member and administrative director for psychiatry and addiction medicine at Cottage Health, has spent her career helping those with mental illness.
After learning more about planned giving from a Mental Wellness Center workshop for board members, Keep decided to bequeath an IRA charitable rollover to the center.
“The way they touch lives is remarkable,” she said. “That’s why I gave. I understand the impact they have on the community firsthand and I want to sustain that.”
Santa Barbara County has one of the highest donation rates in California. The county’s nonprofit organizations bring in more than $3 million annually per 1,000 residents, according to a 2014 report by the California Association of Nonprofits.
The 2,249 nonprofit organizations in the Central Coast region, which stretches from Carpinteria to Santa Cruz, generate $4.3 billion in revenue each year, the report found.
Pat Snyder, a planned giving consultant, said it is important for an organization seeking donors to get its message out through comprehensive marketing — including social media and newsletters — and have an honorary legacy society for the donors who contribute to the organization’s long-term vision.
She said individuals interested in donating to a nonprofit should do thorough research about the issues they care most about. She also recommends reaching out to an organization’s leadership, such as Cameron, and an attorney to talk about the best way they can give.
The Mental Wellness Center has a group of donors that has been giving for more than 20 years, Cameron said excitedly. She said she is hopeful that the center will continue to work with the community to achieve its goals for years to come.
“People give gifts to the institutions they have a lot of confidence in,” she said. “We have to present ourselves to our community as (a group) with a big plan and a solid and credible track record. And you have to trust the donor’s heart. Giving is such a personal thing.”