“I have been on the receiving end of charity,” says actress Mary Steenburgen, 60, recalling a time during her Arkansas childhood when her train conductor father wasn’t able to work. “I’ve actually stood in a room while people brought us money… so we could have Christmas. But I was very happy growing up, because there was so much love [in my family].”
This memory sums up Steenburgen’s approach to giving today. Yes, she donates money to the causes she believes in—as she puts it, “things that have to do with people, women, and children especially.” But she’s also a confidante, a connector, and a quiet advisor for the organizations she supports—in other words, a true friend.
“Mary is a full human being,” says Andy Sharpless, CEO of ocean conservation organization Oceana. “She’ll give you advice about strategy, fundraising, and managing your spirits through the ups and downs of NGO leadership.” Sharpless credits Steenburgen with getting her friends Bill and Hillary Clinton involved with Oceana, as well as helping craft the narrative for his recent book, The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World.
She’s also forged a close bond with Drs. Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns, founders of the Progeria Research Foundation—an organization dedicated to finding a cure for the rare premature-aging disease. (You may have seen the couple’s progeria-afflicted son, Sam, in the 2013 HBO documentary Life According to Sam.) Since meeting the doctors at a Clinton White House event nearly 15 years ago, Steenburgen says: “Mostly, I’ve tried to be a friend to them. I’ve certainly helped fundraise, but it’s also a question of giving them encouragement, having them to my home, and trying to introduce them to people [in our industry] who can help."
But when it comes to her biggest philanthropic inspiration, Steenburgen credits her husband, actor and Oceana board member Ted Danson. “When he first started this work he was routinely mocked about it… but he just quietly kept doing it,” she reminisces. “Watching him be a passionate advocate and supporting him has been really important to me. If there’s one hero in this family, it’s him.”
Those who attend Barbara Davis’s legendary Carousel of Hope balls don’t just leave with a hefty swag bag—they’re also sure to take away a story to tell their grandchildren. To wit: In 1983, Henry Kissinger and former President Gerald Ford filmed scenes for an episode of Dynasty; in 1990, George Michael’s ripped jeans hit the auction block; while in 2012, George Clooney and Neil Diamond performed a wine-fueled rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
You could say moments like these are inevitable when billionaires, pop stars, Oscar winners, and bubbly collide. So how has Davis managed to rally practically all of LA society to her cause—juvenile diabetes—year after year since 1978?
“I am a pain in the neck and I [reach out] personally,” says Barbara, 83, who launched Colorado’sBarbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes after her youngest child, Dana, was diagnosed with the disease at age 7. (At that time, the clan lived in Denver, where patriarch Marvin worked for his family’s oil business; the family later acquired 20th Century Fox and moved to LA.) “There are great big organizations and I admire them, but having paid workers make the calls is different than doing it yourself.”
For Barbara and her daughter Nancy, who has helped organize the galas since the beginning, that relentless approach has raised more than $100 million for diabetes research, treatment, and education. And it also inspired Nancy, now 56, to take action after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 33. With the help of her annual Race to Erase MS gala (which recently had its 20th anniversary this past May), Nancy was able to create the Center Without Walls, a consortium of the top seven MS research centers across the US. Its efforts have helped fund a host of promising new treatments, none of which were available when Nancy was first diagnosed 22 years ago. “From working on my mom’s charity for a lot of my life, I knew how to start this,” she recalls.
Though their names may be synonymous with flashy fêtes, it’s the unpublicized moments that drive the nurturing Davis duo—each of whom has five children. Nancy will never forget helping a depressed, wheelchair-bound mother get MS treatment and regain the ability to walk. One of Barbara’s proudest accomplishments was soliciting and sending six months’ worth of insulin and supplies to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
“People think, ‘Oh, you work on a charity, no big deal,’ but it’s not easy,” says Nancy. “We don’t just get a little involved… we live and breathe it all day long.”
When Chris Paul was a senior in high school, his beloved grandfather and mentor, Nathaniel Jones, was robbed and beaten to death by five teenagers. A vicious tragedy like this would leave most people hardened and bitter; Paul, now 28, used it as a catalyst to give back.
“[My success] today wasn’t all me,” says the soft-spoken and humble Los Angeles Clippers point guard. “I was a product of people putting me in the right situations, taking care of me, and being there for me.” One of those people was his granddad, and so in 2005, the sporty legend-in-the-making established the CP3 Foundation in Jones’s honor.
Since then, Paul has focused on giving kids the same support his close-knit family gave him. He established a scholarship in his grandfather’s name at his alma mater, North Carolina’s Wake Forest University. While playing for the New Orleans Hornets, he launched an after-school enrichment program for the city called the CP3 Afterschool Zone. There, kids are exposed to everything from broadcasting to martial arts and cooking classes. “If kids don’t have somewhere to be challenged, educated, and secure, that’s when the gang activity starts,” says Paul, who attended similar programs as a child. “As a kid, you just want somebody to pay attention to you.”
After being traded to the Clippers in 2011, Paul formed an alliance with a local after-school program,LA’s BEST. In addition to hosting fundraisers, the six-time NBA All-Star is known for interacting closely with the organization’s young members, whether it’s teaching them healthy lifestyle habits at the annualCP3K Walk or bringing them handpicked holiday gifts. (Chalk it up to being a father himself—Paul and wife Jada are parents to Chris, 4, and Camryn, 1.)
“He not only engages the children; he probes, he listens, he communicates in ways that make each kid in his presence [believe that their hero] really wants to be there,” says Carla Sanger, president and CEO of LA’s BEST. “His time with the children is time they will never forget.”
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar-powered, smog-free, park-dappled Los Angeles? Hold the cynicism—the city’s first chief sustainability officer, 47-year-old Matt Petersen, might be the man who finally makes these fantasies a reality.
Since being appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in September, Petersen and his newly formed Sustainability Innovations Lab have been tasked with developing ways to boost LA’s eco-cred. On his to-do list: creating 20,000 green jobs; making public transportation more accessible (think: ride-share partnerships and city bikes); making buildings more energy-efficient, from city structures to affordable housing; covering the city’s rooftops with solar panels; and making heavily polluted neighborhoods likePacoima, Wilmington, and Boyle Heights cleaner and greener.
It’s a big job, and Petersen is calling on the whole city—from nonprofits and philanthropists to businesses and universities—to help him do it. “The more we can combine ideas and resources to leverage the sort of change we need to see, the greater and more sustainable the city we will have,” proclaims Petersen, the former president and CEO of Global Green USA, who, among other victories, helped green $14 billion in new construction for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is also an advisor for the Clinton Global Initiative and a board member for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles.
Born and reared in Northern California, Petersen’s eco-mission started at age 5, when he recalls looking around his local park and saying: “Dad, we’ve gotta do something to take care of our planet.” He stresses that “citizen entrepreneurs” with a similar passion are key to his strategy—his biggest muse is the late Pam Dashiell, a community activist whom he met while helping to revitalize a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans with the assistance of Global Green and Brad Pitt.
“Pam lived through the storm and it was her idea to rebuild her neighborhood to be carbon-neutral,” recalls Petersen. “It resulted in the Lower Ninth Ward having more LEED-Platinum homes than any other neighborhood in America. That’s what I’m hoping to do in Los Angeles… help people take responsibility for their own corner of the world.” A suggestion box has already been set up atlamayor.org—green thinking caps at the ready!
Like any new mom, Sydney Holland has big plans for her baby girl. But they involve much more than just ballet recitals and honor roll.
"She'll have the opportunity to be of service at a very young age,” says Holland of 5-month-old Alexandra Red, whom she adopted earlier this year. “She’ll be able to really impact the future. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”
For Holland, giving back has always been a family affair. In fact, the 42-year-old entrepreneur and girlfriend of media magnate Sumner Redstone last year launched the Sydney D. Holland Foundation alongside her own mother, San Diego–based substance abuse specialist Dr. Louise Stanger.
“My mom and I feel passionate about a lot of the same things,” explains Holland, who notes that arts, vulnerable children, and addiction prevention are at the core of every cause they fund. “It all starts with children. If they’re exposed to dance, art, and other ways to [keep busy] after school, they’re less likely to use drugs and alcohol.” To wit: As an active LA dance patron, she brought 3,000 kids to The Music Center to experience an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance. And as a longtime supporter of A Place Called Home—an after-school enrichment program in South Central LA—she enlisted Alvin Ailey’s artistic director emerita, Judith Jamison, to lead a dance class for the group’s at-risk members.
Holland is also committed to helping women who have already fallen victim to addiction. “Sydney has an empathy for women and children in need,” says Peggy Albrecht, executive director of residential recovery program Friendly House LA. “She’s always willing to cover a scholarship for a woman who needs it. This is a lady with a heart of gold.” As such, she was named the organization’s 2013 Woman of the Year.
“When Sydney commits to being part of a philanthropic organization, she’s all in,” says Erik Fleming, the head of production and development at Holland’s entertainment company, Rich Hippie Productions. “She’s not only supporting it [financially], but she’s showing up at the events and spreading the word.” Luckily for her, she’ll soon have another tiny teammate beside her in the trenches.
In late 2010, advertising creative director Marcus Rhule Moore was riding a bus to work when three teenagers boarded. “I could clearly tell they were ditching school… they were using foul language, talking really loud,” he recalls.
Moore had an idea: He would invite them up to his office and maybe give them a new perspective on their futures. But he didn’t. “I talked myself out of it,” says the 36-year-old. “But as soon as I stepped off that bus, I knew I’d missed the opportunity to affect one of their lives.”
Fueled by that experience, Moore launched jrCEOs.org in 2011. A sort of LinkedIn for teens and tweens, the site provides access to professional mentors, teaches entrepreneurial skills, and connects members with other business-minded kids. And after chatting with digital strategist Noam Dromi at a 2012 holiday party, the offline, nonprofit element of jrCEOs was born: a summer camp and daily after-school program that immerse kids—many from minority and low-income backgrounds—in the professional world.
“Marcus and I share a passion for mentorship,” says Dromi, the 37-year-old son of Israeli immigrants. “Every great step forward in my career came about because of really amazing mentors, people who looked at me and saw what I could be, not who I was.”
To that end, the jrCEOs program brings its members face to face with real titans of industry, including those at Charles Schwab and Sony Pictures–based Overbrook Entertainment. It teaches them how to create a business plan, work in teams, and manage finances. And the program’s work is paying off. Executives at Charles Schwab were so impressed by the kids’ business ideas—which range from fashion to recycling—that the company has offered to fund some of them by hosting a Shark Tank-style pitch event.
While jrCEOs is currently being piloted with 30 kids at Los Angeles’s John Burroughs Middle School, Moore and Dromi are working with the Boys and Girls Club of America, their first nationwide partnership. But for Moore, whose three preteen daughters are jrCEOs members, the biggest victory hits closer to home. “Their playtime [scenarios] have gone from ‘I’m getting married’ to ‘I’m going to a business meeting,’” he says. “That’s been astonishing.”
Fabian Giroux: a character from Maria Arena Bell’s stint as head writer for The Young and the Restless? Not quite. He was her art history teacher at Orange County’s Newport Harbor High School, and he had a hand in turning her into one of LA’s most powerful cultural patrons.
“He opened my eyes,” she says, gazing at the multiple Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol works in her Bel-Air sitting room. “[He] got me visiting museums and caring about art.”
And for more than a decade, Bell, 50, has aimed to evoke that creative thrill in as many people as possible. As the president-at-large for P.S. ARTS, she’s brought arts education to 15,000 children at underfunded California public schools. As the cochair of MOCA’s board, she’s organized five epic fundraising galas—which brought in nearly $15 million total—and is currently aiding in the search for a new museum director. And as a member of LA’s Cultural Affairs Commission, she’s helping facilitate public art projects such as the program in LAX’s new Tom Bradley International Terminal.
“Maria is deeply committed to bringing the education and joy that comes from art to broad and diverse groups of children and adults,” says MOCA board cochair David Johnson. Adds Pam Bergman, chairman of P.S. ARTS’s board of directors: “When Maria is excited about a cause, she gives of her time, her resources, and her connections so passionately that it is contagious. She’s a warrior.”
Of course, Bell has faced some stumbling blocks. Perhaps the hardest knocks have come during her five-year tenure at MOCA, which coincided with Jeffrey Deitch’s controversial run as museum director. “Balancing the needs of the stakeholders, the museum director, and the community is a really tough [act] sometimes,” she says. “We got criticized for being too populist… but unless the museum is relevant to its community, it doesn’t matter.”
If Bell has her way, we’ll soon be experiencing art through what’s perhaps today’s most relevant medium: TV. Through her new production company, Vitameatavegamin Productions, she’s developing several projects with an “art-world bent,” including a reality show and a one-hour drama. In both philanthropy and business, her philosophy resonates: “If you focus your energy and really know your subject, it makes all of your work more effective.”
photography by elisabeth caren (Holland, bell); illustratio (davis); melissa valladares (paul, petersen); Hair by Erica Reiss; Makeup by Kerry Malouf