What can be done to encourage philanthropy in Las Vegas?

Volunteers serve a hot turkey dinner during a Christmas Day event to feed and clothe the homeless and needy organized by the nonprofit organization Broken Chains in Las Vegas on Tuesday, December 25, 2012.

Las Vegas is home to a staggering amount of wealth, but residents fall short when it comes to philanthropy.

Nevada dropped from the ninth most generous state in 2004 to the 37th in 2009, with contributions falling 34 percent while average incomes fell only 6 percent.

That isn’t to say the city lacks generous donors. To be sure, many community members go above and beyond with giving and charity work.

But what can be done to increase their ranks? What needs to happen to encourage philanthropy in the valley?

The people doing some of the most giving weighed in:

    • Elaine Wynn speaks during a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce Business Power Luncheon at the Rio Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

      Elaine Wynn

      Director at Wynn Resorts

      Wynn is the founding chairwoman of Communities in Schools in Nevada and served on the national organization’s board. She also has worked with the UNLV Foundation, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Library of Congress Trust Fund. Wynn won the governor’s Philanthropist of the Year award in 2005.

      You’re not the first to ask how to expand philanthropy. It is a puzzle and a dilemma.

      At this time in my life, I run across a lot of people who are extremely philanthropic and have very different ideas on the topic.

      Mr. (Warren) Buffet and Mr. (Bill) Gates support the notion that through example, invitation and encouragement, people with a high net worth should be encouraged to give away half of their wealth.

      There are other people who are equally as generous who find that suggestion totally offensive and inappropriate. They feel philanthropy and giving is very personal and a private activity and should not be heralded or boasted about in any way. It’s something that arises from an individual’s own personal desire to make an impact and to do something noble.

      It’s a very, very delicate topic. The only thing I can say is that there’s nothing stronger than a compelling cause.

      The people who are involved in the cause must be professional, well organized and prepared not only to make an impactful appeal but to steward the funds responsibly and make sure the investment is well tended. I think there’s nothing worse than hitting up a friend to make a donation, having them give money based on your influence, and then seeing the money get distributed badly or not be well used or have no oversight.

      A lot of it has to do with applying responsible and ethical behavior to the causes you’re associated with, knowing that you make a distinction between asking on behalf of yourself and asking on behalf of someone else. People have said to me, “I hate asking people for money.” And I always say to them, “You’re not asking for yourself. You’re asking for that child, you’re asking for that cancer patient, you’re asking for that fire victim.” Half of it is just doing the asking. There are a vast number of people out there who really want to participate in some meaningful way, but they are intimidated or not sophisticated in the ways of being involved.

    • William Boyd

      Director of Boyd Gaming, founder of BankWest of Nevada (now Bank of Nevada)

      Boyd donated $5 million to build UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. Before his gift, Nevada was one of only two states without a public law school. His company also supports the Boys & Girls Club.

      Publicity — that’s what will encourage others to give. Those who do give need to set the example.

      I learned from my mom and dad that if you were successful in a community, you had to give back to those who weren’t. We can instill the need in our children.

    • Robert Goldstein, executive vice president and president of global gaming operations at Las Vegas Sands

      Robert Goldstein

      Executive vice president and president of global gaming operations at Las Vegas Sands

      Goldstein is on the boards of the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Drug Rehabilitation Center and Emeril Lagasse Foundation. He also volunteers at Opportunity Village, UNLV and local animal shelters.

      It is a lot tougher since the recession, but I think it’s important to go to both the corporate base as well as the individual.

      I’ve lived in this community for almost 20 years, and it’s astounding to look back at the people who have done what they’ve done here — Linda Smith, Larry Ruvo, Andre Agassi. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to do well financially have to play a role in that.

      I think a lot of leadership occurs by example. And you’ve got to lead in two ways: You have to write checks and show support, as well as encourage others and remind them that they have an obligation and can do it financially.

      The institutions also have to give back and make themselves valuable to you. My wife and I have a simple approach, which is we’ll support anything we feel is valuable to the community and valuable to us.

      I think you’ve got to spread the word that it’s not necessarily about charity for charity’s sake; it’s about the whole community and organic growth and prosperity within the community. That’s hard to achieve these days when people are struggling.

      Things are on the uptick, and we’re seeing more giving and more involvement, and I think we’re also seeing a resurgence of this Las Vegas community. More people want to see it grow and prosper.

      But I also think there are more causes that need help now more than ever. In the old days, a lot of things were funded easily. Now, there are fewer people helping and more needs to be met.

      That’s why it’s important to get the community back on its feet, so that more people can step up.

    • Jim Rogers

      Former university chancellor, owner of Sunbelt Communications

      Rogers donated $1.5 million to his alma mater, the University of Arizona, pledged $28.5 million to UNLV’s law school, and built a television station and communications building at Great Basin Community College in Elko. He also serves on the Dean’s Council at UNLV and UNR and is a member of the Idaho State University Foundation.

      When you look at the concentrations of wealth in Las Vegas — the Adelsons and the Wynns — they have connections to other places. You can’t start a university like UNLV in 1957 and expect to have a lot of rich alums by 1997. UNLV doesn’t have an old alumni group because the school is so young.

      So how do you get a Steve Wynn to have a connection with Vegas? He made a lot of his money here, but you can’t argue to him that he owes anything to this town.

      The only way, I think, to draw in the wealth of the community is to say, “Look, this is a question of pride. Are you in any way proud of the fact that you have done so well in Vegas? Are you proud of the fact that it has grown so much? Are you proud of the fact that UNLV, even though it was started in 1957 and has never been properly funded by the state, has done pretty well with what it has got?” If you have that kind of pride, it would seem the next step for you would be to invest in the system.

      Also, I’ve given a lot of money in my life, and I will not talk to a fundraiser. Because they don’t understand money. If I’m not important enough to that university to have the president call me, I don’t want anything to do with them. That may be my ego talking, but that’s the way I am. I want the president to come talk to me and say, “Jim, this is where the school has been, and this is where it’s going to go.”

      When I was the chancellor, I said to each of the presidents, “I should be able to sublease your office and have you never know it.” The president should be the chief operating officer and the chief executive officer. The president needs to be out there hustling all the time.

      You don’t find any midline executives at any university raising money. It’s the presidents who do it. And that doesn’t just apply to funding a university. The president of any organization is the one who has to take charge and explain the mission. They have the control.

    • Staci Columbo Alonso, chief marketing officer for Station Casinos

      Staci Columbo Alonso

      Chief marketing officer for Station Casinos

      Alonso is a longtime board member for the Shade Tree shelter for women and children, and she developed the idea for Noah’s Animal House, a pet shelter for people staying at the Shade Trade.

      When someone finds an organization or cause that they are passionate about, and they talk about it like they’re talking about their children, it becomes easy and natural to raise money. I’ve been told that when I speak of Noah’s Animal House, the spark and excitement are so obvious that people say they want to feel like I do.

      It also encourages them to find their own passion. Seeing philanthropic efforts from one person makes people look inside and find what means the most to them.

      I have to believe that most people really want to make a difference.

      I also think Las Vegas gets a bad rap for charitable giving. I have found that this community steps up and does the right thing many, many times. There are some incredibly generous companies and individuals here. They just sometimes have to be asked.

    • Tony Marlon

      A former cardiologist and the founder and CEO of Sierra Health Services, the largest HMO in Nevada.

      Marlon donates an average of $1.7 million a year to health care, education and arts causes.

      I’ve lived here for more than 40 years, and this community is extraordinarily generous, far more than other areas. A lot of the same people are involved in a lot of these charities, but I see a high level of expenditure by them.

      Getting more people involved in philanthropy takes time. A community needs to have some age on it. Las Vegas is very young when you compare it to, say, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, where you’ve had numerous wealth-creating events like corporate buyouts and mergers.

      People who make a lot of money in their community feel obligated to give back to it. There needs to be a history of these events, and we have not had a whole lot of time for that to occur.

      Still, if you look at what has been done the last five years during the worst recession this community has ever seen, there has been extraordinary giving. I look back at the Smith Center and I’m amazed at it. They couldn’t have done that unless they were very aggressive and knew exactly who to tap in the community.

    • Don Snyder

      Executive dean for strategic development at UNLV, former president of Boyd Gaming Corp. and the Fremont Street Experience, former chairman and CEO of First Interstate Bank of Nevada

      Snyder has served on the boards for several nonprofit groups and played a key role in developing downtown’s Smith Center for the Performing Arts. He donated $1 million to help build the complex and is chairman of its board of directors. He also donated $1 million to UNLV’s $500 million “Invent the Future” fundraising campaign.

      Donors need role models, especially in a young city like this. The philanthropy infrastructure needs to be developed, just like social services, education, highways and roads.

      On the East Coast, several generations of wealth have developed there, and those families got used to being rich. They got involved with philanthropy and saw the benefits of it.

      That’s what has to happen in a young city like Las Vegas. People have to get comfortable that their wealth will survive.

      Our growth until 2007 reinforced the notion that the wealth would be here. Then we took a tremendous beating with the economic downturn. We need a longer pattern of growth and economic stability for families to realize they can pass something on to the next generation and at the same time give back to the community a bit more.

      People also need a reason to give, something to tickle their fancy. If you look at the founders and major donors for the Smith Center, it's the usual suspects who are normally involved in philanthropy. But this was the first major gift for some of the donors. It encouraged people who have been here a long time but haven’t been as involved in philanthropy, or people who moved here from someplace else and brought some wealth and an understanding of what performing arts means.

      The other thing with the Smith Center that serves as a good model is we said from the beginning that we’d run it as a business. We developed a business plan early on to show why we wanted the project, how it would shape the community, and a road plan for how it would be developed. Businesspeople respect the fact that you’ve done the necessary things to make an organization sustainable. People who give their money want to know it’s being properly used.

    • Alex Epstein

      Executive manager of El Cortez

      Epstein is a volunteer at the Neon Museum and helped found Downtown Cares, which organizes downtown street cleanings and helped restore Las Vegas’ first high school. The group also has collected more than $80,000 in donations for downtown improvement projects.

      Philanthropy starts on a very basic level with education. I learned a lot from my mom. She was my Girl Scout leader.

      It’s a cultural responsibility. It’s important to get involved.

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