The man who built much of Orange County is shifting gears.
Donald Bren, the 78-year-old chairman of the Irvine Co., is spending as much time on philanthropy these days as he is on his business.
What that might mean for the future of his company, or the county, remains to be seen.
What is known is that Bren’s philanthropy has left a mark that rivals the work he’s done building out about one-fifth of Orange County. From the Bren supported Law School at UC Irvine to a 20,000-acre parcel of the original Irvine Ranch that, in June, was transferred to the county as permanent open space, Bren’s charitable projects have been aimed at making a long-term impact.
It’s true that Bren is wealthy even in a world of mega-wealth. His fortune, pegged at about $12 billion, was ranked the 45th biggest in the world this year by Forbes magazine.
It’s also true that the total of Bren’s philanthropy has been staggering. This month, when he was given the first “Donald Bren Legacy of Giving Award” – a permanent award created by the investment group that backs National Philanthropy Day in Orange County – the group listed Bren’s total charity, so far, at $1.3 billion and some 93,000 acres of land.
Bren agreed to chat about philanthropy (other topics weren’t on the table) via e-mail.
Q. If, 100 years from now, somebody reads your name in a book, do you hope you’re connected to the city of Irvine, Crystal Cove State Park or something else?
A. It has all been important to me.
My focus has been on the master planning and master building of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch. The land is quite complex, and each area or quadrant requires individual care. It has been my vision through careful planning to create an unparalleled community, where residents enjoy an ease of living and where families have access to the best schools for their children.
My hope is that we at the Irvine Co. are remembered for creating a community in balance with its surroundings and for taking equal care in all aspects of planning related to the Irvine Ranch.
Q. At this stage of your life, what’s more important to you, work or philanthropy?
A. At this stage of my life, both work and philanthropy have equal priority.
Q. You said the other day that philanthropy is a way to build partnerships. Can you explain what you mean by that?
A. Community partnerships create philanthropy. For our community to continue to be a place where people “choose” to live, we need strong community partnerships between businesses, governments and nonprofits to sustain the quality of life that we have come to enjoy in Orange County. For me, philanthropy has always been about simply creating new community partnerships, partnerships that will be valued forever.
Perhaps the best example is our ongoing partnership with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, as well as county government and the Nature Conservancy, working together for the preservation of 50,000 acres of open space, representing more than half of the original Irvine Ranch.
Q. Some of your gifts have touched areas that don’t seem to have much to do with your core businesses. Can you fill in some detail about why you give the way you do?
A. Rather than limiting my contributions to a singular geography, I have tried to focus on certain areas of need – education, for example. I believe that by doing so, we can collectively have the greatest impact.
I believe the greatest investment we can make is in the education of our children, wherever they live. Using THINK Together as an example, I saw a need off the Irvine Ranch, in Santa Ana, to help improve the quality of education in local public schools. Through my partnership with THINK Together, we have been able to serve some 70,000 at-risk and low-income students, raise test scores and improve the overall quality of life for children throughout Southern California.
Q. Your developments and reputation indicate that you see minute detail as critical to the success of any venture. Do you take the same mindset when involved in philanthropy? Do your nonprofit projects take on a life similar to business projects?
A. I consider myself lucky because I have been able to transfer many of my business experiences and much of my own time toward creating nonprofit community investments. And I do try to bring the same level of attention to both my philanthropic and business ventures.
Q. How does one measure the success of a gift?
A. We use the same philosophy for our nonprofit investments as we do for our real estate investments. First, we ask that the nonprofits we support to have goals and to be able to measure their results. We also look for strong leadership, with a passion in their mission. And our nonprofit partners have done a fantastic job due to this shared philosophy and focus.
Q. Is giving an intellectual challenge? Does it engage your head or your heart? Does it have to reach both?
Q. Obviously, some causes are particularly important to you…. Do you foresee your interests changing over time?
A. My two primary areas of focus have been openspace conservation and education, and I expect those to remain my priorities in the future.
The Irvine open space and parklands provide serenity and balance to our unique Orange County lifestyle. When I first joined the Irvine Co., I realized that less than 11,000 acres were designated as open space in the original master plan, and that just didn’t seem adequate to me. So, I began the lengthy process working with public and community organizations to add more open space.
Working together with the Nature Conservancy and local governments, we were able to expand the original 11,000 acres to encompass more than 50,000 acres of land that is now permanently protected and preserved forever. I believe it is truly a national treasure, and one that I’m proud to say we created together.
Q. Have you got a favorite project?
A. I tend to be more focused on the cumulative impact of our collective efforts, rather than on any one individual project. For example, one park is not more important than the others, but rather the fact that we have dedicated more than 50,000 acres of open space on the Irvine Ranch is what I find most satisfying.
Q. Is giving money away as fun as making it?
A. I get great satisfaction from both business and philanthropy.
Orange County Register