Tony Ciabattoni moved to Laguna Beach on a trial basis from Mission Viejo in 1996 after he sold his company. He and his wife were searching for the right place to settle and rented a home in Lagunita. Before long, they knew they wanted to stay, preferably in the same neighborhood.
They ended up renting Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s former home from their son David, fell in love with the property and purchased it in 1997. “We were fortunate,” said Ciabattoni. In addition to acquiring a prime location, he added, “we got to know a really terrific family.”
Though a fabulous lot, the structure was in poor repair. As they navigated building a new home, Ciabattoni began to truly put down roots in his adopted hometown and felt a strong desire to help it thrive. Like many of his affluent peers, his habit had been to give where he worked and owned businesses, not where he lived; so he vowed to change that and hopefully convince others to follow suit.
Since then, Ciabattoni set a powerful example organizing the Laguna Legacy fund, which has distributed several hundred thousand dollars locally. On its face, he joins a charitable culture. In the Laguna Beach zip code alone, there are 362 nonprofits comprised of 198 public charities and 260 private foundations, says GuideStar, an online data base of tax-exempt organizations.
“For many cities smaller and larger than Laguna Beach, the primary nonprofits are part of a state or national charity,” said local philanthropist Mary Fegraus, trustee of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation. “Laguna in its true entrepreneurial spirit has many Laguna-based charities run entirely by volunteers or with a small staff.”
Even so, Ciabattoni said, “we don’t do enough for the community.”
City Council member Elizabeth Pearson agrees. Her mantra “give where you live” underscored her volunteer campaign to raise money for Laguna’s senior center as well as her professional efforts for the former South Coast Medical Center foundation. With so many worthwhile charities catering to the community, she said, “our locals need to remember that charity begins at home.”
Ciabattoni already walked the walk. He recruited a few buddies to join his endeavor helping people or organizations in need within the city limits. He had no interest in establishing an endowment or a non-profit. He simply wanted to intervene at critical moments with the least amount of red tape.
Friends Richie Sambora, Frank Darras and Alex Papas, among others, agreed to chip in and commit to an annual contribution over five years. He had no trouble achieving his initial goal of $500,000 and in 2005 established the Laguna Legacy fund through the Orange County Community Foundation to aid causes that “really tugged at your heart.”
“The very first thing that I did, damn near killed me,” said Ciabattoni, referring to his support for Laguna teen Joey Masella, who coped for years with a rare degenerative genetic skin disease and died in 2006. Among other things, he provided funds for Joey’s motorized scooter, medical bills and finally the funeral. “I just loved that kid and his family…I was fortunate to have known him.”
Subsequently, Ciabattoni donated $100,000 for the kitchen at the Susi Q Senior Center, requesting a plaque honoring Harriet Nelson. “He’s just an extraordinary human being,” said Ann Quilter, co-chair of the capital campaign that raised money for the Susi Q center.
After last December’s monumental flood, Ciabattoni was the first to donate, offering $100,000 within days of the flood, said Quilter, who coordinated the relief efforts.
His current project involves helping a local resident who prefers anonymity with some very basic needs to improve her quality of life.
Recognition isn’t Ciabattoni’s motivation, except perhaps if it proves persuasive to potential donors. If the economy turns around, he also hopes to lure new contributors to the Legacy fund, willing to commit a minimum of $25,000 for five years.
“I’d like to be able to look back and say there were some people or organizations we helped, and that we made Laguna a better place.”
A Tool for Giving
For others interested in duplicating Tony Ciabattoni’s Legacy Fund efforts, there is now a local liaison, the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, which helps local donors connect with needs and organizations in town.
LBCF provides a framework that makes in simple for residents to make tax-deductible donations to the causes they care about without needing to set up their own nonprofit, explained president and chief executive Darrcy Loveland.
Established in 2004 to encourage philanthropy in the greater Laguna Beach area, LBCF allows individual donors to establish their own fund and direct its income to beneficiaries without the administrative headaches. Those considering setting up a private family foundation should consider creating a fund with LBCF instead, since it costs less and the tax deductions are greater, according to Loveland.
Donor advised funds are particular favorites since they allow people to put money into a charity account, get an immediate tax deduction, and then make grants to any viable nonprofit any time they want, she said.
And while LBCF doesn’t limit their donor’s distributions to local charities, the organization itself does give where they live, and recently awarded $140,550 worth of grants from their own fund to 27 Laguna nonprofits. This was a 76 percent increase from the dollar amount they distributed last year.