Escondido, CA

Foundation offers grants for elevating city’s image

Members of the Escondido Charitable Foundation, (from left) Lisa Ruder, immediate past president; Colleen MacKinnon, grants vice chairman; Ceci Lusky, grants chairman elect for 2019 and Nick Tsoulos, chairman of the board of directors. All four are founders of the foundation. They are with a poster showing the grants recipients from 2016.

For 12 years the members of the Escondido Charitable Foundation (ECF) have put their money where their hearts are. Each year they pick a theme. This year’s theme is elevating the image of Escondido through arts and culture— and last week the foundation issued its annual call for grant applications, in which nonprofits organizations and agencies are invited to submit applications for programs that work towards that goal.

The deadline for submissions is February 20 at 5 p.m.  For guidelines and applications to download, visit:

The theme is deliberately a little murky because the hard-working volunteers—who fund these grants from their own pockets— don’t want to hobble applicants by too closely hemming them in. Members don’t know exactly what they want, but they will know it when they see it.

Although ECF is an affiliate of The San Diego Foundation, it doesn’t get funding from it. All the money granted comes from its Escondido members.

Last year there were seven grantees. The average is from five to eight per year. Past Grants have ranged from $15,000 to $35,000—but this year they are increasing the top limit to $50,000. Over the dozen years of its existence, the foundation has disbursed $2 million. It has also created a permanent endowment of $1.5 million.

Members commit to at least $1,000 a year, many of the 142 members contribute much more. Some give as much as $25,000 annually. Half of their contributions fund grants for the year; the rest helps grow the endowment.

They are always looking for more Escondido residents to join their ranks.

I spoke to the 2018 grants chairman, Colleen MacKinnon and the 2019 Grants Chairman elect, Ceci Lusky, Lisa Ruder, immediate past president and to Foundation Chairman Nick Tsoulos. All are founders of the organization.

“What’s so unique is the involvement of so many of the members,” said Tsoulos. Unlike many organizations, where it is common for 10% to do 80% of the work, 40% to 50% of the foundation members are active.

For example, 35 members serve on the grant committee and 30 on the board of directors.

“There is a high level of involvement,” said Lusky. Members spend a lot of time researching the organizations they eventually recommend for grants. “We choose organizations that make significant change.”

Last year the foundation chose to focus on making a difference for Escondido’s homeless.

“What people like about it is the money stays in the community,” said Trudy Armstrong, director of regional outreach, and liaison between the San Diego Foundation and the Escondido Charitable Foundation.

The San Diego Foundation, which has disbursed over $1 billion over the years, maintains the Live Here, Give Here: McLaughlin Matching Gift Program that matches grants made by the Escondido Charitable Foundation at a ratio of 1 to 1.5. So each dollar granted is actually $1.5.  Of all of the organizations that get McLaughlin funds, the Escondido foundation is the largest.

Elevating Escondido

The goal of this year’s grant cycle is to elevate the image of Escondido through arts and culture, increase community pride, enhance community identity, and provide interactive experiences that have the potential to become longstanding, well-known community fixtures or traditions.

Its goals include:

• Elevating the image of Escondido through arts and culture

• Increasing community pride

• Enhancing community identity

• Providing interactive experiences that have the potential to become longstanding, well-known community fixtures or traditions

The foundation has an extensive process for determining its final list of grantees. After extensive vetting by members of each grant applicant, they present a list of finalists to the membership, who then pick those who will get grants for the year.  So, like the Academy Awards, a list of possible winners is released—and the final winners are chosen by a vote of the membership. They do not fund religious or political organizations.

Then, in the fall the grants will be awarded at a presentation ceremony that, for the past few seasons, has been held at Orfila Winery.

Lusky said, “We focus on Escondido. We are an organization of like-minded people who support Escondido, whether it’s a dance program for children, the arts, homeless people—anything that makes the city better. This year, instead of finding organizations that serve an underserved population we are trying to enhance the image of the city as a whole.”

MacKinnon added, “Each year during our discovery process we visit the candidates and we try to find common ground. We do serious research before we commit our money. It’s often challenging to find a common thread that fits all of the applicants.”

She added, “We can come up with a topic but we can’t tell people exactly what to do.”

Once they receive an application, three to five members will do a site visit and ask lots of questions.

“We are investing our money,” said MacKinnon, “so naturally we want to find out as much as we can.”

Last year there were 50 applicants and 21 site visits. Eventually seven were funded.

Even the fact that an organization applies and is considered can pay dividends later on. “Your application is seen by twenty people who are civic-minded who all want to see our city thrive,” said MacKinnon.

Applications are not limited to organizations within the political boundary of the city of Escondido. People who consider themselves to be Escondido residents, and who live in, say, unincorporated Escondido, are also considered.


There is strict accountability. “We want to make sure they are doing good with the grant,” said MacKinnon. During the next 12 months after the grant is made each organization will be contacted four times. Halfway through the foundation will issue a report on how the grant is being spent. Then there will be a final report.

“A grant is not a gift. It is a contract with a non-profit. We need to make sure they have fulfilled the contract,” said Armstrong.

Sometimes an organization will make such a superb effort that it earns national recognition. Such an example is the Encuentros Leadership Academy for boys and fathers, a program that has made it possible for at risk students to stay in high school and eventually attend college.  This program has gotten foundation grants twice.

In some cases, grantees needed to be counseled to help them succeed. One organization was so successful it had grant money left over.

“We helped find other things for them to spend it on to further help them succeed,” said MacKinnon.

Armstrong added, “We do so much follow up and vetting that rarely do you see a failure. Some even have written checks back to us for funds they didn’t spend. At the end, our member donors want to see they are making a difference.”

Board Chairman Nick Tsoulos, who helped found the group, observes, “It has gone from being a small group to one hundred and forty-one members in twelve years. We’ve been very successfully and it’s been fun!”

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Eligible nonprofit organizations serving Escondido may submit proposals of $15,000 to $50,000. Multiple organizations may join to formulate and submit a single grant proposal. For information about the application, contact Kerri Favela at The deadline for submissions is February 20 at 5 p.m.

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