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17 Jul 2019

Patrons of the Arts: The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation Has Helped Thousands of People by Supporting Local Creative Nonprofits

Written by 
Frances C. and H.N. Berger. Frances C. and H.N. Berger.

Over the past year and a half, it has been my privilege to visit, learn about and write about a number of nonprofit organizations in the Coachella Valley dedicated to the arts.

Someone once said that life without art is like food without salt. From Palm Springs to Coachella to the high desert towns of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, these organizations provide safe places filled with beauty, hope, joy and inspiration to thousands of people. They enrich our communities and create a fertile nest from which fledgling artists can take their first flight.

While some of the people involved in these organizations are wealthy, most are not. Who are the donors that help provide the funds for the facilities, the teachers and the supplies? One name kept coming up during my visits. It was hard for me to miss, because we share the same name, but there is no relation: The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation of Palm Desert.

H.N. and Frances first met in Santa Barbara. “Fran” was a school teacher, and “Nor” was an accountant. They shared a positive outlook on life and the uncanny ability to turn dreams into reality.

They married in 1925. They borrowed money from a friend and took out a loan to build their first house together. The experience changed their lives: They quickly built a real estate and development company that eventually spanned Southern California. Their next success came in the banking industry, when they founded Prudential Savings and Loan. Nor died in 1988; Fran passed away in 1991.

The Bergers, despite their great wealth, never forgot where they came from. They believed that opportunity was for everyone—so they established the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, with the mission “to help people help themselves.”

Today, the foundation provides grants to charitable organizations throughout Southern California and the country, often in health care and education.

Catharine Reed is the program director of the Berger Foundation. She has been involved with the foundation since 2008 and has more than 20 years of experience with multi-million-dollar nonprofit foundations. She responded to my questions via email.

I’m aware of the recent Spotlight grant given to the CREATE Center for the Arts and your support of the Old Town Artisan Studios, as well as your sponsorship of the free Second Sundays at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Are there other art organizations in the valley that have received grants from you?

The Cabot’s Museum Foundation (free public arts programs); S.C.R.A.P. Gallery (the Student Creative Recycle Art Program); Tools for Tomorrow (after-school program that promotes arts education); Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert (overall programming, which includes hands-on arts opportunities); the Ophelia Project (a comprehensive enrichment curriculum that includes academic development and arts for personal growth of teen girls, at most middle schools in the valley); Boys and Girls Clubs—all clubs in the valley (programming includes arts); Family YMCA of the Desert (programming includes arts); Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council (programming includes arts); and All Desert Wellness Centers (a mental health center that includes art therapy).

The organizations were each funded through the Coachella Valley Spotlight grant program. The Coachella Valley Spotlight is a partnership between the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation and Gulf California Broadcasting (owners of KESQ News Channel 3 and five other broadcast properties). Nonprofit organizations are selected to receive a $25,000 grant from the Berger Foundation and media coverage during a designated month.

How does the Berger Foundation’s support of the arts tie into the mission “to help people help themselves”?

Some people may not have the ability to purchase supplies or to pay for admissions to museums, for example, but through grant-giving, we can make more of these things available to residents at little or no cost. This allows for an opportunity. It’s then up to an individual to use that opportunity to impact their own life.

What are the things you look for in an arts organization when you are deciding on grants?

No matter the type of services an organization is providing, the foundation board evaluates grant requests the same way. Primarily, we look to see if an organization is established. We don’t often fund startup organizations. It’s important to us that an organization is sustainable on its own for basic operating expenses and that it is offering programs that are serving many and impacting people’s lives. If the basic structure of an organization is in place, and we can enhance it or help the organization add a program to its existing ones, then the foundation board sees value in that.

We also invest in the people behind the organization. If the leaders of the organization have a track record of success, then we are more comfortable that the funds will be used responsibly. Grantees must report the outcome and impact of grant funding, and most grants are to be used within six months of receipt, so we expect an organization to show us fairly immediate results that they are making a difference in the community.

Were Mr. and Mrs. Berger interested in art themselves?

Mrs. Berger was a school teacher, so all aspects of education were important to her.

Your website states that donations to the foundation are not accepted. Is the Berger Foundation funded solely from the personal fortune of the Berger family?

The Berger Foundation was founded on the personal fortune of Mr. and Mrs. Berger, who made wise investments throughout their lifetimes. Since 1988, when Ron Auen became president of the board, the foundation has increased its value many times over through a diverse portfolio of thoughtful investments. Unlike other foundations, we have several working board members who are making investment decisions every day. That work means that the foundation is self-funded. A portion of the money made by the foundation is then distributed through grant-giving. By maintaining a solid investment portfolio, the foundation can continue to give. The foundation is responsible for its own financial health and its giving.

What would you like to see happen in the future with the arts organizations here?

For any healthy and growing community, it’s important for the arts to also grow and flourish. Having accessible arts programs available to all areas and economic sectors of the Coachella Valley is important to its overall vitality. When a lot of people are interested in the programs and services of an arts organization, then the significance and need is most clear.

What message would you like to convey to our readers about the Berger Foundation and its charitable support for those less fortunate in our communities?

The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation looks for nonprofit organizations that can build on the grant funding we can provide. We know there are many aspects to a healthy community, including health care and education, so we get tremendous satisfaction out of contributing to those building blocks that create a strong base in the area. Then, if we can enhance the community further through grants to arts, cultural, athletics and other elective activities, this creates a diverse community of people engaging in their interests, forming a healthy whole.

What also builds a strong community is each individual contributing whatever they can to continually improve the area where they live. Part of the goal of the foundation board is that by giving, others will be inspired to give and to give back. Nearly everyone can contribute in some way, whether it’s donating money or volunteering time. It all helps create a more vibrant community and helps those who are less fortunate.

For more information, visit hnberger.org.

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