Nonprofits play a major role in our lives. They treat us when we’re sick, serve the poor, run our kids’ soccer leagues and yes, even write stories like this one.

Yet few of us are closely tracking San Diego nonprofits’ collective impact, shortcomings or the challenges they face.

I’m about to spend my workdays doing just that. Covering nonprofits will be my new primary focus at Voice of San Diego.

I plan to break down San Diego’s nonprofit and philanthropic landscape and tackle more specific narratives such as the future of Balboa Park’s many institutions and the efforts to reduce San Diego’s homeless population.

Many local leaders, institutions and philanthropists champion the work of local nonprofits. My role will be to analyze and investigate the triumphs and failures of those groups and the effect their outcomes have on the people and causes they serve. I want to expose what isn’t working and scrutinize systemic issues, and when possible, shed light on potential solutions.

But before we dive into the plight of particular nonprofits or causes, let’s take a look at the big picture.

The University of San Diego’s Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research is a hub for local nonprofit data. The center’s annual and quarterly reports  shed light on a sector that serves and employs tens of thousands of San Diegans.

Here’s what the USD researchers’ analyses of several federal, state and national data sources tell us about San Diego County’s nonprofit ecosystem.


Number of all federally registered nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations in San Diego County.

This includes everything from homeless shelters and fundraising foundations to trade associations and advocacy groups that promote causes such as increased transit options or environmental protection.


That’s the number of registered 501(c)(3) charities in San Diego County, an Internal Revenue Code status that means the groups are tax-exempt.

Donations to these organizations are tax-deductible. The Internal Revenue Service allows organizations that serve the following purposes to apply for this designation: charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, public safety testing, fostering national or international amateur sports competition and preventing cruelty to children or animals.

The number of San Diego County 501(c)(3) organizations has grown by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years.


That represents the number of human services public charities in San Diego. This is the largest charitable category in the region. These groups provide services to specific communities such as children, seniors and the homeless. Human services charities include Boys & Girls Clubs, Meals-on-Wheels and Mama’s Kitchen, which delivers meals to homebound San Diegans with AIDS or cancer.

san diego nonprofits by subsector

7 percent

That’s the percentage of the San Diego County labor force employed by nonprofit organizations in 2013.

Most of those 105,503 employees worked for educational institutions or health care nonprofits, including hospitals.

average quarterly nonprofit employment by subsector

53 percent

This is the percentage of San Diego nonprofit revenue that comes from contributions such as government grants, individual donations or foundations. That’s about 20 percent more than the state average.

This means San Diego nonprofits are more reliant on outside income than the average California charity. One major difference: The average nonprofit in the state gets nearly two-thirds of its revenue from programs it offers while San Diego nonprofits report getting only 41 percent from that source.

San Diego nonprofits’ greater focus on outside dollars means they could be more vulnerable to the volatile nature of donations and grants.

It also likely means San Diego nonprofits have to spend more time applying for grants and seeking donations than those elsewhere, said Nancy Jamison, executive director at San Diego Grantmakers, which corrals foundations and other funders.

“If there’s a higher reliance on contributed revenue that means the organizations are having to work that much harder for that contributed dollar,” Jamison said. “Contributed dollars don’t just arrive.”


This is the number of private foundations in San Diego County.

These groups often get a pool of money from one family or company and then make donations or give grants to support other charities or their own charitable efforts.

Local examples include Price Philanthropies, which has sunk more than $100 million into City Heights programs and developments, and Gary and Mary West Foundation, which has invested in health care causes.


This is the amount of foundation grant dollars available per nonprofit in San Diego County as of 2010. This figure includes both private foundations and community foundations such as the San Diego and Rancho Santa Fe foundations, which coordinate giving on behalf of multiple donors.

San Diego lags on this front. Nonprofits in metros such as San Francisco and Pittsburgh have more than double the foundation dollars available to them.

While this data point is a few years old, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders say they don’t think the situation’s shifted substantially.

Instead, they believe it speaks to San Diego’s status as a relatively young city with fewer large companies, which often bankroll large foundations.

San Diego’s philanthropic community is less established than San Francisco’s, for example, said Laura Deitrick, who leads USD’s Institute for Nonprofit Research and Education.

foundation grant dollars available per nonprofit

49 percent

The estimated percentage of San Diego County households that donated money to San Diego nonprofits in 2014.

To make this estimate, the Caster Center and San Diego-based Luth Research issue quarterly surveys to San Diego County residents they consider representative of the local population.


That’s the estimated average amount donated per San Diego County household to nonprofits in 2014.

36 percent

The estimated percentage of San Diego County households that volunteered in 2014.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.