Purpose-Driven Pastime: Las Patronas marks 70 years of community giving

When it comes to planning the August Jewel Ball, the signature fundraiser for the La Jolla-based women’s philanthropy group Las Patronas, everything is done in house and with a purpose — from the invitations to the decorations to the search for potential beneficiaries. It’s a tradition that has been in effect since the first Jewel Ball, 70 years ago.

To the sounds of power drills, hammering, sliding boxes and laughter, the ladies were hard at work in the infamous Las Patronas warehouse last week, making the decorations for the 2016 Jewel Ball, “Shangri-La,” set for Aug. 6 at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. Taking a break from their duties, Jewel Ball chair Kathryn Gayner and new member Nicole Hall-Brown sat down with La Jolla Light to discuss the organization’s his-tory — or should we say her-story?

Using dusted off program books from Jewel Balls past, meeting minutes and memorabilia, the women are making a commemorative book to celebrate the organization’s 70th year — and they’ve learned a lot in the process.

Las Patronas was formed in 1946 by Kathryne Hosmer and 13 others who wanted to host an event to raise money for the United States Service to China organization in the aftermath of World War II, Gayner explained. They held the first Jewel Ball as a fundraiser. “But they didn’t really know what they were doing yet,” she said, noting that originally, there was the Jewel Ball and then another party to also raise money. “They were just shooting from the hip. But they realized how successful the first Jewel Ball was and how people opened up when there was a cause to give to, so they formalized.”

Added Hall-Brown, “Going through the minutes from the planning meetings before the first Jewel Ball was hysterical. They tried different things and were willing to learn from them later. Over time, they developed a formula (including just having one big event).”

The founding members created bylaws and quickly decided to give their event proceeds to more than one beneficiary, a tradition that, to date, has resulted in the distribution of $19 million among hundreds of San Diego charities. “A year after they formed, Las Patronas gave a donation to the children’s wing at Scripps Hospital and we’ve had a partnership with them ever since,” Gayner said.

As the Jewel Balls became more and more successful, more and more money was available to give away. “Some years, the women would get minor grants requests and other years they would get major ones. It depended on the needs of the community. Some requests were for $200 or $250 and others would be $1,300 — which was a lot of money back then,” she said. As such, the ladies of Las Patronas see their history as a mirror to the development of La Jolla and San Diego at large, revealing the greatest needs at different points in time.

At the Jan. 20 beneficiaries luncheon, more than $400,000 was distributed to the 2015 Jewel Ball major beneficiaries.

To save costs and give as much as possible to their grantees, the ladies have always created the Jewel Ball themselves. In fact, the first Jewel Ball dinner was a founding member’s chicken-and-mushroom dish!

Further, each member volunteered with her specific skillset to assist however she could, whether that be outreach, advertising solicitation, scheduling, menu composition, decor and more. Hall-Brown is a second generation Las Patronas member, and recalled her mother lending her artistic talents to make decorations.

Whenever decor items needed to be purchased, they were stored for possible reuse at a later Jewel Ball. More often than not, hollow pillars and large flats were painted over so they could accent the ever-changing Ball themes.

“We try to maintain that because our goal is to give as much as we can to each beneficiary,” Gayner said. “At the beginning of each design cycle, we look at what we have, but also how to make it new and different. We want Jewel Ball guests to see something they haven’t seen before, because this is a thank you to our underwriters and donors, so we want it to be a special evening.”

But for as many things that have stayed the same, several things have changed over time. Member June Fabiani said, “Our membership has changed a lot. There are a lot more working women in the group; a lot more single women, whether by choice or by divorce; more women doing everything on their own; and not everyone at Las Patronas is wealthy anymore, some people work fulltime, sometimes more than one job, and still find time to help out.”

Hall-Brown added, “When my mom was in Las Patronas, no one worked. They were homemakers and were all married.”

Carrying that social standard into the program books, the women didn’t even use their own names – they were all Mrs. and then identified with their husband’s name. Case in point, the 1952 Jewel Ball decorations chair was Mrs. Walton MacConnell.

“Now instead of going to Mrs. Gayner, things come to me with my name on them,” Gayner said. “The era has changed – women are more empowered – and we embrace that to the fullest extent because those strong qualities have helped us maintain our organization.”

With more working women with less free time than their homemaking predecessors, the membership term limits have also changed. Originally, membership was seven years. Over time, it was reduced to six years with an optional seventh.

Each year, when new members are brought on, they are grouped in “classes” and given a nickname, primarily as a bonding element. During their time, each member commits to helping however they can, whether that’s using skills they already have or trying something new.

Each member must also participate in the search for beneficiaries. “We commit a certain amount each year to our major beneficiaries, this year it’s $400,000, and we promise to raise at least that much,” Gayner said. “After that, the rest goes to the minor beneficiaries.”

Las Patronas conducts a thorough vetting of the organizations that request grants, including a site visit, and have strict guidelines for what these groups must provide. If a group requests a van, they must provide proof they can insure it, store it and care for it.

Recalling her first experience with a grant request a few years ago (for beds to St. Vincent de Paul’s family shelter), Gayner said, “It really exposes need in San Diego, because there is a huge need, and when you see these things first hand, you want the Jewel Ball to be successful so badly. I was crying uncontrollably when I presented the findings from my site visit that year.

“We need to make sure these organizations are going to be good stewards of our underwriters’ funds. I don’t know when that process was developed, but that has been the process for a long time.”

Looking ahead Gayner added, “We want to show the San Diego community we’re here to stay and will continue to support and raise money to help all these non-profits. We want to maintain what our founding members set out to accomplish.”