California Masonic Foundation: A Force for Good

In 2023, the California Masonic Foundation brought its resources and relationships to bear on a single community—and showed the true impact of Masonic philanthropy.

By Ian A. Stewart

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Download the Masons of California 2023 Fraternity Report here, or view individual stories through the links below.

Shortly after she took over as executive director of the college-readiness nonprofit Reality Changers of San Diego, Tamara Craver started calling around to introduce herself to some of the organization’s closest partners. High up on that list was the California Masonic Foundation, which for years had worked with the group to identify deserving high school graduates through its Investment in Success scholarship program. “When I met with Doug [Ismail, president of the California Masonic Foundation], he asked me, ‘How can we be helpful?’ ” Craver recalls. “His goal was to create a true partnership.”

Craver explained that what her organization needed, more than anything, was connections to other charitable foundations and community groups. So Ismail invited her to a ball game. “We got to sit in the owner’s suite,” Craver says. “Doug introduced me to [SVP for community affairs] Tom Seidler and raved to him about the work Reality Changers had done in helping first-generation students not only reach college but thrive there.”

Fast-forward four years, and that introduction had turned into something even Craver couldn’t have imagined. Last March, Craver, Ismail, Seidler, and 10 beaming young students found themselves standing on the field at Petco Park being introduced to the crowd as the first recipients of a brand-new college scholarship—the result of a novel partnership between the three organizations that will fund 10 awards annually worth up to $10,000 each to help students who have overcome personal adversity pursue higher education. “When I witnessed those students on the field being recognized like that, there are many defining moments in people’s lives,” Craver says. “I could tell that was going to be one of those moments for them.”

The scene was especially meaningful for the contingent of Masons on hand representing the California Masonic Foundation, as it encapsulated a new and successful approach to its philanthropic work that was very much in evidence in 2023. Last year, the Foundation pursued a place-based strategy, focusing much of its community efforts on organizations serving young people in San Diego. And it did that through something California Masons have proved especially adept at: bringing people together.

The new scholarship program—which is named in honor of Johnny Ritchey, the San Diego-born ballplayer referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of the West” for breaking the color barrier in the Pacific Coast League in 1948—was just the start. In September, Grand Master Randall L. Brill and members of the Foundation joined with representatives of the San Diego Unified School District to announce a new three-year gift worth $390,000 from the Working Tools program to expand the district’s College, Career, and Technical Education (CCTE) programs. The money will fund new course offerings, staffing, and outreach for its automotive technology and repair and its building and construction trades courses to reach a further 3,000 students districtwide.

Sarah Vielma, director of CCTE programming for the district, says the funds will help build a pathway to well-paid jobs in expanding fields for the 64 percent of San Diego Unified students who don’t immediately enter a four-year college program after graduation. According to local employment projections, San Diego County is expected to add nearly 200,000 jobs in the construction and automotive trades by 2030.

Foundation President Doug Ismail announces a new three-year, 390,000 gift to the San Diego Unified School District to expand its Technical Education Program.

Students from Reality Changers of San Diego and Foundation President Doug Ismail flank a bust of Johnny Ritchey, the namesake of a new scholarship offered through the Padres and the California Masonic Foundation.

“While our automotive technology and building and construction trades programs have the lowest enrollment due to current budget and staffing restraints, they also garner the highest levels of interest among students,” Vielma says. “Through this funding, these programs will now be able to accept and serve more students who are eager to take advantage of CCTE in new locations across the district.”

As with the Johnny Ritchey scholarship, the gift was realized thanks to the Foundation’s longstanding relationships with local partners, including the literacy nonprofit Raising a Reader as well as nearby community colleges and members of the Masonic Public Education Advisory Committees. Through those networks, the Foundation was able to craft and ultimately deliver on one of its largest-ever pledges. For that work, the Foundation received the San Diego Business Journal’s Nonprofit and Corporate Citizenship Award.

Lastly, the Foundation and the Padres Community Foundation announced that together they would begin work on an ambitious project to reinvigorate a single local school: Perkins Elementary.

The problems at Perkins, a K-8 school in the Barrio Logan neighborhood, reflect some of the biggest challenges facing California schools today. Thirty-seven percent of kids at Perkins are currently experiencing homelessness. Two-thirds are considered chronically absent. Virtually every family at Perkins is living in poverty. The result is that students there live through significant trauma and stress every day. It also means that teachers and administrators are dealing not only with students’ grades and test scores, but also more fundamental issues like their hunger, safety, and health.

Working with school officials, the Foundation identified several spaces at the school in desperate need of renovation in order to make students and staff feel safe and to create a welcoming atmosphere where they can learn and grow. The first phase of that work involved installing new gates around the school’s parking lots and renovating a disused teachers’ lounge. Over the coming months, workers will also renovate the school’s ball fields and play areas.

“This work is a concrete example of our Masonic values,” Ismail says. “By funneling our resources into one community, we see just how impactful our fraternity can be. These programs are already making a real difference in young people’s lives.”

San Diego is just the start. Ismail says he hopes to take that place-based strategy and replicate it in future years in other communities. In 2024, the Foundation will focus on the Sacramento area. “This work relies on the kind of relationship building that Masons do best,” he says. “The result is real—and truly impactful.”

Masons4Mitts set fundraising records in three regions in 2023, as well as a new statewide mark.

Education Is Key

Outside San Diego, California Masons’ generosity continued to support several charitable programs throughout the state.

Masons4Mitts supports young ballplayers from the Padres Community Foundation by providing new leather baseball mitts to underserved children.
Masons4Mitts supports young ballplayers from the Padres Community Foundation by providing new leather baseball mitts to underserved children.

The longstanding Investment in Success scholarship awarded $270,000 for the year to 174 students—typically those bound for state or community colleges who otherwise would not qualify for such awards. In addition, the C.E. Towne Masonic Award, given in collaboration with the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of California, distributed $228,000 to 24 students. Since its inception, that award has been given to more than 100 students for a total of $710,000. And the Masonic Youth Leadership Scholarship closed in on $1 million in all-time support, with $112,000 distributed in 2023. Between those three programs, the Foundation issued $860,000 in scholarships to 221 students.

The year 2023 was also a banner one for Masons4Mitts, with a new milestone for single-season giving reached at $286,580. That includes record-setting seasons in Northern California ($126,824 to the Giants Community Fund), Los Angeles ($72,069), and Orange County ($47,042), spurred in large part by new and energetic leadership among fundraising team captains. Since launching in 2009, Masons4Mitts has raised more than $2 million to support youth baseball and softball and summer enrichment programs. All told, that represents more than 100,000 leather mitts given to underserved young people.

That spirit of generosity was reflected in overall giving to the Foundation’s annual fund, which reached $1,628,840 in 2023. The number of members who donated was up from 2022, as was the percentage of members who gave and the number of lodge officer gifts. Recurring online gifts and Grand Master’s Circle-level gifts were also up.

Beyond those numbers, the desire and ability of California Masons to make an impact in their community was on full display in 2023. Says Ismail, “Our success is measured by our ability to impact lives.” And by that measure, California Masons are clearly thriving.

Watch a Video!
Donors and members of the California Masonic Foundation gathered at the Masonic Homes in January to celebrate the conclusion of the Let’s Write the Future campaign in support of the expansion of services at the Masonic Homes.

Leadership Spotlight: Tristan Brown

Member since 2008, Sacramento No. 40

I understand you work in public
education. Was that your introduction
to the Foundation?

Yes, I’m the legislative director for the California Federation of Teachers, which is the state union of teachers. Doug Ismail and I met a few years ago at a Teacher of the Year Award ceremony. I was already a Mason, and I knew that we give special tribute to public schools, but I wasn’t too sure, from a statewide perspective, what that support looked like. So I was definitely happy to see some square-and-compass lapel pins at that event.

Did making that connection bring you closer to the Foundation’s work?

Well, yes. Doug told me he was putting together some attempts to have the Foundation make an investment in [career and technical education]. That, to me, is a sorely underfunded part of our system, and it’s something a lot of people can relate to—they remember a time when shop classes were still a thing and wonder why they’re not anymore. But funding those programs is expensive. Getting a car to work on in auto shop, or raw materials for wood and metal shops—there’s not enough money in the budget. So when I heard they were putting money into that, I was happy to help.

Working in politics, do you ever encounter other Masons who work in the Capitol, either in lodge or outside of it? What’s that like?

There are one or two in our lodge, but usually [Capitol staffers] go back to their home districts on the weekends and I think would rather belong to a lodge there. But of course, just walking the halls or being out at a restaurant, you see someone with the square and compass on and get into a conversation. I think it helps. In this business, trust and honor go a long way, and you build that over time. But if you’re two Masons who can meet on the level, you know that whatever’s coming out of my mouth, you can bet the house on it.

What advice would you give someone who hasn’t donated before?

There’s a thought that you have to come in with a big clearinghouse check to make a difference. But honestly, if you can set aside a couple bucks a month and have it on an auto-giving program, it makes a huge difference and adds up fast. You look back after 10 years, and that could be like a $10,000 check, and you’ve made a huge difference. So I’d encourage folks to give what they can and be another brother linking hands together to make this work a little easier.

Read More From the 2023 Fraternity Report