Native Angeleno Melanie Lundquist is a leading philanthropist who focuses her support on various healthcare and education initiatives. Listed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy The Philanthropy 50 twice in the past decade, Lundquist – along with her husband Richard – is at the forefront of philanthropic efforts to improve the lives of her fellow Angelenos by driving systemic change.
CSQ talked with Lundquist about her view of philanthropy and the best way to catalyze systemic change in education and health care.
A Philanthropic Foundation
Born in February 1949 and raised in Sherman Oaks, a Los Angeles suburb in the San Fernando Valley, Lundquist is a third-generation Angeleno on her father’s side. Growing up, Lundquist always heard stories about how kind her upple middle class grandparents – her mother’s parents, who passed away before she could meet them – were to those in need during the Great Depression. Her grandfather, who migrated to America, became a successful businessman and part of the Los Angeles Merchants Association, the organization that founded what is now the City of Hope. While a student at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1925, Lundquist’s mother raised funds to create a dental clinic, which still exists today, to provide access to dental care benefiting Los Angeles children for whom it is unaffordable
Lundquist’s parents and family consistently emphasized the importance of being kind, giving back to society, and being civically minded throughout her youth. The first time Lundquist herself raised funds was in 1956, when she went door to door collecting donations for March of Dimes. Yet while she found philanthropy intriguing, Lundquist never thought she would be able to be a philanthropist herself. As she matured, however, she took her parents’ repeated advice to heart: “When you leave this world, it better be a better world for your having been here.”
A graduate of Los Angeles public schools, Lundquist completed her K-12 education in the LAUSD, as did her husband and several generations of her family. “I had a wonderful education and just had incredible teachers,” she recalls. Her public school teachers played a large role in shaping her character and outlook; many of them became longtime friends who have been very influential in her life. Lundquist, who recalls being drawn to the arts, notes, “In those days, the schools had arts, music, physical education, civics – we had everything. Sadly, many of these programs no longer exist and others are in jeopardy because of budget cuts.”
After attending LA Valley Junior College for two years, Lundquist transferred to the University of Southern California to finish her undergraduate degree in 1971. She then completed her graduate degree in 1973 – a Master’s in communicative disorders, speech pathology, and audiology – also at USC. When she moved south to Redondo Beach to start working in Orange County, she met Richard, also a USC graduate, who lived in the same apartment complex. The two became friends and married some years later, in 1989.
A True Philanthropist
Lundquist actively stewards funds to support myriad causes that the couple holds dear, inspired by the examples of Wallis Annenberg, the late Los Angeles cultural leader Dorothy Buffum Chandler as well as philanthropists Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg. “Wallis is really the one who opened my eyes and my heart to the inner-city,” Lundquist reflects. “She has very much lit my path, because she’s done a lot of work in the inner cities.”
She is more involved on a day-to-day basis with philanthropic outreach than her husband, whose primary focus is on their business endeavors. The Lundquists are the owners of Continental Development Corporation, a commercial real estate and management company based in El Segundo that oversees 4 million square feet of premium office, commercial, hospitality, retail, entertainment, restaurant, and research and development properties – including the 30-acre Sky Park Complex in Torrance, CA, San Francisco’s InterContinental Hotel, and the upscale Plaza El Segundo as well as office complexes dotting Southern California.
The Lundquists’ philanthropic endeavors are primarily focused on education and health care. “I look at education and health care as very basic human rights. The right to a quality education is the civil rights issue of this generation. I’m very internally motivated, and I think that really started in childhood,” she says.
Lundquist believes in showing up to inspire the donees as well as the others involved. “I don’t believe in just writing checks,” she says. “I think the beneficiaries deserve to see a face and know the people behind the donation. By showing up, I send the message that [people] are important.” While she acknowledges the frustrations of nonprofit board service, she understands the importance of boards, and the common wisdom of sitting on an organization’s board for at least a year to get to know it before investing in that organization.
As a seasoned philanthropist, Lundquist also knows the importance of doing your due diligence before judiciously deciding how and where to invest in humanity in accordance with your values to truly make a difference. Before putting dollars on the table for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, for example, she researched extensively, albeit in vain, to find an organization in existence that sought to catalyze large-scale change in the public education system—so she was ready to seize the opportunity when it was presented.
Disrupting Education and Health Care for Good
Lundquist loves the challenge of transforming systems in desperate need of change, such as the U.S. educational system, whose inadequacies are contributing to the country’s collapse of democracy. “Today’s philanthropy has to be much more big-picture oriented,” she says. “The thing that I particularly like doing is effecting systemic change.”
One of the key philanthropic endeavors undertaken by the Lundquists is their generous support of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, where Lundquist began volunteering in 1985 and where the couple have been patients as well as donors. From an initial $13M gift in 2006 to establish the Lundquist Cardiovascular Institute and expand the medical center’s emergency department, to a $50M donation in 2013 toward a new patient tower, to the most recent gift of $32M in 2017, their total gift of $100M is the largest single-donor contribution to a non-teaching/research hospital to date.
Another vital partnership emerged in 2007, when the Lundquists joined forces with then LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to create the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. The couple became the organization’s primary funder with an initial gift of $50M, the largest private donation ever made to support LAUSD public schools. Although the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is doing exceedingly well, Lundquist knows that addressing inequality in education will require more time, which is why the couple is set to renew their commitment to the organization for another decade.
Wallis [ANNENBERG] is really the one who opened my eyes and my heart to the inner-city … She has very much lit my path, because she’s done a lot of work in the inner cities.
In addition, Lundquist served as co-chair of a $165M capital campaign – to which the couple personally contributed $5M – for the California Science Center, also contributing $2M in 2012 to bring Space Shuttle Endeavor to Los Angeles. She is also past chair of the Advisory Board for Teach for America Los Angeles and a staunch supporter of the Fulfillment Fund’s endowment fund for college scholarships as well as Inner City Arts, Alliance for Children’s Rights, and United Friends of the Children.
The Lundquists have also given several million dollars to other worthy causes, including more than $3M to the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, $1M to the campus renovation of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute (LA BioMed), and $2M to South Bay Sports, Health, and Recreation for a new aquatics center in El Segundo.
Lundquist describes her philanthropic experiences as phenomenal, the best journey of her life. She firmly believes in giving back to society—more, sooner, and smarter. “Every dollar is equal in the charitable philanthropic world. We very much feel that Warren Buffett is an example in the sense of his philosophy that it is society’s money, not our money, and it should go back to society for the benefit of society.”
Spurred on by her desire to live by the motto that it is better to give than to receive, Lundquist continues to give generously to create the change she wants to see in the world. To her, success is being able to see a problem, understand the systemic issues, then move to address those issues through private sector and philanthropic collaboration to form a meaningful public-private partnership.
For example, Lundquist desires to see legislative reform, especially of the outdated rules governing America’s private foundations. Lundquist was recently in Washington, D.C., talking with Politico as well as leadership on Capitol Hill about the $865B currently sitting in foundations—stockpiled money that, having been tax deducted, is now public money—that could be used to alleviate suffering, not only to fill the gaps in the dam that holds our society together but also to address our nation’s systemic problems instead of serving as a convenient tax shelter.
While the vast majority of donors desire to have their names on the buildings they endow—to have their legacy visible for all to see in perpetuity—the Lundquists are not concerned with this formality. In fact, they wanted their gifts to Torrance Memorial Medical Center to remain anonymous but were urged to make it public and encourage other donors to step forward. However, the Lundquists want their name to come off any buildings they’ve supported in the future, so that new donors can step up and be honored, in turn, for their generous support.
She feels strongly about the need to spend money that is available sooner rather than later, as she explains in a recent editorial for Fortune: “My husband and I have made plans to ensure that within five years of our deaths, any corpus remaining in our foundation is to be spent to zero.” To Lundquist’s way of thinking, if you want to see your investment grow, then you need to step aside to let the future unfold.