Twenty-five years. That’s how long Irwin Field has been a leadership donor with United Way of Greater Los Angeles. He says growing up in a tightknit community during World War Two sparked his longtime commitment to giving.
Tell us about your early life.
I grew up in Detroit. My family was very involved in the community. My father was in the house paint manufacturing business. He was originally from Poland. My mother, who was born here, was a volunteer with a lot of different organizations.
So being involved in the community was something you learned from your parents?
The community I lived in was very close because I grew up during World War Two. People tended to become close with each other, to help each other, to work together on various things. And then after that, it was a natural thing to continue, with those people you knew getting involved in organizations.
My parents were extremely involved in the Jewish community. They were very much involved in the beginnings and creation of the state of Israel.
How’d you end up in Southern California?
I came out here to visit a high school friend who had moved here. Leaving the cold and slush and dreariness of Detroit and seeing sunshine and palm trees, I thought, “Who wouldn’t want to live out here?” So I came out to L.A. in 1955 for my junior year of college at UCLA. And then I went to UCLA for a masters degree in urban land economics and finance.
And how did you get involved with Liberty Vegetable Oil, the company that you ran for decades?
The company was started by my late father-in-law. I joined him in 1960. I’ve been here ever since. The business was a different business at that time. I’ve changed the business and created what it is today.
When did philanthropy start playing a major role in your life?
I started in 1961 with Jewish Federation of Los Angeles as a volunteer fundraiser. I became a founding member of the United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership Cabinet in 1962. The involvement grew from there. I became chairman of the local Jewish Federation Campaign in 1973. Then became chairman of the National Jewish Appeal for the U.S. in 1978. I was the youngest person to hold that position. I held a number of other positions.
And then I got involved in 1986 in United Way. It was very simple: a man by the name of Frank McNamara [the late president of United Way of Greater L.A.] took the trouble to reach out to me and create a relationship. And out of that, I became involved. I joined the board and subsequently went on to chair the board.
So your commitment to United Way began because of Frank?
Frank was a man who lived, slept, breathed and ate United Way. When you were with him, he just exuded that. And you began to understand how worthwhile the organization was.
How has United Way of Greater L.A. changed since the late ‘80s?
I think United Way has changed significantly. When I got involved, it raised funds throughout the community. And it distributed funds to various organizations. The primary source of funds was employee campaigns, and some corporate giving. But there was not a lot of individual giving.
Then we created the Tocqueville Society 25 years ago, which was the advent of individual giving – which was relatively foreign to the leaders of the corporate world in Los Angeles. It was not foreign to some of us, but it was to most. To their credit, many of them embraced it.
United Way also began to move away from giving to individual organizations and slowly began to morph into what it is today, where it’s giving to specific community needs. It’s not taking money and turning it over to another organization. It’s basically saying, ‘Here’s a need that has to be filled in the community. We think we can fill it. This is what we’re going to raise our money for.’ It certainly still gives money to specific organizations, but it’s much more focused than it was. That’s been a big change.
Tell us about the United Way campaigns that you help run at Liberty Vegetable Oil.
When I became chair, I established a campaign in my company. We still have one. We’ve never missed a year.
What do you think inspires your employees to give so consistently?
I guess you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. My employees know what I’m involved in. They know when I’ve been out of the office, I’ve been involved in something aside from playing and taking leisure time. So it’s part of the culture of our company. From the very first time we ran a campaign, I have no ideas which of my employees give money. I don’t look at it. I do know that some of them have done it for more than 20 years. Whatever they do, I have no idea. I know every month we send a check to United Way, so I know that they’re doing it. It’s the culture I’ve set for the company.
How does it make you feel to be playing such an important role in contributing to the good of your community?
I think you get a great sense of fulfillment. You feel as if hopefully you’re doing something to make the community a better place for everyone to live in. You look at yourself, you look at your family, you look at the people around you, you look at things differently. You’re more aware of the problems in the community. You don’t live in a cocoon. A lot of people live in cocoons. By being involved, you become aware of the challenges and needs of the community. You have a greater sense of who you are and what your place is.
I also think it’s wonderful to know that something I helped to create 25 years ago – the Tocqueville Society – is going strong. And will continue to go strong. And has good leadership. You have a great sense of fulfillment about that. A lot of things start and stop. This is something that continues to go on.