VCCF Donor Spotlight: Interview with Betsy Chess
by Lauren Graf
VCCF donor client Betsy Chess is known throughout the county both for her major impact on the arts locally, as well as her deeply rooted history in Santa Paula. Betsy is the great granddaughter of Nathan Weston Blanchard, who founded Santa Paula in 1873 and Limoneira, a global industry leader in agricultural business headquartered in the city, in 1893. As a board member of Limoneira, Betsy helps oversee the company’s philanthropic giving through the Limoneira Foundation Fund, a donor-advised fund at the Ventura County Community Foundation. Their giving has supported local nonprofits focused on housing, cultural programs, mental health support, food insecurity, and many more causes in the Santa Clara Valley.
While Betsy now lives in Ventura, she was born and raised in Santa Paula, which she says has remained “remarkably unchanged” from when she grew up on her family’s ranch, surrounded by farm animals in an idyllic childhood. Though she later moved away for school, she is still “a combination of country girl and city girl.” Based on her own experiences and her family’s stories, she wrote “Daughter of the Land: Growing Up in the Citrus Capital of the World” during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. She was struck with inspiration while speaking at the Blanchard Library, founded by her grandparents in 1910, for its 110th anniversary. While other members of her family had written books about their history and she felt she had nothing to add to the narrative, she realized each generation has its own perspective to offer and it was time to share hers.
Betsy has served in many significant roles at art-focused nonprofits throughout Ventura County. She began working in the nonprofit sector in her 20s, first at the Assistance League of Ventura County, then working prominent jobs and volunteering throughout the years with groups like the Santa Paula Historical Society, Casa Pacifica, Rubicon Theater Company, Ventura Music Festival, and the San Buenaventura Foundation for the Arts. One of her most notable positions was serving as executive director for the New West Symphony from 1997 to 2002. Currently, she serves on the board of the Museum of Ventura County, SEEAG, and Spirit of Santa Paula.
Your family has a deeply rooted history in the Santa Paula valley. How did this impact your view of giving back to your community?
I think it definitely did, and it was really my mother, Elizabeth Munger Blanchard. She was a local girl. Her family goes back a long time in Santa Paula, and Mom was very much involved in the community, you know, school boards, she was president of the Interface, president of the Ventura County Museum, so she was certainly my example.
Tell me about your first memory of giving back, whether it was volunteering, philanthropy, or something else.
I think I was 9, and it was a boring summer in Santa Paula, and so my friends and I decided we would go and collect money for the children at the cerebral palsy school in Santa Paula. So we took our coffee can, and we went to the neighborhood, knocked on the doors, and I think we got about maybe $3. Now, I must say that how that money was going to get to the children, we hadn’t really thought that one through, so my mother comes home, and we tell her. She is aghast, appalled frankly, that her daughter and friends were out fleecing the neighborhood or however she thought of it. So she put me in the car with the coffee can, and off we went, and I made the presentation to the cerebral palsy school. But when I think about it, it’s amazing that I’ve become a fundraiser, because this was a real auspicious start.
What sparked your interest in art?
My older brother, who has since passed, loved music. And I remember he was taking a music appreciation class at USC, and he would pass along various records, and I remember there was a Wagner piece, and it’s the Overture to “Tannhäuser,” and it’s this very uplifting, “bom, bom, bom, bom, ba da da dum.” And I was 7 years younger than he, so I was probably in middle school, and it just stirred me to the core. So I think music was my kind of entry drug, if you will. Ventura had a project called the Design House which was great fun, and I was involved with that. And then I was named interim executive director of the Ventura County Symphony (one of the two original symphonies that combined into the New West Symphony in 1995), so I think that’s probably the way I was indoctrinated.
Would you tell me a little bit about the Limoneira Foundation Fund and its grantmaking?
The fund itself began in the early ‘90s and it did small, ad hoc kinds of giving. I joined the board of Limoneira in 2017, and started working with then Jim Rivera at the Ventura County Community Foundation. And 2018 was our first grant year, and it was kind of a live and learn. I remember in 2018, I think it was the Montecito Bank & Trust Community Dividends event, and I mentioned, “Oh, we’ve got this foundation.” It was like, “Y’all come!” We had over 60 applications, so we quickly learned we needed to be more targeted, and we’re still kind of working on that. Our mission is really to support the cultural, the educational, the business vitality of the areas in which we live and work. But in the first couple of years, it was kind of broad Ventura County, so now we say it’s the communities of the Santa Clara Valley, so Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru, and also Oxnard, because frankly they are underserved. And we’re not a big foundation; we have about $150,000 that we give each year. We like to be able to concentrate on a smaller group and make more meaningful grants, but it’s been such an opportunity and a privilege to hear about all the really amazing nonprofits and the work they’re doing, and of course the support they get from VCCF.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to give back?
You don’t have to choose something lofty, you know, world peace. You don’t have to be Miss America. But do what’s important to you, and it may be something very small, or you think it’s small. Just get involved at whatever level, and it may be at your school board, or your church. Maybe that’s the only thing you do, and that’s alright. You don’t have to be the volunteer queen. Follow your gut and your heart, and work hard and try to do the best you can for that particular bit of your heart.