James and carol collins and family
James and carol collins and family

Despite the stereotype of quirky gluten-free diets and fitness freaks, Southern California is also a major birthplace of American fast food. The likes of Taco Bell, Carls Jr. and Panda Express were founded on Golden State soil. Then there’s the late Richard and Maurice McDonald, who first tried their luck with a hot dog stand before launching McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California in 1955.

UCLA engineering graduate James Collins met the McDonald brothers around this time and was inspired to open his first Hamburger Handout in Culver City. Collins later met Col. Harland Sanders and became one of the largest franchisees of Kentucky Fried Chicken. His umbrella wholesale company, Collins Foods International (CFI), was restructured as Sizzler International and currently includes 300 Sizzler restaurants worldwide and some 120 KFC restaurants in Australia.

“CFI was on the New York Stock Exchange and we had about 150 or 160 KFCs in Australia, too. We were doing about $2 million per year per store. It was very, very successful for us,” Collins told me in a recent interview. It’s unclear how much the Collins family is worth, but their biggest windfall came from owning a chunk of KFC and Yum! Stock.

Born in 1926, Collins served in the Navy and studied civil engineering as a Bruin. He met his wife Carol, who also attended UCLA, and the two married in 1950. And as Collins rose in business, he says, he started giving back bit by bit. Founded in 1985, the Carol and James Collins Foundation aims to enrich the lives of children, youth, and families, particularly the under-served, in Southern California.

One of the family’s longtime philanthropic commitments is to Cal Poly Pomona, east of Los Angeles. Though not an alumnus, Collins says a friend connected him to the university. “I started working with them in the late 1960s or early 1970s. They were the only hospitality school in all of Southern California and so I was attracted to that,” he said.

In a familiar story of higher education giving, the Collinses became increasingly involved with Cal Poly, with escalating commitments. And in 1999, the couple’s $10 million gift created the Collins College of Hospitality Management. In a recent year, the couple gave at least $5 million to Cal Poly.

Jim and Carol Collins’ daughter, Cathy Hession, now steers the Carol and James Collins Foundation, where she’s been president for around two decades. “Our parents were really leading the way about how philanthropy was important. Even during Thanksgiving and the holidays, we’d do meals down in Venice for the holidays,” Hession said in an interview.

Jim, 93, and Carol, 90, serve on the board along with Hession and several other family members. Hession’s daughter calls in from Brooklyn and her sister, from the South. The family is now in their fourth generation in L.A., where they’ve put their philanthropic focus. “It’s kind of our city,” she says.

Overall, the foundation focuses on children in Los Angeles, particularly low income, under-served communities. Hession says the foundation keys in on increasing opportunities in education, arts and STEM, as well as college preparation. She also talks about empowering communities in South and East Los Angeles. The foundation has made grants to organizations like City Year and Communities in the Schools.

The Collins family also has a strong history with the YMCA. Jim Collins got involved with the Westside YMCA and is one of its longest-serving board members. Oh, and he still works out there two days a week. The family also helped create the Collins & Katz Family YMCA. Hession, meanwhile, after graduating from USC, worked as a Y program director and then joined the board, where she still serves now.

At UCLA, meanwhile, the couple made a $5 million gift to David Geffen School of Medicine, creating the Carol and James Collins Endowed Fund in Geriatric Medicine. Other Bruin philanthropy has included a $1.25 million gift for the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program in 2012, and $1 million for the Alzheimer’s Risk Reduction Initiative in 2015. They also created the Carol and James Collins Endowed Chair in Geriatric Medicine.

A relatively modest foundation, in a recent year, the foundation gave around $800,000, with many grants in the five-figure range. What’s key for Hession, then, is leveraging philanthropic dollars to have the most impact, often through collaboration. Part of this involves her being strongly plugged into the local L.A. nonprofit space, where she’s involved with organizations like Southern California Grantmakers, and the California Community Foundation’s Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative (NSI), which “fosters long-term partnerships for nonprofits interested in exploring strategic restructuring to create sustainable impact.”

“I sit in on all the NSI meetings and we’re a funder. And when we make a commitment, we tend to stay with our grantees for quite a while,” Hession said.

Overall, she says that she’s looking for organizations with a proven track record showing they’ve helped students persist all the way through college. More recently, Cathy has also been interested in the juvenile justice space, inspired by her daughter, a social worker with Brooklyn Defenders.

The foundation has had a pretty static asset base of around $13 million, with between 5 and 6 percent of assets granted annually. The endowment will grow after the couple passes, when their estate will come into their foundation.

For now, though, Hession wants to make sure her work continues to make an impact. “Have we really listened well in the community and tried to understand where the tide is heading? Is the dropout rate continuing to decline? We need to have our ears to the ground. Where is the need the greatest? And we will have more grants to fund. But maybe it’ll be the next generation by then.”

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