Commonwealth Club Still Hosting Diverse Views at 110 Years- Continuing a Century of Public Service; Expanding Reach and Presence in Bay Area and Globally
SAN FRANCISCO (January 22, 2013) — On February 3, 2013, The Commonwealth Club turns 110 years old. That is the anniversary of the date when, at dinner at Marchand’s Restaurant in San Francisco, San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Edward F. Adams read a paper calling for a “public service Club” where “men of differing views” could discuss important issues “in the light of the facts and not of vain imaginings.” On its birthday 11 decades later, the Club is still going strong, hosting prominent and controversial speakers on a daily basis.
Today, Edward F. Adams’ great-grandson, William F. Adams, is the Club’s Board Secretary. His great-great-grandson, Rob Adams, a young tech industry staffer, serves on the Club’s Silicon Valley Advisory Council. Far from being just “men of differing views,” the contemporary Club is led entirely by women, including Board Chair Maryles Casto, Board Vice Chair Anna Mok, and President Gloria Duffy.
The Commonwealth Club is the oldest of the major arts and cultural organizations in the Bay Area, predating the San Francisco Symphony by eight years and the San Francisco Opera by 20 years, indicating the strength of Bay Area residents’ desires to be informed about events and trends, and to bring their own, often independent, views to the table to debate issues.
The Club is unique to San Francisco and the Bay Area; no other organization in the United States is quite like it. The 92nd Street Y in New York holds extensive programming, but primarily focused on the arts. Several cities have business or city clubs, but none has the wide variety of programming, the influential membership, the convening power, or lies at the heart of civic culture in their regions as does the Club in the Bay Area. While the TED conferences feature many high-profile speakers and high-end production, they lack the face-to-face interactions and audience questions that have been a hallmark of the Club’s role in involving the public with leaders, experts, newsmakers and issues of the day.
The Club and the University of California were both products of an era of enlightenment – in fact, the Club was co-founded by UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. And their logos were similar, featuring symbols of light and an open book, and the blue and gold state colors of California. While UC recently gave up on efforts to modernize its logo, several years ago the Club successfully replaced its lamp of knowledge and open book with a more modern logo featuring a bright yellow sunburst on a blue background, representing the diffusion of knowledge to the Club’s increasingly wide audience.
When founder Edward F. Adams announced the formation of the Club in 1903, he noted, “My conception of a public service club is a body whose members shall have entire confidence in each other's regard for the public welfare, however diverse their views of obtaining it – their views, in fact, being as diverse as possible in order that no point of view may be missed.” The avowed mission of the Commonwealth Club to cross political and philosophical boundaries to pursue the common good is refreshing in an era of extreme political polarization in Washington and nationwide. Not only is the Club’s leadership and membership more diverse than at any time in its history, but it actively seeks out and recruits speakers who bring a broad range of opinions and ideas to its audiences.
Including this wide spectrum of voices and ideas continues to be the hallmark of The Commonwealth Club. From conservative editor Steve Forbes to Occupy Oakland activists, from filmmaker Michael Moore to Ayn Rand Institute leader Yaron Brook, from Rachel Maddow to David Stockman, the Club provides the opportunity for Bay Area citizens to hear a variety of viewpoints. The Club does not shy away from controversial issues such as gun violence and mental illness, the Occupy movement, the impact of health care reform, or the Great Recession and its aftermath. Speakers and Club audiences continue to proclaim, debate, and discuss every major local, national and international topic.
The Club’s speakers and panelists continue to include some of the most powerful, famous, and controversial figures in American life. Contemporary speakers include Hillary Rodham Clinton, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, General Colin Powell, Nobel-laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Last year alone, the Club hosted 470 programs in the Bay Area, attended by over 47,000 people. The Club still holds to its century-old policy of not paying speaker fees, attracting its renowned speakers on the strength of its local and national media platform, large membership, high profile, and long history.
In addition to these high profile speakers, Club members themselves organize over 16 different on-going discussions forums each year, called “Member-Led Forums” (MLFs). The topics range from Asia-Pacific Affairs to Health & Medicine and Science & Technology, to lighter subjects like food, the arts and wine. These volunteer-organized forums, each of which generally meets monthly and is planned by a member committee, constitute half of the Club’s annual programming. Each summer, during August, the member-led forums as a group organize a joint month of daily programming, called a “Platforum”, which focuses on one issue from the multiple disciplines represented by the MLFs. Platforum topics in recent years have included “China Rising,” “The Future of Work,” “Cool Clear Water,” “Surviving and Thriving in the Great Recession” and “How We Eat.”
About a dozen Club study tours depart each year for destinations such as southern Africa, the Baltic states, Antarctica, Burma and more local spots like Pasadena and Paso Robles. The Club is one of a limited number of organizations to hold a U.S. government license for travel to Cuba, and the latest in its series of study trips to Cuba departs this March. The study trips are sometimes hosted by Club Board members and feature experts such as Tom Brokaw, academics or retired ambassadors who travel with the group to provide insights. The trips include not only historical and cultural sightseeing, but also meetings with government, political and cultural representatives in the countries visited. As the reputation of the Club’s travel program has grown, Club trips have begun to draw travelers from other parts of the U.S., in addition to Bay Area residents.
As the Club has expanded, so has its support within the Bay Area. The Club currently has 18,000 individual members, whose annual dues provide financial support for the Club. Institutional supporters range from companies like Chevron, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to philanthropic foundations including the Koret Foundation, the Irvine Foundation, the Packard and Hewlett Foundations, and many other corporate, foundation and individual supporters.
In addition to its local in-person programming, the Club publishes a magazine, The Commonwealth, reporting on events and the presentations by speakers. The Club reaches millions of listeners and viewers nationally and globally through broadcasting its programs. The Club’s weekly radio program is the longest continuously broadcast radio program in the United States, on the air since 1924. The program airs on a network of more than 230 public and commercial stations in 39 states. Club program videos have been viewed more than 5 million times on the website Fora.tv and more than 800,000 times on YouTube. Nearly 1 million Club podcasts are downloaded each year.
Social media, blogs and online marketing draw attendees to Club programs, as well as disseminate news from talks and panel discussions. The Club also makes use of modern ways to recruit new members, most recently with Groupon and Google Offers.
In addition to its San Francisco headquarters and programs, the Club has a small office and holds regular programs in Silicon Valley. The Club holds programs at least monthly in Lafayette in Contra Costa County, where the organization is part of the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium at the town’s recently completed public library.
In the Club’s early decades, much of its concentration was on research, debate and publishing reports on issues of public concern, such as regulating child labor (in 1906) or strengthening public defender’s offices (1932). That active involvement in public policy was taken up again in the new century as the Club launched Voices of Reform (VOR), to explore ways to improve California state governance in the aftermath of energy and fiscal crises and the 2003 gubernatorial recall election. Several years ago, VOR spun off from the Club as the independent organization California Forward, which has taken active steps to reform state governance using the initiative process and other methods.
Innovation in Education was an 18-month, Hewlett Foundation-funded project that brought together different constituencies in the effort to reform and improve California’s public education system. For the past five years, Climate One has been a popular ongoing series of programs and activities at the Club, led by Greg Dalton, bringing together stakeholders from business, environmentalism and academia to address climate change and energy issues. And a 2011 series of Club programs on social entrepreneurship in America was just published as the book The Real Problem Solvers, by Club Social Entrepreneur in Residence Dr. Ruth Shapiro (Stanford University Press, 2012).
The Club’s impact is sometimes felt simply through the way it creates public debate. In March of 2012, General Motors CEO Dan Ackerson was the speaker at a Climate One program at the Club, to discuss the company’s new clean energy approach, including development of the Chevy Volt and other strategies. Ackerson was challenged on the Club’s platform about the company’s funding for the Heartland Institute, an organization that debunks climate science. In a subsequent letter to Climate One Director Greg Dalton, Ackerson announced that GM would pull its funding for the Heartland Institute.
Many civic and cultural organizations are “greying,” composed of members now in their 50’s, 60’s and older. But in 2002, the Club launched Inforum, a component of the Club for people in their 20s and 30s. Lively and successful, with about 1,500 members, over the past decade Inforum has engaged the interest of a whole new generation of Northern Californians in civic issues.
In 2012, the Club launched Week to Week, a topical series of news and political discussion programs featuring panels of Bay Area journalists and political commentators. Similar to network news discussion programs like Shields and Brooks on “PBS Newshour,” but held in person, Week to Week is a lively review and debate about current affairs with Club members and guests.
And, as recently announced, the Club is for the first time purchasing and renovating a building for its headquarters. Finding a permanent home was a quest from the Club’s earliest days, renewed in the 1970s when actress and diplomat Shirley Temple Black served as the Club’s president. The Club’s search was derailed in its early years by the 1906 earthquake and fire, and then San Francisco real estate grew too costly for the non-profit organization to acquire.
In 2012, the Club took advantage of a buyer’s market and completed the purchase of 110 The Embarcadero. It is working with the Gensler architecture firm to design the building renovations. Move-in is planned for late 2013 or early 2014, kicking off a new era for the Club, in which it will be able to pursue its century-old mission in space specifically designed for its role as the nation’s preeminent civic forum.
The Club is the latest in a series of non-profits in San Francisco to take advantage of the recession-era dip in the commercial real estate market to acquire new headquarters. The Red Cross and SFJazz have also made this move in the most recent recession.
“The Club is perhaps the only major cultural institution based in San Francisco that has not had its own headquarters,” said Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy, “and we are truly looking forward to the Club’s second century and beyond in our new home at 110 The Embarcadero.”
To make the building a reality, the Club launched its first-ever capital campaign. So far, nearly 60 percent of the total cost to purchase and refurbish the building has been raised. Philanthropist Tad Taube and the Koret Foundation and venture capitalists William Bowes and Arthur Rock and Toni Rembe, among many others, have generously contributed. More than 80 donors, including foundations such as the Stephen Bechtel Fund and The James Irvine Foundation, businesses such as Chevron, and many individuals have stepped up to give to the campaign.
The Club’s building, the renovations for which are currently being designed and will be built out in 2013, is part of the recent growth of cultural and entertainment destinations on San Francisco’s waterfront. The Club’s new location follows the redevelopment of the Ferry Building into a gourmet food court and host for a vibrant farmer’s market, the building of the Giants’ ballpark and development of the surrounding restaurants and residences, and the new Exploratorium on Pier 15. It is also near where a Warriors stadium may be built. To the sports and entertainment destinations now found along this corridor, the Club adds a venue for discussion and debate of ideas and the search for solutions to common problems.
For eleven decades, increasing public understanding of, and simulating debate about, society’s challenges and stimulating citizens to seek solutions has been the Club’s mission. Edward Adams’ original motto for the Club, “we only propose to find truth and set it loose in the world,” is as true today as it was 110 years ago. And in its twelfth decade and beyond, at 110 The Embarcadero, this will continue to be The Commonwealth Club of California’s mission.
The following Commonwealth Club executives and board members are available to discuss the topics in this release. To arrange an interview, contact Riki Rafner, director of media and public relations, at 415-597-6712 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gloria Duffy, President and CEO, The Commonwealth Club
Maryles Casto, Chair, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Founder and CEO, Casto, The Travel Company
Anna Mok, Vice Chair, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Managing Partner, Client Excellence, Deloitte & Touche LLP
William Adams, Secretary, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Attorney, William F. Adams Law Offices
Mary G.F. Bitterman, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; President, The Bernard Osher Foundation
Dan Ashley, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Anchor, ABC7 News
Dennis Collins, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Retired President and CEO, The James Irvine Foundation
Joseph Epstein, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; President, Sierra Steel Trading LLC
Carol Fleming, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Chair, Member Led Forums; Principal, The Sound of Your Voice
Rose Guilbault, Former Chair, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Vice President Communication & Social Responsibility at AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah Insurance Exchange
James Hormel, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Former Ambassador to Luxembourg; founder and Chairman, Equidex, Inc.
Stephen Privett, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; President, University of San Francisco
Skip Rhodes, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; President, Skip Rhodes and Associates, LLC
Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Chief of Protocol, City and County of San Francisco and State of California
Tad Taube, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Founder and Chairman, Taube Investments; Honorary Consul, Poland
Colleen Wilcox, Member, The Commonwealth Club Board of Governors; Former Superintendent of Schools, Santa Clara County