Staff of the Orange County Community Foundation. (Courtesy Sheri Geoffreys, Daily Pilot / January 24, 2011)

So much money and so many choices. In these lean economic times most Americans can't relate, but it's a serious problem for a number of wealthy families in coastal Orange County.

Many of them have turned to the Orange County Community Foundation for the answer. The Newport Beach-based nonprofit helps them funnel donations to charities and other service providers.

And as the economy slowly recovers, the foundation is growing at a strong rate — during the 2010 fiscal year it received $30.5 million in contributions, nearly 50% more than the year before.

"You got the sense that people were really just so anxious to take advantage of those gains, but not for their personal benefit," said Shelley Hoss, the foundation's president.

The upswing in donations started when the stock market improved in early 2009 and is still holding steady, she said, with $15 million in donations during the first half of the 2011 fiscal year.

The foundation's clients are typically entrepreneurs and "first-generation creators of wealth," Hoss said. The majority of them live in Newport Beach, Irvine or Laguna Beach.

As the Orange County population ages along with America's, more people are dying, leaving inheritances and their heirs are turning to groups like the Orange County Community Foundation, said Gary Good, chairman of the Assn. of Fundraising Professionals and a development executive at the Pacific Symphony. Some of those families may not necessarily have favorite charities.

"More and more people are making intergenerational transfers of wealth," he said. "The Community Foundation is a terrific forum for them to find causes."

Another reason the organization has become popular now is that many people may not have much cash or traditional securities such as stocks and bonds to donate to a charity, but have some other type of asset they'd like to give. They rely on the foundation to convert donations of property, for instance, or ownership in a real estate investment trust.

Hoss' group is also poised to give people tax relief when they sell a business or when someone in the family dies. If they are looking for a tax-exempt place to donate a windfall, they don't have to donate it all to a specific charity but could instead establish their own fund through the foundation, which would then help them donate the money over a number of years.

"People often seek us out when they are experiencing a major financial event," Hoss said.

Some of the local organizations the foundation and its donors support include Newport Beach-based Environmental Nature Center, Irvine-based Families Forward and Costa Mesa-based Girls Inc.

Much of the giving during the past few years has been directed toward "safety net" groups to fund programs for homelessness, hunger and domestic violence, Hoss said. But she says many of her donors are still contributing to arts, education and other categories of nonprofits.

Don Thompson, the executive director of an Irvine-based family foundation that supports children's education, health and human services, and the arts, has relied on the Orange County Community Foundation to learn about Orange County nonprofits. He moved to the county last year from Kansas City.

"They've done a very good job of connecting the dots of investors, donors and organizations," he said.