This Community Foundation Just Got Edgier. Will Others Follow?

Community foundations need to be many things to many people. These are institutions, remember, that are designed to channel the giving of donors who have widely varying interests and views, but share a desire to improve a given region.

With many stakeholders to keep happy, starting with local wealth elites, you don't tend to see community foundations leading the charge on controversial issues or going toe-to-toe with the powers that be. These institutions have good reasons to play it safe.

So we're struck by the latest turn of events at the San Francisco Foundation, which has a new agenda to "(commit) its activities and its grantmaking to take on the issues of racial and economic equity," as foundation CEO Fred Blackwell wrote in a recent blog post. This prominent funder aims to be at the forefront of a debate over inequality that has been especially intense in the Bay Area, where a booming tech industry and gentrification are creating new pressures on lower-income residents.

In way, this shift isn't so surprising, and for a few reasons. The first is that TSFF has long been more progressive and forward-looking than many community foundations. It was created in 1948 by Daniel Koshland, Sr., the CEO of Levi Strauss, who was a prominent liberal civic leader and philanthropist. Koshland's grandson, Robert Friedman, still sits on the board of TSFF, and yesterday published an opinion piece explaining the foundation's shift. This is the same Bob Friedman who's spent his career fighting wealth inequities in the U.S., and is the founder of the Corporation for Enterprise Development. (We've profiled Friedman here.)

Second and related, TSFF's shift is not surprising because, in many ways, it's merely a sharpening and rebranding of work the foundation is already doing. TSFF has long embraced challenges around employment and housing, and creating opportunity broadly. This move is kind of like when the Ford Foundation announced its big shift to focus on inequality—which, as far as many could tell, was what that foundation had already been doing.

Third, TSFF's staffing choices in recent years have pointed toward a more ambitious equity push. Blackwell came to the foundation in 2014 with a strong background in economic development issues and then hired Judith Bell as vice president for programs. Bell came from PolicyLink, where she'd worked for many years on equity issues. That organization is noted for linking racial and economic inclusion, and you can see Bell's fingerprints on TSFF's new vision.

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Finally, TSFF's fresh mandate may not actually be so edgy or risky given how many wealthy leaders in San Francisco understand that the city and region has a major equity problem. We've reported on the stepped-up efforts of tech funders like Marc Benioff and Google.org to address this issue with new funding initiatives. In a way, TSFF is merely channeling a growing consensus in a sharper direction—while adding a stronger racial focus to the mix. That said, if activists financed with TSFF grants start, say, pressuring local corporations on wages and working closely with the new labor movement, we could see new divisions emerge.

So what happens next with this funder? Well, for one thing, the TSFF commissioned a survey that was conducted in the Bay Area to find out what local people think about race and economic inclusion. It plans to make those survey results public in late June. We also expect to hear more this summer and fall about how the foundation will be changing up the work it does after some relevant community forums and meetings.

Racial and economic inclusion take many forms, and TSFF has stressed that its new work will involve lots of collaboration. As Blackwell wrote:

We understand that while our foundation’s resources can make a big difference if used wisely, the scope of the challenge is much larger than one foundation can take on. We look to our elected officials, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and leaders in our communities across the region to provide leadership and ideas. We hope to use our unique position to reach across sectors to bring about profound change in the region.

Expect to see more public-private initiatives that connect unlikely groups together around common goals on inclusion topics, something that an increasing number of Bay Area funders are already getting involved with.

TSFF will continue to support nonprofits in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo Counties, but as local grantseekers were probably already aware, it didn’t accept unsolicited proposals or have an open application/responsive grantmaking cycle in 2015-2016. That abrupt halt has led up to this moment, as the foundation’s vision is redefined and the giving strategy is revamped.

In the meantime, any questions can be directed to program directors and officers on the TSFF staff. And stay tuned in to what this funder is working up by subscribing to its mailing list. We expect to see some new grant opportunities in the fields of workforce development, affordable housing, cultural identity, and civic engagement coming soon.

As for whether other community foundations are likely to start pushing harder on equity and race, stay tuned on that front, too.