Francesca Vietor, The San Francisco Foundation

TITLE: Program Director, Environment, Public Policy, and Civic Engagement

FUNDING AREAS: Environmental conservation, renewable energy — San Francisco Bay Area

CONTACT: fvietor@sff.org, 415-733-8500, ext. 517

IP TAKE: Vietor uses words and phrases like squillions and guerilla urban farming and has been referred to as a "green socialite" and "one tough cookie." But one thing is for certain: She is enthusiastic when it comes to environmental causes of all kinds.

PROFILE: In The San Francisco Foundation's environmental program, funding for programs that address climate change has taken center stage. Updated last summer, the foundation's revamped guidelines seek to help Bay Area communities "prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate impacts," and this new focus has come under the leadership of Program Director Francesca Vietor.

Now, the program features four objectives: increasing access to fresh food in the area's most vulnerable communities, protecting the Bay Area's water sources, advocating for clean, renewable energy, and investing in transportation and sustainable urban development. But the central idea is simple: "We have modified our environment program guidelines in an effort to best support healthy, self-sufficient, and resilient communities in the face of climate instability," the new guidelines state.

The foundation's fundraising guidelines look to address these environmental issues, while at the same time empowering communities with what the foundation calls "community resilience." "We believe that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and that climate change will disproportionately affect California's most disadvantaged and isolated communities," Vietor wrote in a recent foundation blog post. "Addressing social vulnerability and building community resilience in climate policies and response strategies will be critical to California's future."

Under Vietor, this new focus is cropping up in a number of different ways. Recently the foundation announced the Healthy Food for All initiative, an urban gardening project in two of the city's poorest neighborhoods. It also has goals of educating local leaders and building long-term economic stability for local foods. The program is highly collaborative, with 27 different organizations lending expertise and support to the project.

Vietor told IP, "The Great Communities Collaborative (GCC), an Initiative of The San Francisco Foundation, is a core aspect of this work. GCC is a network of organizations dedicated to creating healthy, thriving, and affordable neighborhoods in the Bay Area, anchored by transit and linked to all the opportunities and amenities that make a good community truly great. GCC works toward a future where mixed-income transit-oriented communities are central to a strong Bay Area."

Collaboration is key under Vietor. The foundation recently hosted an environmental panel for many local community-based organizations, nonprofits, and philanthropic groups, and collaboration was at the heart of the discussion. "Our goals were clear: to not only address the issues of climate change, but to ensure that we were in it, together," Vietor wrote. "That we build a strong, collective will to ensure that all of us protect and support one another in a time of crisis."

Water access for low-income communities is another key issue of the program's revamped guidelines, and in 2012 the foundation played a role in saving Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, providing a $100,000 grant for the "Vote No" campaign.

Vietor has a long history of working with the city's water management, as a commissioner at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, a position she holds concurrently to her work with The San Francisco Foundation. In that other position, "she leads policymaking for the City and County of San Francisco's water, wastewater, and municipal power services." So she has a firm knowledge of the city’s water management, and in a blog for Huffington Post she wrote about water conservation efforts in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Foundation's environmental program is a strong supporter of environmental initiatives throughout the Bay Area. In Vietor's first full year, the program awarded 41 grants totaling more than $1.3 million. The grants averaged between $25,000 and $60,000. The largest, at $70,000, was made to the Greenbelt Alliance for an open-space advocacy project.

Vietor has long been involved in San Francisco's environmental efforts. She served as president of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment and director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, and she was credited with leading a number of different environmental advocacy efforts. She was instrumental in establishing an Ocean Beach task force to deal with erosion and other issues at SF's largest beach, and she secured a fleet of low-emission hybrid vehicles for city use.

Grantees tend to be grassroots organizations with budgets under $2 million. Vietor likes to see grantees that are innovative, committed to social justice and environmental health, and have a diverse body of leadership. Vietor's advice to potential grantseekers is to pay attention to the foundation's stragic mission and focus, which can be summed up in four bullet points: 

  • A commitment to social justice;
  • Prioritizing resources towards innovative solutions that address issues impacting low income communities of color;
  • Community resilience as an emerging focus area; 
  • Innovative, risky, and game-changing ideas.

When asked about what kind of grantees she's looking for, Vietor told IP:

"For the environment program, we’d love to hear more from organizations that are thinking about resilient communities and addressing structural and economic injustices as it relates to environmental impact. As well as organizations that are thinking about access to nature – we believe that access to nature is essential to environmental health and healthy communities, and welcome hearing from organizations that work with youth to experience nature."

Looking ahead, the foundation plans to put more money towards children's programs and access to nature. Vietor explained The San Francisco Foundation's long-term strategy to IP as follows: 

"We take the long-term view, focusing on solutions that begin at the neighborhood level, built on deep local understanding. Statistics show that by 2050, 70% people will be living in cities, so we think it’s important to be deeply engaged with, and investing in urban infrastructure and sustainability and green infrastructure. We also believe strongly in the power of bringing people together: the power of collaboration and a multi-stakeholder approach. A lot of good can happen from diversity of voices and people in the room working together."

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