An Early Corporate Leader in Funding LGBTQ Issues Marches On

Levi’s balloons flying outdoors at a LGBT Pride festival in San Francisco. David Tran Photo/shutterstock

Levi’s balloons flying outdoors at a LGBT Pride festival in San Francisco. David Tran Photo/shutterstock

In 1982, the employees at Levi Strauss corporate headquarters in San Francisco had a growing concern about an enigmatic and potentially fatal disease that was spreading across the city. Colleagues were getting sick. A lack of information shrouded the subject in secrecy. In response, company management stood shoulder to shoulder with employees to help destigmatize the illness, distributing educational materials throughout its home office.

Even for a company with a longstanding commitment to advancing social justice, its next steps took courage at the time. Besides educating employees, Levi Strauss enacted progressive human resources policies that integrated HIV-positive employees into the workplace, established support groups, and sponsored volunteer activism. It also decided to do something about the rise and spread of the disease.

The Evolution of Support

A year later, in 1983, the Levi Strauss Foundation made its first foray into HIV/AIDS funding with a matching grant to combat a rising form of cancer, Kaposi sarcoma. Throughout the ‘80s, when no one else was willing to step up, it expanded its funding to Bay Area organizations, then to 40 countries around the world. 

Since those early days, the foundation has firmly established itself as a leader in the response to what became known as HIV/AIDS. Over the last 30 years, it’s committed more than $78 million to fighting the disease, and regularly lands at the top of the list of LGBTQ corporate funders

Founded in 1952, the Levi Strauss Foundation supports pioneering social change in three areas: HIV/AIDS, Social Justice, and Worker Rights & Well-being. Its HIV/AIDS work intersects the first two of those categories with grants that raise awareness, and confront social stigma and discrimination. It makes the most of its annual budget: $8.5 million, $1.9 million of which goes to HIV/AIDS programming. Geographically, it works in areas where it has a business presence.

The foundation directs its HIV/AIDS support to organizations it considers to be at the forefront of fighting for LGBTQ equality, like the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Horizons Foundation, and the Stonewall Community Foundation. But its strategy has evolved over time. 

Interpreting the Times

Executive Director Daniel Jae-Won Lee says the foundation’s work has always been grounded in the company’s values of originality, integrity, empathy and courage. That mindset allows for funding decisions that “privilege what’s new and disruptive over what’s tried and true.”  

Lee, who holds a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, has been a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS since the early ‘90s, when he helped launch a nonprofit that addressed its effects on Asian and Pacific Islanders—a group that was disproportionately impacted. 

Daniel sees the ability to interpret the times as a core skill for working in philanthropy. And times are changing. Once centered solely on combating the disease and its effects, the foundation’s also now fighting a new “battlefront that’s been drawn since the 2016 national election,” when it began seeing roll-backs of hard fought gains in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

Election results were so deeply felt by employees that the company’s president and CEO, Chip Bergh, immediately called a town meeting, and led a discussion on living Levi’s values. Bergh told the audience he believes now, more than ever, is the time to show the world what it means to be a values-based institution. To take a stand and use its voice and resources to support groups that land in the crosshairs of the new administration.

Soon after, the Levi Strauss Foundation held a special board meeting. Its board is unique, an 11-member hybrid half composed of corporate leaders, and half by descendants of Levi Strauss. Daniel believes the structure brings together the best of both worlds. The corporate leaders are great at driving strategy, once reducing 70 variables to three. And the family side is linked to almost a dozen other foundations, all deeply immersed in the issues of funding social change.

The board asked itself simple yet complicated questions: Who was at risk of being the most marginalized? And where could their support do the most good? Long involved in supporting LGBTQ issues, they listened to stories coming in from the community. Advances were being rolled back. The 2015 marriage equality act alone prompted more than 600 challenges at the state level. And discrimination was on the rise. But the transgender community seemed to be bearing the brunt of it. Transgender people were being scapegoated on everything from military service to the bathroom bill. One of the foundation’s grantees, the Transgender Law Center (TLC), reported a 50 percent increase in the demand for identity card revisions. The board agreed the needs of the trans community was greatest, and adopted an emphasis on supporting it.

The foundation’s partnership with the Transgender Law Center illustrates the escalation well. It started supporting the center’s programs back in 2015, with grants now totaling more than $700,000. Since the election, the foundation also began funding the center’s Rapid Defense Fund, which zeros in on acute, time-sensitive advocacy for transgender people. The partners mutually agree on outcomes for program support, but the foundation trusts TLC to deploy Rapid Defense resources where the need is most critical. 

In Good Company

Levi Strauss and its foundation aren’t afraid of going it alone, or of boldly engaging in advocacy. In 1992, it became the first Fortune 500 company to provide domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. In 2007, it was the only company to file an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage with the California Supreme Court. The foundation never asks what others are doing, only where it can do the most good—even when it’s the only one doing it.

But it wasn’t alone during San Francisco’s recent Pride Parade. It had some company, when the Transgender Law Center decided to recognize its real and deep partnership by marching beside it. One marcher, Alison Bing, tweeted, “Corporations, take note: if you want to participate in #SFPride, follow @LEVIS example & partner with a beloved, crucial LGBT community nonprofit like @TransLawCenter- these folx got the most crowd approval of any company at Pride.”