I've been watching the foundation world for 20 years, and the single thing that's driven me most nuts is how narrowly many funders approach poverty and inequality.
Quite a few foundations limit their grantmaking to direct services, which we all know are vital—and which we also know don't address the underlying drivers of poverty.
Then there are the more sophisticated foundations that spend many millions developing policy interventions that may be effective, but don't get to scale because so many elected leaders don't care about the poor, who vote at very low levels and don't make campaign contributions. Many of these same technocratic funders have been unwilling to challenge broader changes in public policy and the economy that have hurt large swaths of working Americans over the past few decades—like globalization and free trade, deregulation of lending markets, the erosion of labor regulations and, related, the rise of domestic outsourcing. These funders might as well be fighting poverty with both hands tied behind their backs.
But there have always been some funders out there who fight poverty with both hands—by engaging in both the policy and the politics of this issue. Ford is at the top of the list, especially lately, with its steady funding of hard-hitting advocacy work on labor issues and other equity concerns—like support for the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Other funders we could mention include Surdna and OSF, and then a bunch of smaller progressive foundations, like Public Welfare and Marguerite Casey.
Now comes the news that the Irvine Foundation, which delivers funding in California and has $2 billion in assets, also plans to fight poverty with both hands. To do that, it will wind down its other grantmaking over five years and ramp up two tracks of work—economic and political—that aim to boost the fortunes of California's working poor.
Two things are really notable, here. The first is that this is another major foundation that has shown itself capable of radically reorganizing itself to focus its resources more narrowly and strategically. MacArthur, of course, also recently streamlined in a big way.
The other striking thing is just how explicit Irvine is being about the need to politically mobilize a large swath of Californians who are now getting a raw economic deal. The foundation says of the state's low-income people that "their voices are not being heard," and that it will be "exploring ways to remove the systemic barriers that prevent too many Californians from achieving political influence."
It's not often you'll hear a big, mainstream foundation talking like this—saying openly that it plans to put its thumb on the power scale in America's biggest state to change who gets what. Now, it's true that Irvine's president, Don Howard, did tell the Chronicle of Philanthropy that "This foundation doesn’t believe we have to take on an industry in a confrontational way to address systemic barriers or address opportunity for folks."
I can see why Howard might want to say such a thing, as he steers one of California's top foundations into contentious terrain. But come on. He and others at Irvine can't possibly think that some confrontation isn't necessary to raise up the working poor—since, after all, many of the most effective advocates in this space right now believe that's exactly what's needed.
A main reason the working poor are poor is because the following industries, where they are mainly employed, don't pay them adequate wages and benefits: retail, restaurants and food services, agriculture (especially in California), janitorial services and healthcare. The working poor are also poor because their wealth is systematically stripped from them by the predatory elements of the lending industry. The current fight to help the working poor is, in part, a very confrontational effort to push these industries to improve their behavior.
If Irvine doesn't get that, and start throwing its weight into the battle like Ford, it's unlikely to get very far.
To be sure, political reform is important. There's a lot that can be done to boost the scandalously low voting and registration rates of lower income Americans while also limiting how much clout the wealthy have in our system. But that's a long-term effort, the gains of which will be felt over time. Meanwhile, there is a fierce and real fight going on today to raise up the working poor. Is Irvine going to join it?
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