Since 1952, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund has been committed to building and supporting the Bay Area, even — or especially — when the challenges before us are enormous.
That describes 2020, a year of catastrophic, compounding, enormous challenges that threaten the most vulnerable among us.
We are deep in the midst of a pandemic, which has caused a serious economic downturn, both of which have exacerbated the inequities of longstanding systemic American racism. It is a triple-threat of trouble that calls all of us to step up in all the ways we can. And that’s what the Fund is, and has been, doing. We’re directing all of our efforts towards protecting vulnerable communities and we encourage all of our peers in philanthropy to do the same.
Extraordinary Response Required
In March, we reached out to our grantee partners to ask what the community needed most urgently from us. And then we reframed the year’s work in light of that. We quickly modified our grantmaking processes and made grants in reaction to the dramatic and widespread need for a wide range of COVID-19 relief.
To date, we have distributed $3.66MM in COVID-19 relief, including an extra $2.25MM drawn from the Fund’s corpus.
In the spring, we focused on helping our Bay Area neighbors gain or retain access to their basic survival needs — food, housing, and the referral services that connect those in need with safety net services, such as healthcare. We supported efforts that provided supplemental income to those who found themselves out of work, specifically focusing on undocumented immigrants and artists — both segments of our community deeply affected by the crashing economy and left out of the federal CARES Act. Legal aid for workers, too, helped those struggling to retain their rights and access the support due them. We contributed to loan funds helping small businesses and arts nonprofits remain solvent. And, hearing from youth the effects of a rushed switch to remote learning, the Fund invested in student mental health.
This first round of COVID-19 relief grants focused on the most vulnerable, including our Black, immigrant, undocumented, youth, and senior neighbors. We listened and learned from them, and from others who are working to mitigate this series of crises. And we began to understand that our response to this pandemic — unlike our response to other disasters the community has faced — cannot be linear.
A Different Kind of Disaster
We will not progress from supplying emergency relief, to fostering recovery, to rebuilding; we must, with all available partners, work across all three domains simultaneously. And we, more than likely, must do so for the foreseeable future.
Understanding this, we’ve made additional investments in COVID-19 relief this autumn. Those investments fall into three categories: enhancing learning opportunities for public school youth; income relief for people with (or who have lost) low-wage jobs; and rental assistance to defend against the coming eviction crisis. Many of those aided by these grants are women of color and immigrants — people who are and who have been more likely to face systemic challenges, such as racism.
Emergency Rent and Eviction Protection
The Walter & Elise Haas Fund has, for over ten years, worked to address homelessness through our Safety Net program. This new pandemic-related economic downturn has drastically increased the urgency of that work.
Even before the pandemic, renters — many of whom lacked the economic security to find a way into the housing market — were disproportionately people of color and immigrants. Now, those people and others are at great risk of losing their housing unless private philanthropy and the public sector acts effectively and together.
Now is when we need to do our part to minimize the number of those whose housing security is under threat. Therefore, the Fund is awarding a million dollars, split between the following four organizations, to provide emergency financial assistance for rent alongside eviction protection services:
All of this; it’s not enough. While it’s a lot for the Fund, and we’re glad we’ve been able to respond as we have, 2020 isn’t even over — and these problems won’t miraculously disappear.
We don’t know what comes next. We only know that we need to remain, as always, committed to the vision of a thriving, equitable Bay Area. We know we need others — whomever can — to step forward to help keep all of our neighbors healthy, secure, and hopeful.
The Walter & Elise Haas Fund stands with those who fight for justice. We stand with those whose courage and moral leadership insists that we address racial discrimination and anti-Black racism immediately. Last week the Fund’s Board Chair John Goldman and I co-authored a message to the Fund’s grantees. We share it here publicly on our website, so that all can know what to expect of me, staff, and trustees in the work ahead.
June 5, 2020
We write to you today from a place of sadness, anger, and fear, but also from a place of resolution, focus, and determination. Our emotions run deep as our nation reels in anguish in the aftermath of another murder of a Black person at the hands of the police.
We stand with those who are marching in the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among many others, and recognize that police brutality is a symptom of a larger system of white supremacy that is embedded in every aspect of our society.
We also stand with each of you. We know that many of you as individuals are hurting in this moment. And we know that the communities you work with are hurting, too.
Together, as the Executive Director and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, we lead a foundation that for over 60 years has quietly and humbly supported efforts in the Bay Area to build a more just and equitable society. Our founders had a strong sense of justice and they believed in a shared responsibility for our community. While we are proud of what we have accomplished in partnership with you, the voices calling out in righteous anger over the past week have called into question the humility with which the Fund fulfills its mission. It’s not enough to let our funding and the work of our grantees speak for themselves. While words feel utterly inadequate to address the vast injustice and inequity we are witnessing, silence is its own form of violence. The fact is: the words of the Fund have power and it’s incumbent upon us to use that power to advance the rights of all of us, especially those who suffer injustice daily because they are Black.
The ugly stain of systemic, institutionalized racism affects every aspect of American society. Profound inequities underlie our systems. They are not just limited to encounters with police. Black and brown communities are disproportionally impacted by under-resourced schools and public health, economic, and climate crises. Our understanding of this, as a foundation, guides our support of the work we do with you.
The coming weeks will be challenging for all of us. When you next reach out to the Fund, you may have tears, we may have tears.
Our hearts are heavy, and we recognize that taking care of our hearts, minds, and bodies is important. While we feel a sense of urgency, we have a long road ahead. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other, and let’s take care of our community.
Things are changing quickly, frequently, and for many of us, frighteningly. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all to respond generously and compassionately despite the chaotic nature of the day—and that’s what we intend to do. The Walter & Elise Haas Fund is offering, and hopefully modelling, COVID-19-specific support in two phases, with more likely to come as the situation evolves.
We are now and have always been a community-oriented grantmaker, committed to the San Francisco Bay Area and its vulnerable and at-risk populations. Today, that at-risk population includes all of us, but the risks are far greater and far direr for those lacking shelter, medical care, or—in numbers that are rapidly increasing—a source of income. We are working quickly to learn, adjust, and react so that we can deliver support in the ways in which help can extend the farthest.
First, we have expedited awarding our annual Safety Net grants by a few weeks. Second, we mobilized to award a dozen additional rapid response grants to safety net and support organizations that are already in our portfolio. These front-line nonprofits focus on the immediate and pressing need to provide food to those without. We directed these rapid response grants towards those organizations that serve seniors and other vulnerable populations that are at particularly high risk. We also awarded funds to help school-age children access meals during school closures.
Listening to the Community
Last Friday, March 13th—the day before Bay Area residents received instructions to shelter in place—we sent out a survey to our nonprofit partners. We recognize that this situation is a dynamic one, and that things have changed dramatically since then, however the responses we received were helpful in guiding our response.
FUNDING: As organizations scramble to keep their programs operating and staff employed under extremely challenging circumstances, they need emergency unrestricted or general operating support. Where that’s not possible, the early release of already awarded grant payments will help keep these organizations solvent as they adjust.
TOGETHERNESS: Nonprofits reported they need help sharing best practices and space where they can learn from and support each other. They need frameworks, resources, connections, and advocacy from the Philanthropic community. This togetherness will help those who are overwhelmed—practically and emotionally—by the vastly increased needs they are asked to help meet.
FLEXIBILITY: Nonprofits emphasized the need for flexibility from their funding partners. At a time when schools, stores, and national borders are closed, insisting that dance class, or tax filing assistance, or evaluation activities go on as planned is not fully recognizing the gravity of this moment. Flexibility looks like: amending grants to include report extensions, duration extensions, report cancellations, and shifts from project support to general operating support.
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE: The quick transition to remote work and virtual delivery of services and programming means a vastly increased need for technical assistance. Therefore, nonprofits need IT support and access to free software that facilitates their shift to operating as close to normal while offices and classrooms are closed.
POLICY: The nonprofit sector, including its workers, stands to benefit from the aid packages being discussed by state and local governments. To the extent possible, the nonprofit community calls on its philanthropic partners to support these measures.
For those of you who shared your valuable time to respond to our survey, thank you. It will be useful in guiding our work, and we hope it’s useful in guiding the work of our philanthropic peers. We value making decisions based on what our nonprofit partners say is important to them.
All this leads us to the second phase of our response to COVID-19. Taking the advice of our nonprofit partners, the Fund’s Program Officers are already working to convert some project grants to general operating support grants and to relax strict reporting requirements.
We will do what we can to support human needs and the needs of nonprofits. We expect that will mean supporting the economic stability of individuals, families, and organizations, likely through pooled funds being created by philanthropic partners such as community foundations and nonprofit intermediaries. We want to make sure that people—especially domestic, restaurant, arts community workers, and others who lack employment protections—remain able to sustain themselves and their families through this crisis. Members of the immigrant community are also especially vulnerable, as they are less likely to benefit from any government support.
And it is troubling to recognize how disproportionately and direly the arts community is being affected—as that community is dependent on people coming together. If we cannot infuse artists with support, we risk many arts organizations closing their doors for good.
We have been and will continue to be as adaptable and flexible as possible. We’ve always relied upon our relationships with our philanthropic and grantee partners, and we hope our partners will continue to rely upon us—and to be honest about what they need and how we can help.
While we are conscious of and concerned about the looming recession and subsequent decrease in the size of the Fund’s endowment, trustees have made the decision to increase the Fund’s payout this year. But even with increased resources, the Fund, on its own, can’t respond to the scale of need caused by COVID-19. Philanthropy works best when funders are working together in common cause.
We have to be flexible and—as much as possible—proactive in offering flexibility. Even approaching a funder with a request for flexibility right now is beyond the capabilities of many nonprofit leaders who are swamped trying to keep their organizations intact and their staff and constituents safe.
I am explicitly calling on my Philanthropic peers to trust their grantees and to do all they can to lighten the burdens they face. We have to hold each other up and we have to do so right now.
To say these times are stressful is a vast understatement. We can’t do everything for everyone, but we see it as our job—and the job of all funders—to alleviate as many burdens as possible. At the very least, we need to promise to not to add to the list of burdens our grantee partners face.
Today, especially, it is important for us to continue doing all we can to support the health and well-being of all those in the Bay Area.
While there have been international public health emergencies before — some even within our lifetimes — the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the even more rapid spread of information and misinformation makes this a special cause for caution. How, we ask ourselves, can we respond most appropriately?
Our goals are not only to safeguard ourselves, but also to protect the literal and figurative health of our grantee partners and the communities in which they work.
Caring for Ourselves
In consultation with our foundation peers, we’ve established some protocols outlining how we, as an organization, will respond to this health emergency. While we welcome you to read the whole document, the gist is that we have strategically increased our vigilance against illness. At the most basic level, we’ve asked our staff to stay home if they suspect they may have been exposed to COVID-19, or if they feel even slightly unwell.
To encourage this extra care, we’ve added significant flexibility to our sick leave policy — we don’t want anyone to feel pressure to come in to work because they lack (or fear they will later lack) needed sick days. The health of the community is more important.
Our protocols further recommend increased hygiene vigilance, such as hand washing following travel on public transportation, and substituting greetings that don’t risk transmission for handshakes. For the time being, virtual meetings are preferable to in-person sessions, and when that’s not possible, we’ve asked staff to keep meeting attendance to a minimum. We’re also encouraging employees to prepare for remote work and to avoid travel to any impacted region.
Caring for Grantee Partners
Clearly, this international health emergency will affect us all in numerous ways over the coming weeks and perhaps months. We hope we all remain well, and that this period of instability passes quickly, but we accept that many previously solid plans will be disrupted by the repercussions of COVID-19.
For some of our grantee partners, this may mean facing an inability to meet reporting requirements or objectives in 2020. If your organization looks like it will be affected, we want to hear about the specific challenges you’re addressing so that we can help. Our relationship with you and the work you do is more important than your strict adherence to your grant agreement. We are relaxing expectations in terms of grant outcomes and are committed to remaining flexible in order to prioritize community needs as this situation unfolds.
We encourage grantees to use our funding to continue to pay your staff as normal, even if your work is disrupted or delayed.
Should COVID-19 response disrupt your work or your organization’s ability to operate as planned, your Walter and Elise Haas Fund program officer is within reach. Reach out by phone or email and let us know what you’re facing and how we can adapt together.
To those of our nonprofit partners who planned events and conferences that now need to be cancelled, to minimize the negative financial impact, our general policy, with some exceptions, will be to allow the organizing organization to retain the Fund’s registration fees as a donation, and to not request a refund.
Caring for the Community
The Fund has long supported the community through our Safety Net funding, which invests in organizations on the front lines of responding every day to residents who are in crisis. Moreover, the Fund has specifically invested in programs and services that help our local community prepare for local disasters.
Today’s COVID-19 outbreak further emphasizes the importance of community care and worker protections. A strand of Fund grantmaking has long promoted sound policies such as paid family leave, portable benefits, and the implementation of California Assembly Bill 5, which stipulates employees must be treated as such instead of as independent contractors.
By setting up and defending policies that keep the community and country prepared for emergencies like the one we now face, we’ll all be safer, healthier, and stronger.
The Walter & Elise Haas Fund fosters a more healthy, just, and vibrant Bay Area by collaborating with partners whose work provides access and increases opportunity. That’s our aspiration and — as the Fund’s Executive Director — it’s my job and my pleasure to try and achieve it. But what do we mean by a healthy, just, and vibrant Bay Area? What strategies can the nonprofit and philanthropic communities deploy to progress towards it?
As part of my exploration of these questions, in 2019 I launched Betting on the Bay, a blog series chronicling my conversations with some of the remarkable Bay Area leaders shaping our community’s future. I sought to listen, learn, and share insights so that we can all more effectively work together as agents of change.
Three main insights spring from this first year of conversation and introspection:
1. The Bay Area Dream
Everyone I spoke with emphasized how extraordinary the Bay Area community is, and how lucky we all are to be part of it. We have a long history of innovation here — not just in terms of technology, but across all aspects of our personal and public lives. This is the testing ground for bold ideas that shape communities in new and positive ways.
And the impact of the Bay Area’s innovations is not limited to this local arena; often what begins here goes on to influence developments across California, the country, and the world. One example is the reduction and removal of the fines and fees that trap people in poverty. Another is the idea of portable benefits, that travel with workers from job to job.
More than one leader I interviewed referred to “the Bay Area dream” as something we need to keep alive. We recognize that we need to redouble our efforts in the current economic context if our values and creativity and care are to keep benefitting as many as possible.
2. Reaching Across the (Bus) Aisle
Surprisingly, access to high-quality public transit featured prominently in all my conversations. It was often the first answer when a leader was asked what makes a community vibrant.
By increasing access to jobs, providing opportunities to explore our environment, or simply by means of the diversity we encounter when riding BART and MUNI, our public transit systems and the mobility they provide are a core cause of and perfect expression of the Bay Area’s vibrancy.
This is something I will remember next time I tap open a ridesharing app.
3. The Wisdom of Youth
Investing in young people is the best way of increasing justice and vibrancy in the Bay Area in the long term.
When I spoke to two fourth graders at Malcolm X Academy in the Bayview their biggest concern — by some distance — was climate change its impact on their future. They instinctively understood that climate change is not just an environmental issue; it’s an issue of social justice that will impact our most vulnerable and marginalized populations for generations. If we fail to address climate change, we will have no justice in the Bay Area and vibrancy will be a consideration far below basic survival.
The Common Thread and the Conclusion
The theme of connectivity ran throughout my conversations: between seemingly different issues such as climate change, education, public transportation, and economic security; and between the different organizations working in different sectors — government, business, civil society, and philanthropy — all working to address these issues.
From this, I conclude that the pathway forward for the Fund is to increasingly emphasize the links and synergies between our program areas. How can what we do in the arts amplify our work in education? How do economic security efforts link to safety net support? How can the amazing organizations we fund learn from each other and, through collaboration, achieve more?
A signature example of this focus is our new support for Linked Learning and Career Pathways in Oakland and San Francisco unified public school districts (OUSD and SFUSD). These programs draw on synergies between all our program areas: arts, education, economic security, Jewish life, and safety net. Moreover, this work requires and combines the collective efforts of nonprofits, local government, the business community, and school districts to help ensure that a sustainable employment pipeline is being built to achieve economic inclusion for all young people in San Francisco and Oakland.
In 2019, I only interviewed six leaders; I could easily have doubled or tripled that number. There is no shortage of talent and no shortage of inspiring ideas in our community. As executive director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, I look forward to extending our partnership and collaboration to you so that we can continue to bet on the Bay Area. Together, we will deploy philanthropy to support innovation, collaboration, and partnership for the long term.
For 25 years — since it came into being — Walter & Elise Haas Fund Arts Program Officer Frances Phillips has served as director of the Creative Work Fund (CWF). That’s oversight of 384 grants, averaging $35,531, for a total of $13.5 million in support of partnerships between artists and nonprofits.
As part of the celebration of the Creative Work Fund’s 25th anniversary, W&EHF Executive Director Jamie Allison interviewed Frances, covering her history with the CWF, how its grantmaking has influenced and been influenced by the Bay Area, and what comes next. That conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, follows.
Jamie Allison: When did you first start working in arts philanthropy?
Frances Phillips: I have only had one job in arts philanthropy, and that is as Arts Program Officer at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and as the first — and only — director of the Creative Work Fund. When I got hired here, I didn’t realize how lucky I was!
I started on September 1 of 1994, just over 25 years ago. The Creative Work Fund (CWF) had been designed over the nine-month period immediately preceding my arrival.
JA: How do you think your background as a poet and as an executive director of a small arts organization informs your approach as a grant maker for the CWF?
FP: I had been the Executive Director of Intersection for the Arts prior to joining the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, and we faced many tough moments financially. Soon after I arrived, a theater organization that we, at Intersection, were friendly with, came by the foundation with a grant proposal. As I read their financial statement, I saw they were not in good health. In fact, their situation was so dire that I had to go outside and take a walk because my stomach constricted so much. I was caught between my responsibility to protect the Fund’s resources and my desire to see them survive.
I don’t have quite as powerful a visceral reaction these days as I did then, but I still remember how hard it is to be an ED of a nonprofit — and I admire those who do it well. I know what it feels like to be in a tough spot.
As for the poetry, one of my Creative Writing professors at San Francisco State was Stan Rice. He really taught by ear, so in workshops we heard everyone’s work aloud without a lot of reading text on the page. His point was that you have to learn to listen well because you’ll hear when it’s the truth and you’ll hear when it’s artificially artful.
I use that skill all the time as a grant maker; to sense when people are telling me what they think people in philanthropy want to hear and when they’re telling me what’s really going on.
JA: For people who don’t know: what’s the Creative Work Fund’s vision?
FP: The Creative Work Fund was designed to respond to the shifting national attitude in the early 1990s towards supporting artists with public funds. This dialogue arose from public outcry over support of provocative artists, such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, and it resulted in the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget being cut dramatically with almost all of its fellowships for individual artists eradicated.
In 1993-94, there was also a lot of reconstruction of cultural facilities that had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake. It was a moment of “Oh my, there’s going to be no money for individual artists, but we’re going to have some really nice buildings to put art in…”
So, Susan Clark at the Columbia Foundation gets credit for picking up the mantle. Columbia and several other Haas-related foundations shared the same offices. She talked to the Mimi & Peter Haas Fund, the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund about pooling funds to offer grants that would benefit individual artists.
The Walter & Elise Haas Fund was the only one of those four foundations that had an Arts Program Officer position (ed. note: temporarily unfilled), so we were chosen to manage the initiative. The Creative Work Fund designers were going to get it running in three months, but it took them nine. And I often tell this story, because, as I remind applicants to The Creative Work Fund — if you’re going to collaborate, don’t plan to rush.
The idea of collaboration between artists and nonprofits came, in part, to make the Creative Work Fund distinctive, and part because nonprofit organizations and artists both need to develop collaboration skills. Artists particularly need broad networks. Then, also, there was an understood distinction between artists working in academic settings — “studio artists” — and artists working in the community — making murals, street theater — and the Creative Work Fund wanted to collapse that distinction. We care about artists who are working with one another and with organizations to resolve artistic problems.
JA: What does it take to forge and sustain a successful collaboration?
FP: Trust — which is an easy word to throw around, but difficult to develop — is essential. And a willingness to change or be changed. When collaborations have not gone so well, frequently it’s because one partner wasn’t willing to be patient enough to come to a shared understanding.
Many people have romantic idea about what artists are like. They think artists are like surly adolescents and are going to be difficult and moody.
In reality, many artists work several jobs, do a lot of community social justice work, have exceptionally high ethics, and work long hours. People expect artists to be flaky and irresponsible but, in my experience, they are incredibly dedicated and efficient.
JA: What are the values that underpin the Creative Work Fund?
FP: We don’t believe that there’s any fixed, appropriate point in an artist’s career at which they should apply for a CWF grant. When I first started working on the Creative Work Fund, I thought that recipients would be people who had a lot of career success; that you had to know yourself and have confidence in yourself to bring that to a partnership. That’s not necessarily the case.
There has been a generation of younger artists who don’t want to, or assume they are going to be able to support a studio or a company and work independently. They set out from the start thinking that they will do their work in a community setting.
We don’t believe that choosing to be an artist is choosing to be alone.
JA: What’s uniquely Bay Area about the Creative Work Fund?
FP: We tend to be left leaning, and many of the artists we’ve supported work on content about immigration or the environment or other issues that also are considered left leaning.
A piece of my job is putting together a panel of experts who come together from around the country, and when we’re reviewing applicants for traditional arts grants, I don’t only need to have people who know craft and dance and music, I also need to have people who know China, Japan, Afghanistan… Because when we see who comes through the door to apply each year, we’re seeing the face of the cultures that make up the Bay Area.
We have a unique mix of cultures here. California is very diverse; these are our people.
JA: What are the genres supported by Creative Work Fund?
FP: We have, for quite a few years, had five genre categories — visual, literary, media, traditional, and performing arts — for which grants were available on a rotating basis, with two categories offered each year, but we are experimenting in the coming round with doing away with categories and opening the door to artists working in any genre.
JA: How did you make that decision?
FP: We talked to grantees who told us that if we wanted to see newer and younger artists come forward, we had to remove the constrictions of genre. Some artists work in their communities in interesting, important ways that don’t fit into a niche. Plus, many artists are crossing over and blending genres, so we’re going to experiment, too.
JA: Can you give us a couple of examples of the kinds of projects that Creative Work Fund has supported over the last 25 years?
FP: One of our very first grants was to visual artist Ann Chamberlain who was, at the time, being treated for breast cancer at the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center, which was affiliated with UCSF Mount Zion. One day, when she was in the infusion center there, she looked out the window at this ugly concrete courtyard and said to her doctor, “Why can’t people going through this stressful experience have something beautiful to look at?”
So, Ann collaborated with the Breast Health Center. She gathered plants that are used for medicinal reasons in various cultures and made pressings of them into clay tiles. Those clay tiles then were etched with quotes from interviews with staff and patients and patients’ families. The project resulted in a huge tile wall on the hospital corridor that faces the garden. They also tore up the concrete and planted a garden, designed with landscape architect Katsy Swan.
If that was the only project the Creative Work Fund ever funded, it would have all been worthwhile. One’s experience of the place became all about care.
In another project, the California Indian basket weaver, Linda Yamane, who is of Rumsen Ohlone descent, collaborated with the Big Sur Land Trust to remove invasive plants from a property the Trust owned, so that the sedge and other materials Linda needed to create baskets could grow. She created two work baskets, one that you set over a stone for grinding acorns, and another which is more for carrying. One of the things that’s quite beautiful about this project is that they left behind an area where basket-weaving materials are growing and that can be used by other California native artists.
JA: What is it like to be an artist in the Bay Area?
FP: The Bay Area has some big-budget major institutions that plow the field for smaller, riskier arts organizations that are eager to press boundaries. And we also have a pretty great cluster of educational institutions where young people who are developing their skills as artists can learn.
This is a place where people come to remake themselves — that’s one of the reasons I came here. I wanted to be someplace where people were doing challenging and sometimes outrageous things. I grew up in a gated community that was very homogeneous. I didn’t want to live that way and I think that having a rich cultural mix is part of what makes this a good home for artists.
Thinking about the debate over the murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco, or the removal of the Pioneer Monument at the Civic Center, there’s a public forum here where people exchange ideas and values. We can pause and reflect about things here. You may never go to formal art exhibits, but you are still seeing art in your built environment here all the time, even if you’re just glancing at the Jim Campbell piece at the top of the Salesforce Tower.
I feel as if artists here have been safe to experiment and fail, and it’s important to protect that. The process of making art is all about trial and error and making mistakes that lead you to something profound.
JA: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
FP: Yes! What was one of your top ten Bay Area arts experiences over the last year?
JA: I love this question. I recently went to see the African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth and it was quite good. It was at the Taube Theater in the Jewish Community Center and I’d never been there before, and I really liked that space.
Kathleen Kelly Janus is the Senior Advisor on Social Innovation to Governor Gavin Newsom. As part of our Betting on the Bay interview series with Bay Area leaders, she recently sat down with Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison for a conversation about how we can promote leadership, philanthropy, and vibrancy here in the Bay Area. An edited transcript of that discussion follows.
Jamie Allison: Thanks for joining me, Kathleen. Can we start by talking about your role in the Governor’s office? The role of Senior Advisor on Social Innovation is new; what’s your mandate? What are your priorities?
Kathleen Kelly Janus: As the Senior Advisor on Social Innovation, I’m in charge of public-private partnerships to support the Governor’s agenda. That means I spend half my time in the Governor’s office in Sacramento, meeting with the policy team, meeting with the senior advisors, and maintaining a handle on where the opportunities for public-private partnerships lie. Then I spend the remaining half of my time around the state meeting with community leaders, nonprofits, foundations, philanthropists, and businesses identifying opportunities to leverage each sectors’ strength.
I view myself as a matchmaker, helping to bring everybody to the table to address the challenges we’re facing.
JA: What are some of the partnerships you’re working on?
KKJ: One example is the collaboration happening around the 2020 census. Ten years ago, philanthropic leaders realized that if we were going to be effective in counting California residents we were going to need to invest in community based organizations and advocacy to ensure structures were in place for the census. Philanthropy committed $30 million to achieving an accurate census count over those ten years.
Philanthropy really took a leadership role in this. Its contributions will be absolutely critical in reaching hard-to-count populations in nimble ways. Nimble is not how you typically describe government, but philanthropy definitely can be. They’re organizing things including hyper-local message testing, investing in below-the-radar community organizations, and those organizations that lack the ability to apply for state funding.
In another example, philanthropy is coming together with the Future of Work commission to support an organization called the Institute for the Future, which is going to be providing the research, the innovation, the access, and the on-the-ground insight for a policy agenda that increases opportunities for workers.
But we can’t solve the really tough issues in our state without engaging business. In the nonprofit, philanthropic sector, we have the tendency to frame business as part of the problem. And Governor Newsom is committed to ensuring that, instead, business is part of the solution.
We’re in the process of developing a master plan around early childhood, for example, so we have a plan that gets us to universal preschool education. There is an opportunity for business to support this effort by providing early childhood care for their employees or stipends for preschool education.
If any businesses are out there and ready to make that deal, consider this your official invitation to the table!
JA: Can you talk about what skills or attributes you think future civic leaders need?
KKJ: Over the past five years, I have been researching how nonprofits succeed and grow. I sat down with leaders, their boards, their beneficiaries and funders, and I came up with five strategies that I talked about in my book, Social Startup Success.
In all those conversations, I kept waiting for someone to say, “It’s grit or charisma that gets someone ahead,” but no one said that. They all kept pointing back to these five strategies: innovation, measuring impact, leadership, fundraising, and storytelling. These strategies are teachable but we’re not teaching them to young people graduating from high school or college that we need to act as strong advocates in our communities
JA: Has philanthropy played a role in your leadership journey?
KKJ: Being a young lawyer in San Francisco who was starting a small nonprofit — Spark — I ran into this false dichotomy; that either I was supposed to go into corporate work and make money or go into nonprofit work and do good. But this misunderstanding hinders us from improving our communities, whichever direction we choose.
We all have the capacity to make a difference, whether by volunteering, donating, serving on a board, or attending events. These are all opportunities to make our world better.
We do a disservice to young people by inhibiting them from taking leadership roles as activists in their communities.
JA: What should we be doing to prepare young people to take on leadership roles?
KKJ: We need to change the education system. My approach to teaching has always been a community engaged learning approach. I learned that way in law school and it was transformative. It allowed me to practice in a law firm and spend 30% of my time on civil rights immigration cases.
We also need to give young people opportunities to volunteer and serve on boards. Too often organizations are focused on high-net-worth donors when it comes to board seats. That leaves out the chance to bring in young people and build the pipeline. Young people most often don’t have a lot of money, but they have skills, networks, and connections.
The more that we can give young people opportunities to give back the better we’ll cultivate the spirit of generosity and service that can last throughout the course of an entire life.
JA: Is there an interesting fact or a statistic or story about California that surprised you, in the context of your new role.
KKJ: How about this: we have $200 per capita philanthropic giving in the Bay Area versus $7 per capita giving in the Central Valley. That data point highlights the lack of opportunity that nonprofit leaders have in different parts of our state.
All the things we talk about in the context of leadership development — hiring an executive coach, taking courses — shouldn’t be a luxury, but most often they are. As a nonprofit leader, it should be feasible to learn and grow instead of just struggling to make payroll every month.
That lack of opportunity really holds our communities back.
I heard a statistic the other day that 75% of venture capital is invested in four states in the nation. I don’t know the statistics in California, but my guess is that the vast majority of venture capital goes to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, leaving the rest of the state behind. We need to ensure that all Californians have access to the California dream and we need to think about demographic equity.
KKJ: Governor Newsom is making climate change a factor as he plans his agenda — so that it’s in there right from the beginning.
For example, he’s thinking about where people are working and where the jobs are located. We have folks commuting six hours a day by car and that’s a climate hazard. If we can create jobs in their communities, that not only improves their quality of life, it also reduces emissions.
The governor also just led an initiative around clean cars. He solicited 24 other governors to sign a letter asking President Trump not to roll back the emissions standards, and successfully convinced the car companies to maintain the better standard. Given that nearly half of our state’s emissions come from vehicles alone, this has the capacity to make a huge dent in our climate change goals. There’s a lot of opportunity for California to take a leadership role in climate and that’s what we’ve always done.
JA: Here’s something I’ve been asking everyone as part of this series: what does it mean for city or region to be vibrant?
KKJ: Vibrancy comes from thriving innovation, finding new ways of addressing old problems. Social innovation, business innovation, and artistic innovation.
We need to invest all of these different sectors in order to have a vibrant community.
JA: How about some fun questions? If you unexpectedly had a day off, where might we find you?
KKJ: With my kids. That’s the hard part about being a working mom; you don’t get to spend as much time with your kids as you like. I’d be hanging with them at the park, or at the beach, or if they are lucky having a Bi-Rite ice cream.
JA: Who inspires you in the Bay Area?
KKJ: My husband. He is my biggest cheerleader and he starts every day by telling me what a rock star I am and how I’m going to go out there and kill it and change the world and make a difference. And I feel like I’m so lucky to have this voice in the back of my head always reminding me that I’m doing my best.
JA: That is fantastic. And what music are you listening to right now?
KKJ: I usually sing at the top of my lungs to pop stars. My kids like Taylor Swift. So, I get roped into Taylor Swift, but I’m pretty happy with any pop music.
JA: Thank you so much.
KKJ: My pleasure!
In addition to her work in Governor Newsom’s office, Kathleen Kelly Janus is a social entrepreneur and Stanford University lecturer. She shares her expertise on philanthropy, millennial engagement, and scaling startup organizations through her classes, and she is the author of Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference. Kathleen Kelly Janus has led social justice initiatives as an attorney, co-founded Spark – a network of millennial donors – and helped launch and direct Stanford Law School’s international human rights clinics in Namibia and South Africa.
Following fifty years of America’s war on poverty, what’s changed?
Jorge Blandón, Executive Vice President at Family Independence Initiative (FII), is the right man to ask. Jorge is part of the leadership team that works closely with the Technology and Data division to challenge the stereotypes that inhibit families with low incomes, develop innovative tools, and spread the insights that helps people escape the cycle of poverty.
Recently, Walter & Elise Haas Fund Executive Director Jamie Allison spoke with Jorge as part of our Betting on the Bay series of interviews. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. We hope the wisdom and insight he shares help us move, individually and collectively, towards a more equitable Bay Area.
Jamie Allison: Let’s get started! Jorge, what characteristics make a city or region vibrant?
Jorge Blandón: Richness of diversity — diversity of thoughts, perspectives, culture, economy, and also opportunity.
JA: And what is it about the Bay Area that keeps you here?
JB: There is a lot of innovation — and I’m not just talking about tech. Creativity exists in this community and manifests itself in different ways of thinking about building community, building assets, about ownership, around businesses.
JA: I feel like the Bay Area dream is distinct from the American dream in some ways. What’s something that you have seen or have experienced that is possible in the Bay Area that might not be possible anywhere else?
JB: There is a significant concentration of people willing to think outside the box here. That in itself just allows for so much to happen. But there’s this tension between how amazing the Bay Area is and how hard it is to live here. So, if you want to be here you have to be so innovative.
You have to be so innovative at the community and at the family level. Conditions force people to be creative, pull together resources, create businesses — formal and informal — and connect with each other to a degree that they would not have to otherwise. That piece is unique. It’s a product of this environment.
JA: Family Independence Initiative has a unique approach to supporting families in meeting their economic, academic, and life goals. What values underpin its approach?
JB: We believe every person has the innate ability, strength, initiative, capacity, and imagination to work individually and collectively for a better future. Knowing that people are capable is fundamental. If you build from that, you trust people, families, and low-income communities to look after each other and make the right decisions for themselves.
All we do is create an environment of trust in which low income families can work together.
JA: Does FII offer any financial coaching?
JA: Do you provide match savings accounts?
JB: We used to, but not anymore.
JA: Okay. Do you provide workforce development training?
JA: Do you provide any resume writing workshops?
JA: Do you provide after school tutoring?
JA: So, FII exists to help families set and realize their own goals. If you don’t provide any services, how do you help them do that?
JB: The War on Poverty, over the last fifty years, has led to the creation of thousands of programs and services, right? And I feel like, as a country, we’ve overlooked one of the greatest resources that we have when we think about the challenges of social and economic mobility: it’s each other. Programs and services can’t be the only solution.
When we say, “You’re the expert of your own experience, in your community, and we trust you,” then you see families increasingly turn to each other for support with trust. If a member of a community needs budgeting tips, there’s already someone — a friend, a neighbor — they can turn to. As opposed to asking someone from outside the community.
When we look at how families are surviving, a significant piece of that is through community support. It’s by offering to babysit for your neighbor while they go to work. It’s ‘my car broke down; can you give my daughter a ride to school’” It’s by holding each other accountable. It’s by, ‘hey, you said you were going to start that business; what steps have you taken?’
So for FII it’s about how can we, as society, recognize this and make it stronger.
JA: How do you create the conditions and the environment for families to support one another? What role does FII play and what roles do families play?
JB: We want people to partner with FII, so that we can learn. That entails asking people to get together with a group of their friends, and then strengthening those bonds over the course of a two-year partnership with FII.
Groups will talk about their children’s education, about starting a business. Other families will just get together and exhale, and connect, and teach each other how to crochet. Then, we ask families to bring their conversations online through our “Up Together” platform, which I like to call a community-building site.
Families connect not only with folks in their neighborhood and in their city, but with other FII families just like them across the country. They have a place to share successes, challenges, and ideas.
JA: Give me an example.
JB: Someone posted, “Hey, I just saved 500 bucks on groceries by couponing.” And someone chimed in and that evolved into this one Bay Area parent hosting sessions on how to coupon. And then someone from Boston wanted to be part of that so they got taught how to coupon and they spread the word in Boston.
You can’t create a service or a program around couponing. It has to happen organically. You get the full gamut of different ways that folks connect with FII. Sometimes it’s as simple as families being proud of what they’re accomplishing and having a platform to showcase how amazing they are.
These are people like me that are getting things done and I can connect with them to figure it out — without any case managers. It’s not professional folks or outsiders; it’s all curated, created, generated, and engaged in by families.
FII also asks people to track what they’re doing on a monthly basis, and to share information with us around their finances, sources of income, assets, and liabilities, children’s education, and steps they are taking to improve their health. We’re really getting this holistic view of the family so we can better understand what initiative people take and what strengths they have. In exchange, we deploy small dollar amount grants that people can use to invest in their self-defined initiatives and to accelerate momentum toward accomplishing their dreams.
JA: What kinds of things are families using the FII resources for?
JB: Right now, we are seeing a lot around financial health. Paying down high interest debts, bridging income gaps to help pay rent, so they’re not going into crisis mode. Or, my favorite, to go to the museum, the amusement park, a space where they can connect as a family. To focus on something that others may take for granted, because they can afford to take their kids to Fairyland.
Families are using dollars to start or expand their small businesses. It could be hair braiding, landscaping, a food cart, whatever. They’re using money to buy materials, to invest, to buy healthier produce. People buy yoga videos and mats so they can get together with their friends every week to meditate and do yoga. They come up with solutions using just small amounts of capital.
JA: Define small. What are we talking about?
JB: Families can access up to $3,200 over the course of two years. It’s a modest amount, but those funds return an element of control to people’s lives. When you allow families to connect with one another, and then put dollars directly in people’s hands, you get amazing outcomes.
In the U.S., we’ve created these rigid systems of how we think we can support families — policies and philanthropy. We’ve created these buckets around how we deploy resources and to whom. As a country, we deploy something like a trillion dollars every year specifically to address poverty. It’s a trillion dollars that’s going to programs and services. But, if you do the math, that represents $60,000 we could give every family of three with a low-income.
I want to reimagine a world where those resources make it directly into the hands of those families. That’s one of the things that can happen in the Bay Area.
JA: Are you a proponent of universal basic income?
JB: I appreciate that it moves the conversation around putting dollars in the hands of people forward. There are pieces missing, though. I feel that the conversation around UBI often gets stuck as being a reaction to a problem and doesn’t acknowledge the value and contributions people make every day? What about social capital and community connections? And then there’s no amount of income that we could deploy successfully, if we don’t also address systemic issues — barriers that exists for families to be able to afford to go to college, to have quality health care.
JA: What are you learning from FII families about how to thrive in the Bay Area?
JB: Based on what families share around their social capital — how families support each other — we know it represents, on average, about 7% of their household’s monthly income. There is real economic value. It’s significant piece of how families survive.
Families are also being incredibly creative around accessing financial capital that they would otherwise not have access to. We know that families are informally pooling dollars to create lending circles and small loan funds on their own.
JA: Can you talk a little bit about how you use the information that you’re gathering from your partner families?
JB: Foremost, we want families to benefit from their own data, right? It’s their data, it’s their information and so we want to share back.
We want to make the invisible visible. Over the last three years, we know that families have exchanged north of $13 million in social capital. And we know we’re just scratching the surface because we were only partnering with 3,200 families.
And we want to take it to the next level — to share appropriately with philanthropy and government. To say, “Look how amazing these families are. Look what they’re able to do when they’re engaged from a place of strength and trust.” Just to highlight at the micro level what a family is capable of doing and then take a step back on the macro level and highlight the potential that exists when we refocus our resources.
Of 40 or so million households that live at or below the federal poverty line, 75% of those households actually move above the federal poverty line within four years. So that’s about, 30 million households with a lot of initiative and capacity.
However, life happens, and because there aren’t systems that invest in that progress, half of those 30 million households fall right back under the poverty line within five years. We have to find ways to support families in retaining their progress.
JA: Does that tie into anything you’re work on at FII right now?
JB: We’re evolving our technology to allow other funders to plug in and support families’ initiative. You can deploy your own money in a way that recognizes the capacity that exists and the value of social capital. You can start doing it, with your money — not FII, you.
From a technology standpoint, that’s really exciting, doing this together. It’s a very concrete invitation for folks that want to try something different.
JA: When might you be ready to open the doors to those of us who want to take part?
JB: This year we want to identify some Beta users willing to help us test. And to help us learn what is it funders need. So, if you know of anyone, please let us know.
JA: Okay! Anyone reading this who wants to get involved, please contact Jorge.
You’ve created a really wonderful vision of what family resilience looks like and it is also very much tied to a value of our founders, Walter and Elise Haas, who believe that we have a shared responsibility to look after each other. And so many of the things you said to me resonated for those two reasons.
I’d love to finish with some rapid-fire questions. Just say the first thing that comes to mind.
What’s your secret Bay Area hangout spot that brings you joy?
JB: Surfing at Linda Mar in Pacifica.
JA: Yeah. Nice. And what’s an unlikely place in the Bay Area where you’ve conducted business?
JA: Fantastic. And final question! Who’s your favorite artist or what’s your favorite record?
JB: I’ve got two: Calle 13 is one of my favorite artists and Rubén Blades.
JA: Thank you so much for spending so much of your morning with me.
JB: Thank you for the opportunity.
Prior to joining FII, Jorge Blandón worked in financial securitization, where he underwrote bond financings and contributed to infrastructure projects. He is a trustee for the Whitman Institute and a member of the Re-Imagining Measurement & Evaluation Advisory Committee for Monitor Institute. Jorge was named Urban Innovator of the Week by the Urban Innovation Exchange.
Recently, I had the honor of hearing Noah Fernandez share the following midrash — or commentary — on the Torah portion he read aloud for his bar mitzvah ceremony.
At thirteen years old, Noah got right to the heart of the matter, and in a way with which many of us would struggle. He’s permitted me to share his speech with you here, as we prepare to go back to school, or work, or otherwise take up the mantles of leadership and learning that give our lives meaning. I’ve been talking to leaders throughout the Bay Area as part of our Betting on the Bay series, and am sure this merits inclusion.
Thank you, Noah!
I’d like to now offer a reflection on my parashat (weekly Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22). In it, Moses gathers all the Jews in front of him to announce that he will need to pick new leaders of the tribes, because he fears he will die soon. So, he stands on a big rock and shares what he is looking for in a leader.
I was interested in taking a deeper look at Moses’ criteria of a good leader, and considering if they are applicable to our world today. The three main things he wanted in a leader were for that individual to be wise, discerning, and experienced. I really wanted to dig into what those words meant.
What does it mean to be wise? A person who is wise does not only have a lot of knowledge in their head but also uses their emotions, morals, and ethics to make good decisions. Those decisions should be of service and benefit to all.
What does it mean to be discerning? Having discernment means you really think things through and reflect carefully in order to have good judgement and make sound choices.
And what does it mean to be experienced? Experience describes someone who has led or leads a group of people and uses that knowledge to good effect. It’s like you’ve seen the movie before and learned from it and you let that learning inform your decisions and actions.
Now, as you look out in the world, I invite you to consider if our current leaders possess these qualities? Are our leaders wise, discerning, and experienced?
I think currently we are very challenged to find wise, discerning, and experienced leaders — but that kind of leadership is more important now than ever. There is so much hate in our society and our political system. We need to fight the major problems that face us — from inequality to hate, from terrorism to climate change.
In these troubled times we need leaders who can unify instead of divide us.
We need to use our collective voices, knowledge, and wisdom to change our world for the better. As I look at the future of this world, a future that I will inhabit, this I what I hope to see:
A world where we have addressed the grave danger of climate change
A world with no racism or hatred
A world with no mass killing or terrorism
A world where equality is a reality not a dream
A world where we all are kind, caring, and nice to each other
A world where peace prevails
Finally — the invitation here — my invitation for us all to be the wise and discerning and experienced leaders the world needs right now.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR KIND ATTENTION.
Noah Fernandez attends middle school in San Francisco, loves hip hop, and studies acting at A.C.T. He’s proud of his Jewish and Filipino heritage.
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