Back to top

This Big Foundation Set Out to Tackle Inequality. What's That Look Like?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When the Ford Foundation shifted its grantmaking to focus on inequality in 2015, it did so with a sweeping vision of tackling inequality in "all its forms." That broad approach has meant that Ford remains engaged across many areas, including grantmaking for the arts, reproductive rights, and internet freedom. Since inequality takes so many forms, Ford's strategy seems like a formula for being forever stretched thin, even if it does have a $12 billion endowment. 

The James Irvine Foundation, with considerably fewer resources and a singular focus in California, has taken a narrower approach to inequality—and, as far as we're concerned, a better one. 

Irvine has zeroed in on the interlocking problems of economic and political inequality. The foundation recognizes that conditions for low-income households are unlikely ever to improve—no matter how many good programs or policy ideas are developed—if these people lack a stronger voice in public debates. In early 2016, when Irvine announced a new set of grantmaking goals focused on improving the economic and political opportunities for California families and young working adults, it said that among other things, it would be "exploring ways to remove the systemic barriers that prevent too many Californians from achieving political influence." 

The statement was refreshing coming from a funder like Irvine. As we wrote at the time: "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." 

Irvine developed its new strategy out of a listening tour and community meetings that showed how good opportunities are simply inaccessible to hard-working Californians despite the unprecedented wealth in the state. As Don Howard, Irvine's CEO, described in a recent blog post, that process involved 14 two-hour "community listening sessions in six different regions of the state," as well as in-depth conversations with families and young adults. 

A year later, Irvine is engaged in grantmaking that attacks inequality from a several angles—including helping people improve skills and earning, boosting postsecondary success, and increasing the "ability of low-wage workers to influence the economic and political decisions that affect their lives and communities." (See the full strategy here.)

The third category of grantmaking, which Irvine calls “worker voice and influence,” is most intriguing, and you can see how Irvine is moving forward here by looking at its latest round of grants, which totaled $7.35 million spread across just five organizations.

The biggest grant went to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which received a whopping $3.75 million for its work to advance policies to improve the lives of domestic and home care workers in California.

We've written before about NDWA, which receives supports from a number of other funders, including Ford and Kellogg. This organization is on the cutting edge of the new labor movement, with hard-hitting advocacy and policy work on behalf of some of the lowest paid and least empowered workers in America, including many undocumented immigrants. The fact that Irvine is putting major resources behind NDWA shows that it's really serious about engaging in the kind of tough fights that raising up low-income workers will entail. 

Some of Irvine's other grantees in this category are also at the forefront of the new labor movement, most notably Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the top player working to improve labor conditions for restaurant workers, another sector where low pay and labor abuses are rife. Another grantee, the Chinese Progressive Association, received $900,000 in the most recent grantmaking round, for its work with low-wage immigrant workers.

As part of this work, Irvine is also supporting the National Employment Law Project, which has arguably been the most important policy group working on labor issues in recent years. These are the top wonks, along with the Economic Policy Institute, who are backstopping the new labor movement. 

The other grantmaking under Irvine's new strategy is also important, but less edgy and significant. Lots of funders operate in the areas of career readiness and postsecondary success. You can see why Irvine is working these critical avenues to help low-income Californians, but its added value, here, may not be as great as its bolder grantmaking for worker voice and influence.

One final encouraging thing to note about Irvine's new direction is that it's making big grants to a small number of grantees, as opposed to doing that maddening thing so many funders do—spreading grant money too thinly to dozens of nonprofits. Most of Irvine's recent grants hovered around the $1 million mark or higher, which tells us that it is going all in with its new strategy and really paying close attention to who it supports. Each of the new Irvine grants is also for a period of two or three years, which suggests that Irvine is looking to build lasting relationships with key grantees. 

Irvine's Don Howard said in his recent blog post that the new strategy is still evolving, with the foundation looking to learn about what it means to advance economic and political equality. In fact, Irvine continues to welcome public feedback about its new grantmaking focus, so feel free to leave that here if you have an opinion.

Published by: Inside Philanthropy
Authors:Alyssa Ochs & David Callahan
Published on: February 16, 2017