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Guest Blog Post: Southern California Grantmakers Gather to 'Attack' Inequity

Monday, October 10, 2016

I'm pleased to introduce our first guest blogger, Daniel Heimpel of Fostering Media Connections. From time to time, I'll be using my President's Blog platform to lift up the voices of leaders in the philanthropy sector and beyond. Daniel attended last month's SCG Annual Conference and offered to share his perspective on the day. You can also read this article cross-posted on the Fostering Media Connections site.


Southern California Grantmakers Gather to 'Attack' Inequity
Daniel Heimpel, Fostering Media Connections

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sits across from Fred Ali, the President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, onstage in a hotel ballroom.

The room is packed with 600-some guests who make up one of the most powerful constituencies in the city and broader region’s civic life: the philanthropic leaders assembled under the banner of Southern California Grantmakers (SCG).

Today, September 19th, they are gathered for SCG’s Annual Conference.

 
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with Edmund Cain (left) and Fred Ali (right) at the 2016 SCG Annual Conference

Ali, one of the wise men of this community, asks Garcetti what motivates him and what approach should we take.

“Who are we missing, what perspectives are we missing from the table?” the mayor asks. “How do we make sure that they are there?”

Garcetti’s allusion is central to the daylong conference put on by the fast growing and increasingly influential membership organization. And in a room reserved for the ostensibly powerful and privileged, the diversity of perspectives Garcetti mentioned is – surprisingly – at the table.   

During the course of the day, I had the opportunity to speak with six leaders from some of Southern California’s largest charitable foundations. Instead of meeting a phalanx of gray-haired white men, I shared ideas regarding philanthropy’s shifting role in addressing our most pressing social issues and promoting equity with two black women, a Latina of Mexican and Nicaraguan descent, a lesbian who “grew up poor in Santa Monica,” and two men. Okay, one has gray hair.

What I found was a group of people who look a lot like Los Angeles, who comprehend the challenges the region faces, and who are navigating their collective role in tackling those challenges.

One of the major themes of the conference was the notion of equity, a potent term so widely used that it can be easily misunderstood.

In an interview, Weingart’s Ali, explained what it means to him.

“When I think of inequity, I’m thinking of things that are not only unequal, but they’re not fair,” Ali said. “And those are the things that we want to attack.”

For his part, Ali has just led the Weingart Foundation through a revamping of all its grantmaking to focus on equity: creating fair opportunities for people who have long been dealt an unfair hand. Part of the strategy within Weingart, and among the leaders I spoke with, was a shift to a more transformational role, one that includes engaging government. 

To help understand this it is important to note how SCG has evolved from a membership organization to a policy heavyweight in recent years.  

The change began with the appointment of Christine Essel as President and CEO in 2013. She spent her first few years listening to the challenges and aspirations of the funder community and worked with local leaders to help SCG evolve into a hub for cross-sector collaboration and high impact philanthropy.  The staff doubled to 18, while its budget also doubled to nearly $3.2 million. Membership has surged from 120 members five years ago to 300 today. For her efforts the Non-Profit Times named Essel in its 2016 “Power and Influence top 50 List.

The most obvious displays of this shift within the philanthropic community to exercise its political influence came in the field of child welfare. In 2014, a long slate of SCG members submitted a letter to Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors embracing the reforms envisioned by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. This was quickly followed up by the creation of the Center for Strategic Private and Public Partnerships housed within the county’s newly established Office of Child Protection. The Center has fast become a conduit between philanthropy and government to improve the safety and wellbeing of children in or at risk of entering foster care.

“The foundation community came forward in a powerful way, providing their collective support to improve the lives of children in our region,” said Essel. “It really signified a change in the way we do business as a sector.”

And SCG even stepped into the race for L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors by co-sponsoring a candidate forum last spring with the organization I run. The event compelled the hopefuls for Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s seat to share their ideas on child welfare reform.

For Beatriz Solís this move towards a more active role on the part of the organization convinced her that she should re-engage with SCG. Solís is Director, Healthy Communities (South Region) at The California Endowment, a philanthropic organization well known for its willingness to support broad systems change efforts.

In her role on the SCG board, Solís has been a part of organization’s shift towards taking stronger policy stances. Throughout, she said she appreciated the organization’s willingness to hear and incorporate the diverse voices of the grantmakers sitting around the table.

“We had our sandpaper moments,” she said. “But what I appreciate about SCG is that no one feels pressured to go along with a decision.”

Judy Belk, who is the President and CEO of the California Wellness Foundation, said that she was especially pleased to see so many executives like herself give up a day of work for the SCG conference last week.

A former SCG board member, Belk was a part of the debates that ended up in the move towards the more active public policy stance that the organization has taken. With such “frickin big” problems, she said that impelling social change was a no brainier.

 “I think philanthropy ought to have a point of view. Be thoughtful, but rah rah, yes.”

Nike Irvin, Vice President, Programs at California Community Foundation, agreed that SCG had made the right decision in throwing itself – and the field of philanthropy ­– into the policy arena. Irvin pointed out that this shift was imperative in tackling issues of inequity that can appear intractable.

“The SCG of today is facing the opportunity to be a real influencer in a way I’ve not seen before, and that’s exciting,” Irvin said.

“Sometimes we think equity is daunting and too big to make a measurable difference with,” she said. “But there are ways between now and next year where philanthropy can make a difference. And where we can, we must.”

Liberty Hill Foundation President and CEO Shane Goldsmith has long been focused on giving leaders in low-income communities the resources they need to build a power base, and was heartened to see this idea so central to the conference.  

“It seems like there's a real critical mass of people here who are really doing some soul searching around how they can reimagine their institutions to prioritize equity,” Goldsmith said.

Like Ali, Don Howard, the President and CEO of the Irvine Foundation, is leading his organization to a new way of thinking about grantmaking. That approach includes strengthening the voice and influence of low wage workers to battle inequity.

“I think that the issue on the table here is equity,” Howard said. “Whether you consider it social equity or you think about it as and political and economic, equity and opportunity really are the most pressing issues of our time.”

He pointed to how his foundation was approaching this enormous issue.

“The work we’re doing is truly listening to leaders in communities, funding their best ideas, helping them innovate and learn as they go,” he said.

 

For me the SCG conference, the first I ever attended, was about a more diverse crowd than I had expected speaking with a more unified voice than I had imagined.

Remember, there were 600 people present, and I spoke to only six. But if my sample is indicative of the larger group, what you have with SCG’s membership is an opportunity to make it all fairer. Maybe this has always been the role of philanthropy, but the connectedness that I saw makes such a hard to attain goal actually seem possible.

 

Daniel Heimpel is an award-winning journalist, the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.