When I joined the San Francisco Foundation as CEO more than five years ago, I had high hopes and a big challenge. My job was to take a truly wonderful organization with a long, proud history of supporting communities across the Bay Area and build on that great legacy.
My first step was to do a lot of listening and learning. The foundation held large and small listening sessions across the region, talking with more than 1,000 partners, grantees, donors, and community leaders. Then, building from our long-term commitment to social justice, we announced that we would focus our efforts on racial equity and economic inclusion. That launch three years ago and the work we have done since has led to increased visibility for our foundation, important local and regional victories, and a ton more learning.
One thing I’ve learned is that people are responding well to our new focus and our strategy of combining community leadership with thoughtful and experienced grantmaking. Of course, we are not doing this alone – far from it. We’ve worked hard to deepen our relationships with our donors, to build partnerships with other philanthropic institutions, and to strengthen ties with a host of community partners, public officials, and business leaders.
Focusing on Home and Community
Part of this work is the role we play in the community as a convener, problem solver, bridge builder, and truth teller on complex issues that affect our region. Since the launch of our equity agenda, perhaps the best example has been the work the foundation has done to ensure that everyone in the Bay Area has an affordable place to call home in a community where they feel they belong.
Our work on housing has spanned sectors and interest groups and has involved almost every tool in our kit. We’ve worked closely with our donors to create new and exciting programs. We’ve developed new partnerships with the corporate sector and been a part of the public discourse. We’ve made grants that have influenced policy at the local, regional, and state levels. Where appropriate, we’ve brought our own voice and influence to the policy table.
In many ways, this combination of grantmaking, advocacy, community leadership, and harnessing the influence, resources, and enthusiasm of our donors is unique to community foundations. We have tried to make the most of these opportunities, and I’m excited to report on an important new development for the foundation.
Last night at the Commonwealth Club, Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer announced that his foundation could best serve the needs of the people of this region by making a $7.5 million core operating support grant to the San Francisco Foundation. This decision came as the result of Larry’s own listening tour, in which he sought advice about how to best use Hewlett Foundation resources to improve the lives of Bay Area residents. The answer he heard was that housing was the region’s most pressing problem, and that the San Francisco Foundation is leading the way in finding solutions.
For the San Francisco Foundation, this is an important next step in our work. Throughout our work on racial equity and economic inclusion, we’ve seen that housing is clearly one of the region’s most pressing challenges. We are committed to use these resources to strengthen our commitment and our advocacy to address the severe housing challenges felt by so many people in the Bay Area today.
Building for the Future
The Hewlett commitment is a strong vote of confidence in our work and is timed perfectly because it coincides with changes we were contemplating based on what we have learned over the last three years. As a result, my team and I have taken a closer look at how we are staffed, how we do our work, and what it takes to make a meaningful difference for people who deserve affordable homes in their community.
Our grantmaking and much of our work has traditionally been done through our “Program Department.” But we don’t feel that name sufficiently reflects the dynamic nature of our work with the community, which includes grantmaking, convening, partnership, advancing policy and systems change, and targeted initiatives. We will rename this function the Community Impact Department, which will be led by Judith Bell under a new title of Chief Impact Officer. Judith will expand her role of providing strategic direction and leadership to achieve results and position the foundation’s leadership on our equity agenda. She will work with our colleagues to take full advantage of our role as convener, trusted partner, civic leader, advisor, advocate, and grantmaker.
As I noted, our focus on policy, advocacy, systems change, and civic leadership – particularly in the area of housing – is an increasingly important aspect of our ability to achieve impact and a distinguishing feature of our foundation. Our continued ability to be effective requires more staff capacity and structure. To do this, we are establishing a new division within the Community Impact Department led by Kay Fernandez-Smith in her new role as Vice President of Policy and Innovation. The VP of Policy and Innovation will report to the Chief Impact Officer and will expand and oversee our engagement in policy and systems change while providing oversight to a combination of new grantmaking and staff. Current work that will fall within this division includes regional efforts such as the Partnership for the Bay’s Future and its Policy Fund as well as the Great Communities Collaborative.
Our work in the community builds off our core competency of thoughtful, experienced, and responsive grantmaking, including our longstanding initiatives and leadership programs. This body of work will fall under a Vice President for Programs. This position will report to the Chief Impact Officer and will provide oversight and supervision for our People, Place, and Power grantmaking teams. The establishment of this position will bring dedicated senior-level focus to the quality and effectiveness of our grantmaking and to exercise community leadership, working closely with grantee partners, collaborating across pathways, ensuring system improvements, and mobilizing programmatic expertise to strengthen our philanthropic advising with donors and external partners.
This is just the beginning. In the coming months, we will announce other changes that reflect what we have learned and where we are headed, working with our staff, donors, and community partners.
Our work over the past five years has led directly to this moment. I believe that we are in the right place at the right time to amplify and expand our work. The Hewlett commitment and the broader changes that it has sparked will make the San Francisco Foundation a stronger organization, better positioned to help us all work together to achieve a Bay Area where we all feel that we belong.
In 2020, we will continue to spend a great deal of time listening. We’ll be hosting a series of meetings with donors, funders, grantees, and community members to learn as much as we can about your passions and how to move forward together. I look forward to hearing from you and being your partner as we catch hold of opportunities, take on challenges, and celebrate the victories ahead.