As I took on the CEO role at the James Irvine Foundation, I set out to listen to leaders across California to hear their ideas and advice for the next chapter of Irvine’s work. Over the past five months, I've spoken with many of our state's most passionate, bright, and thoughtful leaders from business, government, and the social sector who shared insights and ideas as we discussed hopes and challenges for California today.
These leaders spoke eloquently about the important contributions of our grantees. I heard about the tremendous impact of the field of leaders advancing Linked Learning and the critical need to prepare young people for both college and career. I was also reminded of the power of arts engagement to strengthen communities, and the important progress made to improve California’s governance by so many of our grantees and partners.
While each conversation was rich in its own right, I want to share a few of the reoccurring themes about the state of our state today:
California is a tale of two (or more) states, with vastly divergent opportunities and growing — and unsustainable — disparities. I heard about disparities of all kinds in every aspect of California life, and none clearer than the vastly divergent situations of our coastal and inland regions. This consistent message reinforced the importance and potential of Irvine's commitment to our priority regions.
In virtually all of our conversations, leaders talked about California's young people as a source of hope and opportunity, and they encouraged us to do more to invest in their future.
In many parts of the state, we heard about a mismatch between the preparation and skills of workers and the supply of jobs that provide living wages. Local economies are evolving in unique and exciting ways, and strengthening job prospects requires new and tailored approaches to education, training, and economic development to better match workers and the jobs of the future.
Leaders are trying to make sense of the concerning lack of civic engagement in California. Many told us that this disengagement may stem less from apathy and more from a lack of personal relevance. They told us that many Californians no longer feel that the civic enterprise (e.g., politics, civil society, community engagement) has value for their lives or see themselves represented by the state's leaders.
We were reminded that Irvine's resources are modest, particularly in a state as large, diverse, and dynamic as California. As investors in social change, our hardest and most important task is to make the tradeoffs that will allow the leaders we support to achieve outsized impact on our shared mission of expanding opportunity for the people of California.
In these listening sessions, we also asked for feedback on how foundations like Irvine do their work. Consistently, we were reminded that philanthropy's approach to strategic grantmaking can unintentionally, and unfortunately, put grantees in the role of contractors to funders rather than the leaders of social change. We also heard that Irvine's non-financial assets, such as our power to shine a light on critical issues and bring leaders together for collective action, can greatly augment the impact of our grantmaking dollars.
Now our task is to reflect on the implications of this input. We remain committed to our current work and we also recognize that it's incumbent on us to always adapt and evolve to have greater impact with our resources, current and future. We look forward to sharing more as we outline that next chapter.
President and CEO
P.S. We have spoken with only a small sample of leaders across our state, so we plan to continue to find ways to listen and engage others in these discussions. As always, we welcome your comments and thoughts.