In 2016, the Irvine Foundation announced a new focus in response to changes in our economy and political system that have made it more difficult for millions of hardworking Californians to make ends meet or to fully engage in the decisions that affect their lives. Since that announcement, conditions have only grown more challenging.
Too many California cities are unaffordable for middle- and lower-income workers because housing costs outpace earnings. Higher education costs continue to rise far faster than inflation, creating roadblocks for young people and widening the gap in college-educated workers. Immigrants who play a central role in California’s economy and way of life live in a climate of uncertainty and fear.
We believe that expanding economic and political opportunity — the goals we have set for our work — are all the more critical for California’s future success. That’s why we’ve been working hard to turn our evolving focus into grantmaking strategies. Two principles guide our work:
First, we’re developing grantmaking initiatives that will individually and collectively help expand economic and political opportunity. These initiatives will have multiyear plans with specific goals, outcomes, and timelines — and will replace our previous programs structure. For example, we’re currently exploring possible initiatives, currently described as:
The second guiding principle in our work is listening and learning. Last year we hosted listening sessions across California to hear directly from low-wage workers, and we will ensure that our initiatives are informed by the deep knowledge and effective models that already exist in the field.
We've made a series of initial grants (in August, October, December, February, and March) to organizations with proven and innovative approaches — both to expand the vital work of these grantees and to ensure that our new initiatives are informed by and advance the work of gifted leaders and their organizations.
We have participated in grantee meetings, joined new networks, and created new spaces and convenings to learn and engage. As we do this, we’re seeing up close both the challenges and opportunities that define our times.
For example, an increasing number of middle-skills jobs in California require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. Businesses struggle to fill these jobs, as jobseekers lack access to the right information about these opportunities and the skills necessary to compete for them. This can be due to fewer training opportunities and opaque hiring or recruitment practices, among other reasons.
These challenges create the need — and opportunity — to expand high-quality employer partnerships and pathways to the right training and credentialing for jobseekers. Our initial grants support efforts focused on building the skills of workers and connections between employers and jobseekers. These grantees are creating better pathways to jobs that can sustain a family and engage employers to support sustainable approaches.
Meanwhile, low-wage workers in California are increasingly vulnerable, with dynamic shifts in workers’ relationships with employers. Many working Californians lack basic protections and benefits that were once commonplace. In some sectors, far too many workers fail to receive a full day’s pay for a full day’s work.
To address these challenges, we’re investing in grantees that organize and engage workers. Workers are combining their voices to advocate for better workplace standards and more ladders to higher-wage positions. These grantees are also committed to innovative partnerships with employers and the public sector.
The insights from the organizations we are supporting in this learning phase have already proved invaluable to how we are developing new grantmaking initiatives. We appreciate their partnership and are confident that the lessons we learn together will lead to meaningful expansions of economic and political opportunity.
We also look forward to sharing more insights later this year about this strategy of co-designing grantmaking initiatives with grantees and other leaders — and the multiyear initiatives they produce.