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Engaging Grantees, Low-Income Californians to Inform Our Strategy

We at Irvine are now a little over a year into our new strategic direction. At the start of 2016, we announced two new overarching goals for our work: expanding economic and political opportunity for Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. We also started to retool our approach, shifting from program silos to a portfolio of outcomes-focused, time-bound grantmaking initiatives that, individually and collectively, advance those goals. We committed to developing initiatives by investing in and learning from grantees, and by listening to and hearing from working Californians who are struggling economically.

And we are well on our way. Here’s an update on our progress.

Listening to Californians struggling economically

We set out to speak directly with people from all over California who are working but struggling with poverty to hear their stories and learn about their hopes, fears, challenges, and dreams. We’ll use their input to help inform our work and grantmaking.

First, we partnered with community leaders and organizations who know the residents of their regions best. This helped us to conduct 14, two-hour community listening sessions in six different regions of the state. We also spoke in depth with many families in their homes and received a number of ideas from young adults, aged 18-36, who shared their perspectives via a mobile research app.

These Californians spoke of feeling trapped by their economic struggles — failing to get ahead despite working hard and playing by the rules. We also heard common aspirations — a home for a family, college for a child — and enormous strength, resilience, and tenacity. We gained new appreciation for the power of being connected in a community and working collectively to make it stronger.

We’ll share more about this effort, and some of the voices of the listening session participants, in the months to come.

Learning from grantees in new areas of work

We are exploring three grantmaking initiatives that address evidence-based drivers of our new goals: Career Readiness and Living-Wage Work, Postsecondary Success, and Worker Voice and Influence. There are strong and innovative organizations working in these issue areas with effective models and impressive results. We wanted to help them expand their impact, while also learning from their work.

So, starting last summer, we made more than 20 grants to leading organizations in a learning phase as we develop these potential initiatives. These grants have averaged $1.3 million of, typically, general operating support for a two- to three-year effort. In each area, we sought out grantees that use creative expression as a means of achieving their goals.

Each grantee shared with us their plan for greater impact, and based on our due diligence, we decided whether and at what level we could invest to help them pursue that plan. For each grantee, we also set out learning questions that would inform our efforts to develop new initiatives in the grantee’s area of work.

Specifically, we have provided ten grants to support promising efforts that help prepare people for and succeed in living-wage jobs. You can read about some of those grantees here.

We have also made nine grants to support promising efforts that bring workers together to improve conditions in the workplace and to influence the political process. You can read about some of those grantees here.

And we’ve made some initial grants to support approaches that strengthen low-income students’ transitions to and through postsecondary institutions. You can read about one of those grantees here.

Irvine’s Portfolio Directors will share more in coming months about what we’re learning — and what that could mean for our own initiatives in the future.

Now more then ever

We have retooled our strategy to focus on, what we believe to be, two of the most important and urgent needs of our time: providing every person with the opportunity to be economically self-sufficient and to be included and counted in the political process.

We think last year’s election only served to elevate those goals. We also set out to build the capabilities and to have the grantmaking flexibility to respond nimbly when needs and opportunities arise. In the last few months, we have deployed this new responsiveness to stand up for the rights of California’s immigrant communities. You can read an update on those efforts here.

We at Irvine believe passionately in California’s values, leaders, and communities. I know that each of my colleagues feels the urgency of our work. We thank you, particularly our grantees, for giving us the opportunity to invest Irvine’s resources to expand opportunity for all Californians.