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Expanding grantmaking in Priority Communities

Today I’m grateful to announce that we’re announcing a new initiative that dramatically expands and deepens our investments in four California communities – Fresno, Salinas, Riverside, and San Bernardino – and expects to add Stockton in a future phase of grantmaking in 2021. The goal: to create local economies that work for all residents.

This task is more important than ever as California communities seek to rebuild their economies after the fallout of COVID-19. Before the crisis these cities had a disproportionate number of jobs that paid low wages and offered few protections or opportunities to advance; now there is an opportunity – and imperative – to build more inclusive economies that are both equitable and better prepared for the next crisis.

To that end, the Irvine Foundation Board of Directors approved $135 million over seven years for Priority Communities, Irvine’s third initiative (alongside Fair Work and Better Careers) focused on our goal of a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. (Priority Communities replaces the Priority Regions term we used for earlier grantmaking, with the change acknowledging the more specific geographies for our investments in and around cities and the various stakeholders we will support to drive meaningful change.)

The initiative builds on 15 years of Irvine’s support for incredible leaders and organizations in the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Southern California, and it grows out of a pilot strategy we began in 2018 in Fresno and Salinas. The board’s approval of Priority Communities commits to the next phase of grantmaking: continued support for Fresno and Salinas, and the additions of Riverside and San Bernardino. We expect to expand our grantmaking further through a third phase in 2021 with the addition of Stockton.

Our approach

The goals of the initiative are to:

  • Create more good jobs that offer a family-sustaining wage, benefits, and opportunities for low-wage workers to advance economically
  • Ensure more low-wage workers obtain good jobs and the necessary training to land these positions
  • Support effective, community-based approaches to increase the spread of good jobs
  • Leverage Irvine’s dollars by catalyzing public, private, and philanthropic investment

There are many strategies to spur job creation, but in response to communities’ feedback, here’s how we plan to achieve our goals:

  • Strengthen grassroots organizations that represent the voices of residents living on low incomes in economic planning. Not all residents are prospering economically, and research indicates that empowering those most left behind to lead economic development can shift priorities to advance low-wage workers.
  • Support policymakers and local leaders to partner with those living on low incomes to develop economic plans and strategies that create good jobs (and reflect the needs of the lowest earners). Support leaders to address the barriers workers face due to race/ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and more. We call this inclusive planning.
  • Invest in good job creation strategies identified by inclusive planning, such as micro-enterprise, incentivizing good employers’ expansion to the region, or spurring local innovation that creates good jobs. Additionally, we will look to use our relationships with other funders to help garner major investments from others into these places.

How did we develop our strategy?

We selected these communities because they are cities with growing, diversifying populations that represent the future of California, but too many residents struggle to make ends meet, despite working full time and/or multiple jobs.

These places have less diversity in the types of industries that employ the majority of residents, when compared to coastal communities, and the dominant industries of agriculture, hospitality, retail, and logistics typically pay lower wages. Additionally, people of color make up the majority of the populations and low-wage workers in these cities.

Despite these economic challenges, the leaders and the communities exhibit immense assets and are critical to California’s future. That’s why we’re committed to supporting efforts that create economies that work for everyone.

Community input was a critically important factor in developing this strategy. With help from partners, Engage R&D and Public Equity Group, we convened community leaders from Fresno and Salinas in 2019 to better understand local needs and opportunities — and to inform our strategy. You can learn more about those sessions here.

We developed criteria to determine where to expand, such as cities with populations greater than 100,000, cities that serve as economic hubs for up-and-coming regions, and cities with local efforts to develop inclusive economies. We worked with our partners at Engage R&D to conduct interviews with key stakeholders in prospective communities considered for expansion to learn about their economic planning efforts. Read more about our learnings here.

We are grateful to the many partners, community leaders, and residents who offered expertise, insights, and candid feedback. While there are many incredible opportunities existing throughout the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire, we chose the places where we believe we are positioned to contribute the most impact.

We look forward to ongoing community engagement, partnership, and updates about what we’re learning – and to the creation of economies that work for all residents.