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Irvine’s Evolving Focus

Last fall, I wrote a blog post about joining The James Irvine Foundation as its president. In that post I asked the question: “How do you fix something that isn’t broken?”

Irvine has been investing in high-impact grantees that are tackling critically important issues, like preparing young people for college and careers, strengthening our democracy, and ensuring the cultural vitality of our state. What could we, or should we, do differently?

If you are among the many people we have met with or heard from as we have explored these questions, you know that we have been examining how we might sharpen our focus to make the best use of our Foundation’s experience, skills, connections, and grantmaking resources, specifically to provide greater opportunity for the people of California. We live in a state that is one of the most dynamic and innovative places on Earth, and serving the people of California requires Irvine to learn, adapt, and innovate as well.

We took a step back and explored how we could best build on our work to achieve more impact. Our goal was not to go find something new; it was to build on what’s working and find ways to do it even better.

At the core of our exploration has been the recognition that, in a time of unprecedented wealth, we are collectively failing millions of California families who are working hard but still struggling with poverty. That calls out for a new focus and effort by all the institutions that help shape our economic and political lives: governments, business, nonprofits, faith communities, and, yes, foundations.

At Irvine, we have concluded that we have a responsibility to focus more of our efforts and our grantmaking on the millions of Californians who deserve greater opportunity to achieve economic success for their families and to meaningfully participate in an effective democracy.

So, as we move forward, we will focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty.

These are mutually reinforcing goals. If all Californians are to have real economic opportunity, their voices must be heard and their interests counted. Responsive and effective government shapes the policies that allow people the chance to earn a wage that can enable a family to live in a safe, healthy community, send their kids to school, and realize their potential. Conversely, if all Californians are to be heard, they cannot teeter on the precipice of poverty, lacking the time and the conviction to meaningfully participate.

This is Irvine’s evolving focus, and as the words suggest, the changes will occur over time. As many of you know, we are deeply engaged in important and successful grantmaking. We remain firmly committed to our current grants and initiatives, many of which are in the middle of multiyear plans driving toward specific impacts. We will see all of these current grants and initiatives through to their planned conclusions. And some will evolve to be part of our future work.

Now comes the really interesting part: creating the grantmaking strategies that can best advance these new goals. You will notice that we are not announcing any new grants or initiatives just yet. In the coming months, we will explore a few potential new initiatives and will be asking for your ideas, guidance, and support. We know that the best ideas for social change do not come from within the offices of foundations but rather from the leaders and organizations working in California communities.

People may be forgiven for being slightly skeptical when a foundation says that it wants to hear from others, but we mean it. We know that we do not do this work; our grantees do. There are many great leaders and organizations that are deeply committed to expanding economic and political opportunity, and we are very excited to find ways to work together.

And so this is the beginning of an exciting and promising new journey. We very much hope that this journey will allow our resources to deliver even greater opportunity to the people in California who need it most.

We encourage you to read more about our evolving focus.