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Irvine’s 2021 Portfolio Review — reflecting on the past as we plan for the future

2020 was a year like no other — tragic and traumatic on so many levels. The health and economic crisis of COVID-19 was compounded by increased acts of racism, hate, and division. We face critical choices for how we move ahead, and I am hopeful this is a turning point for a better future.

The Irvine Foundation’s north star goal — a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically — is more important than ever. The pandemic laid bare the pernicious and unethical inequalities in our economy. Instead of returning to a status quo that left so many low-income workers ever-further behind, we must reimagine a more just and inclusive economy.

More than ever, Irvine is committed to putting communities at the center of our work — deeply listening and supporting leaders and organizations working on creating a more just and inclusive economy. So, we took stock with our grantee partners and the board last month as we plan for the future.

We started with our 2021 Portfolio Review, an overview of our grantee portfolio and results, which we develop each year to be transparent with and accountable to our staff, board, grantees, partners, and community and state leaders. Some of the highlights are below.

Our initiatives

We reviewed the progress of our three major initiatives, as of December 2020:

  • Better Careers has provided $51.8 million to 36 grantees over its first three years. Those grantees have already helped approximately 10,000 low-income Californians successfully gain middle-skill, middle-wage jobs through career pathway programs (as of April 2020) — with expectations of 25,000 total in coming years. These grantees have partnered with employers, integrated equity- and industry-based approaches into their work and applied innovative workforce development models for expanding skills and opportunities. Read more here.
  • Fair Work has provided $43.5 million in 51 grants over three years, focused on wage enforcement, worker engagement, and building stronger worker rights organizations. Grantees engaged nearly half a million workers in 2019, including on efforts to change policies at the industry, local, and state levels. And a partnership between worker organizations and the state government to combat wage theft produced the largest cases in California’s history, returning more than $17 million to workers since 2018. Read more here.
  • Priority Communities, a new seven-year, $135 million initiative, supports efforts in Fresno, Salinas, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Stockton to create more good jobs; ensure more low-wage workers obtain those jobs; support effective community approaches to increase the spread of good jobs; and leverage our funding to bring in more public, private, and philanthropic investments. The initiative made more than $27 million in grants in 2020, and you can read more here.

Supporting racial equity

We are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in 2020 we announced an effort to deepen that commitment with an additional $20 million over 18 months to address anti-Black racism and racial equity.

In December 2020, we made our first grants from this effort, focused on Black-led projects to advocate for justice, to support Black-owned small businesses, and build wealth for Black workers. We will announce a more comprehensive strategy and related grants later this year.

As you can see in our Portfolio Review, 94 percent of active grantees serve Californians of color, half are led by a person of color, and 64 percent of grantees have staffs that are majority people of color.

New ways of giving in a crisis

We responded to the financial crisis of 2020 with additional funding, including $22 million to bolster the immediate and long-term sustainability of nonprofits on the front lines of the crisis. This included $20 million for our Recession Resilience Project: emergency funding to core grantees in our three initiatives; technical assistance for financial planning and recovery; and longer-term recession-response grants. We also made some cash assistance grants to low-wage workers in inland California, and relaxed restrictions on current grants.


Our commitment to listening to California workers and those that serve — and employ — them took on greater significance last year. Examples included:

  • The Public Policy Institute of California’s first-ever Economic Well-Being Survey of 2,000 Californians about their experiences and perspectives on economic mobility
  • PPIC’s convening of labor economists to share perspectives on COVID-19’s short- and long-term impact on the state
  • The Institute for the Future’s interviews with low-wage workers across California (read the Institute’s report here and see a video with worker and grantee voices)
  • Interviews with employers across seven industries on COVID-19’s impacts on low-wage workers and workforce initiatives – and potential opportunities
  • Irvine’s fourth Grantee Perception Report (administered by the Center for Effective Philanthropy), with more than 200 grantees providing confidential feedback about engagements with us

Hopeful signs

Looking ahead, we see signs of hope. Our new federal administration has an impressive commitment to addressing income inequality and to protecting, advancing, and empowering workers.

There is also momentum in California’s efforts, begun by Governor Newsom, to create a more inclusive and climate-resilient economy. The Future of Work Commission, which we supported through a grant to IFTF, issued a bold agenda to ensure that every Californian who wants to work has a job and to end working poverty.

And, in the private sector we see increasing (though slow) recognition that investing in the workforce is good for the bottom line and employers’ accountability to the communities where they operate.

Finally, the economic crisis of 2020 was devastating for Main Street but not Wall Street. As strange and inequitable as that may be, it means the growth in our endowment will allow us to provide approximately $128 million in grants this year – the most in our history.

We feel a great responsibility for deploying these resources effectively for California’s low-wage workers, and I’m grateful we have such a tremendous staff, board, and grantee partners to do just that.

I encourage you to read more about all these topics and more in our Portfolio Review, and we remain hopeful that 2021 will see greater strides for California’s low-wage workers.