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Listening, Learning, and Living Into Our New Focus

As we at Irvine embark on a new path, we are committed to listening to, and incorporating the voices of, Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. Over the last few months, we’ve taken our first steps to deliver on this commitment.

This has included venturing beyond the experts who typically inform funders like Irvine. Experts can be tremendously helpful, but there is no substitute for learning directly, as we now are, from those of you on the front lines.

This is part of an important journey for Irvine. In January, we announced that our focus was evolving and all new grantmaking initiatives would be focused on expanding economic and political opportunity for Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. And in March I shared an update on our progress — and a call for advice.

Alongside that blog, we created an online form and encouraged you to share ideas related to our new focus and the population we seek to benefit with our grantmaking. We started the process of opening ourselves to your ideas and to embracing a philosophy that “the best ideas come from outside the building.”

Many of you cheered us on in our new direction. You shared insights into the barriers Californians face in finding jobs that pay a family sustaining wage or having a say in the political process. You encouraged us to consider various solutions, and you underscored how significant a task we collectively have ahead of us.

We’ve also been seeking advice of grantees, funders, and other experts at more than 100 meetings, conferences, and events this year. Personally, I have valued the candid feedback about our new focus, whether it’s someone calling our new direction timely and long overdue, voices of concern about our ability to succeed, or someone wondering if Irvine’s new direction is just another example of “foundation fickleness.”

We learned a good deal about the challenges, opportunities, and emerging trends that should inform our future grantmaking. For example, we’ve heard time and again about the importance of focusing on “middle-skill” jobs as we make grants to increase career readiness and living-wage work. We’ve also gained a deeper appreciation of the critical role of employers as partners in efforts to improve the opportunities for acquiring skills and career advancement.

We’ve been encouraged to learn about emerging models that bring workers, employers, and (sometimes) consumers to improve and enforce policies that improve pay and create career opportunities for low-wage workers in California. We’ve been reminded of how important enforcement and assessment of new wage and workplace policies are for those new policies to truly make a difference and for those “wins” to demonstrate that political participation is relevant and important.

It is also clear to us that progress on these critical issues for Californian workers is only possible through efforts that bring together workers, high-road employers, community leaders, and nonprofits in partnerships that can create and implement pragmatic solutions. As a philanthropic investor, we want to strengthen those efforts and support their experimentation with new approaches that hold the promise for dramatically greater impact.

We are just getting started, and we know that we need to cast a wider net to listen and learn. One of the ways we will do that is by investing to learn from those nonprofits that are effectively working with workers, employers and community leaders to expand good jobs and “make work work” for low-wage Californians. We are entering new arenas and are very mindful that we stand to learn from leaders in the field.

Over the next few months, you can expect to see a series of grants to nonprofits that are effectively expanding economic and political opportunity for Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. Those grants will be structured as flexible support for these organizations to expand their impact in California. With each grantee, we are also scoping out what we, at Irvine, can learn from their work and those they serve.

Additionally, we will launch two other efforts to inform our new direction with the first-hand voice of Californians working but struggling with poverty:

  1. We will invest in the organization of listening sessions in several communities across California, where we can hear directly from people representing the breadth of our state.
  2. As we narrow in on approaches with the potential for greatest impact, we will experiment with different models of co-design. These might take the shape of “innovation” labs that, we hope, will bring workers together with community leaders, employers, experts, private investors, and other philanthropic funders to help craft our grantmaking strategies.

In coming months we’ll share more specifics, but, in the meantime, we want to continue to learn from you. And, we encourage you to ask the tough questions and hold us accountable for living into our new direction and approach.