How a Major California Foundation is Going All-In on Empowering Low-Wage Workers



Shortly after Don Howard took the reins at the James Irvine Foundation in 2014, plans coalesced to take the legacy funder in a radically new direction. Moving away from a more traditional diversified funding model, Irvine’s strategic shift aimed for something quite rare in a foundation of its size: a tight focus on a single issue of prime importance to the region it serves. 

For Irvine, that region is California. It’s at once the nation’s most populous and richest state, and a place struggling with wealth inequality as well as pressing social and environmental challenges. Irvine set its sights on tackling the economic divide, announcing an effort in 2016 to raise the fortunes of California’s low-income workers.

Howard explained how this priority emerged: “Back when I came into the role of CEO, I agreed with the board that Irvine’s next phase was to accelerate and increase impact by focusing on a need that was relevant and urgent for this state. The desire was to be all-in on one issue and not split ourselves up into sub-optimal program strategies.”

The $2.3 billion foundation has a broad mandate: to benefit the people of California. With annual grantmaking of around $100 million, it has the clout to make a significant impact when it concentrates those resources. In 2015, Howard and his team met with over 100 leaders from around the state for insight into which issues stood out. “We got a strong message about economic inequality, that the California dream is fading away,” Howard told me. “The second most urgent idea was climate change. Given the foundation’s history, focusing on the economic issues made more sense.”

More specifically, Irvine decided to zero in on the millions of California workers who are just barely getting by. The foundation held a series of 14 listening sessions and community meetings in 2016, spread out over six regions of California. Talking to low-wage workers, Irvine’s staff came away with a clear sense of disempowerment stemming from wage stagnation and declining union membership. “There’s a precariousness about being a worker in California,” Howard said. It quickly became apparent to Howard and his colleagues that “the way to get to economic success was about building the power of low-wage workers individually and collectively.”

Back in 2016, we weighed in on the bold tenor of Irvine’s developing strategy, which could bring the foundation into conflict with heavy-hitting business interests. Such risks explain why funders have often shied away from an unabashed focus on building movements and political power, instead backing narrower and more technocratic work in areas like job training. Talk of the need to build power has certainly spread since the 2016 election, but the cadre of funders supporting worker organizing and the new labor movement is still small. Meanwhile, the plight of low-skilled workers has grown steadily worse, with the majority of new jobs since the recession opening up in low-paying parts of the service economy. Although the Fight for 15 has been an important step forward on the organizing front, nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. still pay under $18 an hour, with millions of workers making under the $10 mark.


A Two-Pronged Strategy

The Irvine Foundation wants to forge common cause between workers and employers where possible, and to work with the public sector when expedient. Following a two-year period of pilot grantmaking, Irvine’s low-wage worker funding has matured into two major initiatives: Fair Work and Better Careers. 

Fair Work is about building the organizing power of low-wage workers. It’s the germination of Irvine’s plans back in 2016 to explore how to remove the systemic barriers that limit the political influence of low-income Californians. Recipients of Fair Work’s sizable pilot grants include some of the new labor movement’s prime movers, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Employment Law Project, the Partnership for Working Families, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Smaller sums have gone to local and demographic-specific organizing concerns like the Chinese Progressive Association, the Orange County Labor Federation, and the National Black Worker Center Project. 

Andre Oliver, who leads Fair Work, emphasized that the foundation has sought to learn from movement groups through its early grantmaking. “It’s the principle of learning by doing. We were looking to invest in organizations that had a demonstrated record of success, and, as importantly, to engage them in an intentional way to inform our strategy,” he said. 

As pilot grants went out, the foundation familiarized itself with what Oliver describes as a “dynamic ecosystem of organizations” mobilizing low-wage workers across the state. Strengthening their capacity, he said, is key to helping the movement score bigger gains, which explains why Irvine has given plenty of general operating support to its Fair Work grantees. 

Better Careers, on the other hand, focuses on increasing Californians’ access to middle-skill jobs. In that sense, it isn’t too different from the workforce development models currently popular among private foundations and corporate funders. Where Better Careers diverges from some of those strategies is Irvine’s focus on the issue of access. “More often than not, looking at the connection between training entities and employers, there’s a skills gap, but there’s also an access gap,” said Kelley Gulley, who leads Better Careers. 

Talking to low-wage workers, Irvine learned that just acquiring the necessary skills isn’t always enough to secure a middle-wage position. Many good jobs, especially at the management level, require access to networking opportunities and connections that can effectively lock out otherwise-qualified low-income workers and people of color. In that sense, there’s also a political dimension to Irvine’s Better Careers work. Some of Irvine’s grantees in that vein include the Center for Employment Opportunities—providing employment services to individuals reentering the workforce after incarceration—and Opportunity@Work Inc., connecting employers to job placement organizations that focus on candidates from low-income and minority backgrounds. 

According to Gulley, there’s a lot of energy right now around apprenticeships, given California governor Gavin Newsom’s support for the strategy. In the past year, Irvine has provided millions to apprenticeship-based models at places like the Foundation for California Community Colleges, the Riverside Community College District Foundation, Growth Sector, and Jewish Vocational Services of San Francisco. 

Tensions and Opportunities

Since the pilot phase of Irvine’s Fair Work and Better Careers grantmaking ended, the foundation has mobilized much more money toward the latter initiative. Of course, it’s still early in the game, and Irvine deserves praise for tackling both areas at once. We’ve seen very few other foundations that invest in worker organizing alongside employer-centered workforce development—two approaches that, ideologically, can feel like apples and oranges.

The folks at Irvine emphasized their own strategic unity in the face of differences between Fair Work and Better Careers grantees. According to Gulley, there’s regular communication between the two initiatives, “with the understanding that the work is connected, even though grantees aren’t in lockstep.” This year, she said, Irvine is holding a joint grantee convening where she hopes differing organizations will learn from each other.

Where possible, Irvine wants to be a bridge-builder capable of determining the intersecting interests of low-wage workers, labor leaders, and employers. Given the fraught history of labor and capital, especially in California, this isn’t a simple matter. But Howard, Gulley and Oliver are hopeful that opportunities will arise from Governor Newsom’s new administration. “[The governor] has a commitment to creating a California economy that works for everyone, and that’s very aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish,” Howard said. 

On the issue of wage theft, for instance, which may affect hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in California, Irvine supported a partnership between the labor commissioner’s office in Sacramento and 14 community-based organizations addressing the issue. Going forward, Oliver suggested that Irvine may dive further into the policy environment affecting low-wage workers. Drawing on the “future of work” narrative may be one way to build bridges between labor organizers, skills-hungry employers, and a receptive state government.

As it powers up Fair Work and Better Careers, Irvine is gradually phasing out past grantmaking programs, including a postsecondary success pilot that has now morphed into a funding partnership with the College Futures Foundation. Yet Irvine is sticking with another important aspect of how it makes grants, which it calls Priority Regions. In a nutshell, Priority Regions addresses geographic inequities in the state. Grants expand organizational capacity in places like the San Joaquin Valley, as well as Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, which encompass Southern California’s sprawling and underserved Inland Empire.

Howard characterized Irvine’s current Priority Regions strategy as “deeper community work setting the foundation for better careers” in specific places. “The inland part of the state has great need, and philanthropy is lacking compared to on the coasts,” he said. In its Priority Regions, Irvine is looking to invest in community organizing, as well as journalism and inclusive economic development. 

Down the line, housing is another issue on Irvine’s radar. The foundation isn’t ready to make grants yet, but Howard spoke of California’s housing crisis as “incredibly urgent for the state.” In and around California’s major cities, the scarcity of affordable options has pushed low-wage workers to the periphery, forced many to devote over half of their income to housing costs, and exacerbated a homelessness crisis with no easy end in sight. Philanthropy’s response, meanwhile, has been hampered by the problem’s sheer magnitude. But with Newsom in the governor’s seat, funders like CZI are charting paths forward that include organizing and advocacy. If it dives into housing, Irvine is likely to do something similar.

It is often said that big legacy foundations work across too many issues, or that they shy away from riskier strategies that challenge existing power arrangements in society. On both counts, Irvine’s new approach—shedding past programs to go all-in on a singular, contentious issue—is interesting to watch. Even more important is whether the foundation can help California emerge as a national leader in reducing yawning economic inequities that have diminished the American Dream and are increasingly destabilizing U.S. society.

Related: Advocacy and More: Philanthropy’s Role in Two Big New Initiatives to Tackle the Housing Crisis