I, MichaD, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

We are at a moment of profound national reckoning. With more than 200,000 Americans now dead from COVID-19, the virus’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the continued murder of Black people by police and vigilantes (too often without legal consequence or prosecution), these interrelated national crises have laid bare the deep injustices that continue to define this country. We are seeing just how urgent the need is for massive structural change, while experiencing firsthand the limitations of relying on government to bring that about.

In these remarkable times, corporate foundations, like all funders, cannot remain on the sidelines. The new reality is that business and social issues are intertwined, and companies have an inescapable role to play in our democracy—an obligation to engage and lead, not follow. But even if corporate foundations and other funders feel an urgent desire to take action on social justice issues, they may not know where to start. Many are looking across their projects and portfolios, wondering how to pivot to meet this moment. For the Levi Strauss Foundation, the answer has been to intensify our investment in communities of color and build their power to organize by supporting local grassroots leaders who are tackling longstanding inequities and fighting for transformative change from the ground up.

Supporting grassroots leaders is uncharted territory for most grantmakers. While recent years have seen a surge in conversations in philanthropy about how to build and sustain social movements, the funding remains strikingly anemic—and only a tiny sliver comes from corporate foundations. Between 2003 and 2016, the median corporate foundation directed just 3.2 percent of its grantmaking to social justice.1 Most of that funding was funneled to nationally branded nonprofits with established profiles—not perpetually underfunded grassroots leaders operating outside most foundations’ radar. As a corporate foundation dedicated to social justice, we’re determined to change that. And we think our recent work offers a roadmap for other corporate foundations and funders looking for new ways to catalyze social change.

From Grasstops to Grassroots

In 2010, our foundation launched the Pioneers in Justice initiative, a five-year program to support a cohort of emerging social justice leaders as they assumed the leadership helm of local legacy nonprofits. These original Pioneers were leaders of established “grasstops” civil rights organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, many representing affiliates of national brands such as the ACLU. The program was so successful it became our hometown strategy. The lessons learned and insights gained were captured in a reflection I wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2014.

In 2015, hoping to build on that inaugural Pioneers initiative, we selected a very different set of leaders. Eager to move our work even further into the heart of marginalized communities facing deep injustice, we chose seven community-based leaders of color working day in and day out to tackle inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. The leaders we chose—Kris Hayashi of the Transgender Law Center, Pastor Michael McBride of Faith in Action’s Live Free Campaign, Vanessa Moses of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Zach Norris of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Aparna Shah of Power California, Terry Valen of the Filipino Community Center, and Miya Yoshitani of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network—were seasoned community organizers and grassroots leaders in the truest sense. They are each working deep inside their communities, building bases, and growing movements in order to drive systemic change in the areas of gender equality, climate change, criminal justice, LGBT rights, racial equity, immigrant rights, and gun violence.

But as we quickly learned, working with grassroots leaders is dramatically different from working with leaders of legacy nonprofit institutions. Indeed, it requires uncomfortable honesty, radical empathy, and a kind of flexibility not often practiced in philanthropy. But for us, this work was also transformative: partnering with this new group of Pioneers had an impact not only on the Pioneers initiative itself but also on our foundation’s operating model and on our parent company. For corporate foundations and other funders thinking about entering similar work, a few of these lessons are worth highlighting.

Five Key Lessons

  1. Take a risk. Programs like Pioneers 2020 aren’t about making safe bets and tracking short-term returns on investment. They’re longer-term plays that start with funders envisioning the world they want to create, then considering what it will take to move the community, the nation, and ultimately the world to that place. This approach will not be popular with everyone; it will inevitably involve some risks. Corporations and their foundations are particularly prone to view the terrain of justice and social movements as risky, but these risks diminish when the corporate sector widens the aperture of “stakeholders” to include not only shareholders and customers but also local community—particularly the most vulnerable people within it. At the start of Pioneers 2020, our board had the usual questions and concerns about measurable five-year outcomes. But they also agreed that we needed to be thinking about our impact on society with every decision we make. As our board president Jennifer Haas said, “These leaders were doing important work that falls well within our mission, and they needed support. So, I didn’t see it as risky. I saw it as the right thing to do.”
  2. Start with trust. This is especially critical when those involved hail from groups or sectors that don’t typically engage with one another. But we learned this lesson only in hindsight. As grassroots leaders working on social justice issues like structural racism and income inequality, the new Pioneers came with a healthy critique of capitalism, philanthropy, and anything that seemed “top down.” Just as we were learning to work with grassroots leaders, they were learning to work with us—and early on, there were many moments when our frames and perspectives clashed. Several months into the program, we began actively creating opportunities to build relationship and community between the Pioneers and our foundation, and among the Pioneers themselves. Only after creating space for everyone to listen and understand one another’s perspectives did trust kick in. This called for a willingness on the part of both the grantees and the foundation team to be open and vulnerable. It’s obvious only in retrospect—you need time and trust to even begin to understand each other. Without these, any effort to bridge worlds like this can’t find its footing.
  3. Hold program design lightly. Pioneers 2020 began as a replication project, following a buoyant first phase. But we learned quickly that predesigned roadmaps and theories of change don’t apply to this deep, emergent, and sometimes messy work. To the Pioneers, and increasingly to us, tryi