Why San Francisco’s Community Foundation Made Curbing Inequality Its Top Priority

16 Jun 2016 | Robert E. Friedman
Why San Francisco’s Community Foundation Made Curbing Inequality Its Top Priority

(Cross-posted from The Chronicle of Philanthropy)

In 1948, my grandfather, Daniel E. Koshland Sr., helped create the San Francisco Foundation. He started a community foundation because he believed that everyone in the community should have the opportunities he had experienced.

The foundation was founded just as the American economy was beginning to heat up. But my grandfather also saw that despite our region’s riches, many people were being denied the opportunities available to others. Thus, the San Francisco Foundation was born to help serve the people of the Bay Area — especially those most in need of the opportunity to reach their dreams. Across the country, others have started community foundations with much the same goals.

Nearly 70 years later, we are facing many of the same challenges. Like many other communities, ours is at a crossroads.

Despite historic levels of prosperity, there is widening inequality, increasing poverty, and declines in upward economic mobility. One-third of our residents lack the funds to weather shocks and invest in themselves and their children’s future. Far too many people cannot afford to go to school, live in a good home, or start a business. For them, the American Dream — let alone the California dream — doesn’t exist.

That’s why on Tuesday our foundation unveiled an ambitious strategy to bring profound change for struggling communities and people of color across the Bay Area. Our goal is to find ways to provide good jobs, diverse businesses, safe and affordable housing, and strong political participation for all and to ensure that people can live in communities that represent their culture and identity.

We’re hardly alone in this work. Many of the nation’s biggest foundations, including Ford, are now tackling equality either as the exclusive or most prominent part of their work. Community foundations, too, are working on these issues, and we hope our work will help point a direction for others to consider as we seek ways to deal with the defining challenge of our time. But if the challenge is great, so is the opportunity. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the wealth, the entrepreneurial capacity, the community spirit, and the shared belief in the promise of every human being, regardless of race, class, gender, age, or preference. My grandfather believed in the pioneering spirit of our community and in the power of a community foundation to take on difficult problems.

Forums for Debate

We’re not naïve, however. Tackling the issues of race, class, and a lack of opportunity won’t be easy. To design mutually reinforcing solutions for jobs, businesses, homes, education, health, wealth, transportation, and political power, among other things, we will need to work across sectors and political orientations on collective solutions.

We will need governments, businesses, community leaders, and everyday folk — the people who sometimes feel left out, left behind, or not powerful enough — to join together to make sure that the path we take will lead us to the community we all want to live in.

Our foundation is pushing all its chips into the middle of the table to create a region that is equitable and inclusive. We have long supported organizations that have sought to advance civic life in the five counties in and around San Francisco, but we will now direct our grant making toward achieving racial and economic equity for all people in our region. We will continue to provide opportunities for our donors to achieve their philanthropic goals as we always have, and will use our own resources to focus on this issue.

We know that in the grand scheme of things, any community foundation’s resources are tiny next to the challenge. That’s why we’re calling on people across the region to help lead a conversation designed to address our future head on. In the months ahead, we’ll be holding forums across the region to debate our differences with respect and care, to design solutions that can work, and to show the rest of the country — especially now — that it is possible to come together to create a better future for all.

We think this is an essential role for our foundation and for others like us.

Let us, in Langston Hughes’s immortal words, "O, let America be America again — the land that never has been yet — and yet must be."

Robert E. Friedman founded the Corporation for Enterprise Development and is a member of the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Foundation.

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Bay Area Residents Issue Clear Call for Greater Prosperity and Opportunity For All