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All in for the Central Valley: Bolster Democracy by Rapidly Investing in Grassroots Leaders and Local Journalism During an Election Year

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NCG's Practice Lab is a resource space to share great experiments and learnings in philanthropy. The Lab focuses on actions that experiment and takes risks, fails forward with lessons learned, and lifts up equitable best practices.

In the last five years, California’s Central Valley has served as a battleground for public health, climate change, and democracy; and yet philanthropy has not adequately responded with enough resources for a critical part of the state and nation. With the 2024 election upon us, we see the Valley made more vulnerable in a democracy hanging by a thread for the very same people that make the Valley a dynamic place.

The Central Valley was a ground zero COVID hotspot with scant local news coverage, experienced historic flooding from climate change that displaced families in low-income neighborhoods and threatened crops, and in 2020 a Central Valley port city mayor lost an election, in part, due to a dangerous mis/disinformation campaign on social media. Many places in the Central Valley are information deserts—the consequences of communities lacking access to timely and relevant fact-based news. A direct correlation exists between dwindling news coverage and declining civic participation. This results in places where mis/disinformation can proliferate and further divide a community’s economic, social and cultural fabrics that bring everyone together.

We see these divides in California’s Central Valley, yet it remains grossly invisible to the rest of the country. Often invisible in its own golden state too, and despite 20,000 square miles in America’s breadbasket, extending across the Coastal range to the Sierras, with a multiracial makeup that is undeniably our collective future, the Central Valley persists with dreams and hopes. While historical government policies grounded in racist ideologies still marginalize people today, emerging local leaders on the ground are tirelessly repairing an economic, educational, and social infrastructure created by these policies.

This persistence to repair is vulnerable in the face of a declining democracy that, according to local Valley leader Nancy Xiong, from Hmong Innovating Politics, we are sadly experiencing more “young people [who] are disenchanted.” This disenchantment comes from many things, and unfortunately, among them, rising hate crimes over the last two years – largely against  LGBTQ+, Trans, farmworkers, multilingual learners and their parents, Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish people – further erodes trust in democratic institutions and leaders. And without local journalism to hold such entities accountable on an ongoing basis, and without any visibility to significant reparation or justice to be seen, the invisibility of the Valley continues.   

To give visibility to the multiracial richness and need for active civic engagement, the James B. McClatchy Foundation is ensuring the Central Valley is seen by fortifying the pillars of local journalism and democracy, particularly as we immerse ourselves "all in" during this election year. The risks are too high not to and magnify the urgency of investing quickly, right now for a vibrant multi-racial democracy. 

How did you center the communities you hope to serve in your experiment?

At the James B. McClatchy Foundation (JBMF), we are embarking on an ambitious sunset plan called a “sunrise” to activate our mission and stand with the people of the Central Valley by investing in education and active civic participation in our democracy. And in our sunrise, we see a thriving multiracial democracy supported by centering multilingual learners and their families, advanced by the next generation of inclusive leaders, and fostered by a vibrant community-powered local journalism ecosystem.

What risks did you take in service of equity?

To amplify our sunrise in this moment, we are committed to going “All in for Central Valley Democracy” over the coming 2024 election cycle by making flexible grants every 30 days and activating resources to shift an increase in local news coverage, authentic storytelling from voices often silenced, and civic engagement, now through November. We call on our fellow funders to partner with us in this urgency, lean into a liberatory framework of supporting community guided by JBMF’s own practice of human-centered grantmaking.

Human-centered grant-making: 

Respectfully echoing our sunsetting colleague Stupski Foundation, we have been challenging the philanthropic rules we have created as an industry. We are going all in now to solve our biggest problems: we are not focusing on perpetuity, we are exceeding the minimum 5% payout, we are resourcing grantees with multi-year (general operating) grants, and we are doing our best to center the community’s needs versus centering funder’s requirements.

Internally we are creating a culture that embraces the humanness of us all. By prioritizing in-depth conversations and co-creation of stories, JBMF not only amplifies the voices of those doing critical work on the ground but also allows these lived experiences to directly inform and shape their grantmaking strategies. Vulnerability, empathy and showing up with love and support to our communities facilitate safety and a steadfast courageousness in taking risks. Our staff, peers and partners can be their authentic selves without having to adjust to systems that harm us. We, as funders, are committed to ending the bureaucratic and generational trauma called the annual grant cycle of review, report, rinse and repeat.

For our partners this means: 

We are rapidly distributing funds (2-6 weeks max). We are also eliminating grantee reporting. We strongly believe that our partners hold the answers to solutions–we are not letting harmful funder processes get in the way of action. Instead, we build relationships and engage over time to support their hopes and dreams, help prevent obstacles to their challenges, and in doing so, we seek to lift them up to other funders to continue their good work. Also, we aren't just committing to funding grassroots organizations, we are committed to building long standing partnerships and people. 

What advice or call to action do you have for other funders?

Our call to action is simple: A Five-Point Plan to Activate Democracy in the Central Valley

The Central Valley is California’s battleground where power and the future of our democracy are being contested. Emerging leaders driving equity and forcing shifting demographics to be visible are challenging the status quo at long-standing concentrated power structures at the school district, city, and county levels. With local news on the decline, communities find themselves alarmingly susceptible to an information void, including the peril of misinformation, hampering the very essence of informed civic participation.

In recognizing all of these risks and opportunities during this election year, the JBMF Board of Directors presciently approved in December of 2023 and seeded the Central Valley Democracy Fund with $500,000, and, as we have declared in our sunrise plan, we can’t do this alone. We seek to leverage this 10X through funding partnerships. This fund empowers grassroots leaders and bolsters a free press through rapid response allocations and will support up to 50 partners in the Valley, now through November.

You can join us in our 5-point plan to activate for Democracy in the Central Valley:

  1. Act: Position to be All in for the Central Valley - from Sacramento to Kern
  2. Push: Move Money Quickly
  3. Feel: Be Vulnerable through Human Centered Grantmaking
  4. Activate: Nonprofit Grassroots Leaders and Organizations
  5. Power: Local Press in Multilingual Voices

Because we have strong relationships with key organizations and leaders in the Valley, the vast majority BIPOC-led, we ask you to either:

  1. Invest directly with organizations by building relationships - let JBMF be your matchmaker and link you to an impressive grassroots network of leaders and organizations 
  2. Contribute to a pooled fund and join a growing list of foundations who are joining us now through November to activate democracy in the Central Valley.

To work with us, contact me at

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