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Clarifying Purpose: Zellerbach Family Foundation’s Shifts Toward a More Equitable Region

by Allison Magee, President, and Executive Director, Zellerbach Family Foundation and NCG Board Member

Recently, Northern California Grantmakers and philanthropic research and strategy firm Open Impact released Get it Right: 5 Shifts Philanthropy Must Make Towards an Equitable Region, a report funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The report outlines what we need from decision-makers in philanthropy – board members, trustees, high net worth individuals, CEOs, and executive directors –to listen to communities, catch up to the moment, and align grantmaking support. The report challenges leadership to lean into understanding and addressing underlying, systemic causes, and to think differently as a sector. And, while the report is bold and aspirational, its recommendations are also practical and attainable. They serve to advance the mission of virtually any philanthropic organization, regardless of size or programmatic priorities.

The report was released as the Zellerbach Family Foundation (ZFF) was concluding its own strategic planning process. After two years of listening to our community and reflecting on our work, our findings were strikingly similar to those of 5 Shifts: we need to be more intentional in our efforts, less siloed in our approach, more courageous in embracing change, and more explicit about our commitment to racial equity.

ZFF is a relatively small family foundation but our work is ambitious. Our new framework centers on four building blocks of change: Transform Systems; Diversify Art and Expression; Build Power; and Ensure Healing, Connection, and Belonging. These building blocks work independently and collectively toward a Bay Area that celebrates the region’s rich diversity, where everyone feels safe and welcome and has equitable opportunities to thrive.

Our new approach includes significant structural and operational changes. We unified three independent program areas into one cohesive and integrated theory of change. We also shifted most of our grants to general operating support and now invite grantees to submit either oral or written grant reports. Most importantly, we made (and continue to make) time to explore and understand the structural inequities and barriers in our cultural and civic systems that block opportunity and cause harm to so many, especially communities of color. The application of this understanding is central to our new framework.

These changes were noteworthy for many reasons and range in their significance and impact, but shifting away from independent program areas is proving among the most impactful.  Our previous programmatic priorities (Arts and Culture, Immigrants and Refugees, and Human Service Systems) resulted in effective grantmaking portfolios. However, this siloed approach to grantmaking overlooked the complexities of how individuals and families live their lives.  A more holistic, integrated approach allows us to think more comprehensively about the challenges that face the communities we serve and more strategically about how to best respond to those challenges.  It’s important to note that this change flowed from feedback from our grantees. One grantee stated, “Most foundations have an immigration program separate from their economic justice, education, healthcare, etc. program. But that fails to recognize that the problems immigrants face are the ones of economic justice, education, and healthcare and that the solutions we build will be stronger if they include the immigrant voice and experience.”

We couldn’t agree more. ZFF’s work towards its building blocks of change, especially transforming systems, includes a specific and intentional effort to include immigrant communities' voices, experiences, requests, and aspirations.

For ZFF, this shift in our approach feels intuitive and timely. As discussed in the 5 Shifts report, this moment requires us to move out of our comfort zone and better respond to what we’re learning from and with the communities we serve.

Truthfully, change is hard work. As a 65-year-old family foundation, ZFF prides itself on its long history of grantmaking throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Many in our organization feared disrupting that legacy. While many family foundations have made similar or much bolder changes, I better understand that the qualities that make family philanthropy so powerful can also challenge our ability to evolve our programmatic, operational, and/or governance structures. Legacy, donor intent, and family boards create conditions for powerful giving, but can also serve as unique obstacles that narrow our perspective and hinder our ability to respond to the shifting needs in our communities.   

We’ve learned at ZFF that legacy is not synonymous with complacency. Rather than working in conflict with our history, the changes we’ve made have clarified our purpose, offered opportunities to deepen our impact, and introduced new possibilities for our future. We know we have more work to do – and we’re committed to doing it. Resources like 5 Shifts will continue to support and inform our efforts as we listen and learn to respond to the needs of the region’s communities. Beyond this resource, I invite you to reach out to me if you want to know more. The best way forward is built from supporting each other in making the shifts our communities need.

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