Stories in philanthropy

Taking a stand: Levi Strauss Foundation

Ahead of his visit to Australia for the Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit next month, Daniel Lee, CEO of the Levi Strauss Foundation, explains why the Foundation isn’t afraid to put its reputation and influence on the line in pursuit of its values.

Nicole Richards

When it comes to corporate origin stories, they don’t come much better than that of Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic US denim brand forged its identity in gold rush-era San Francisco when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss manufactured workwear for miners that was strengthened by rivets, and so gave the world blue jeans in 1873.

The pioneering spirit has been a mainstay of the company’s history and that same spirit is brought into sharp focus by the Levi Strauss Foundation whose work encompasses Human Rights & Social Justice, HIV/AIDS, Worker Rights & Wellbeing. The Foundation, established in 1952, makes a loud and proud commitment to “courageous risks” and “leading corporate citizenship.”

Daniel Lee has led the Levi Strauss Foundation for the past eight years. His values-based approach to leadership and his belief in corporate philanthropy taking a stand, feels both timeless and, in the age of Trump, hyper-contemporary. Lee is a man who walks the talk.


NR - You speak a lot about the value of values. How do the values of the Levi Strauss Foundation shape and inform its work?

DL - Levi Strauss & Co. is guided by four institutional values: originality, empathy, integrity and courage. We embrace them as guides, filters and plumb lines as often as possible. These values come into play during moments when tough decisions are in order – both in the marketplace and beyond. They guided company leaders to speak out against the recent executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. 

They also inspired the introduction of the first code of conduct in the apparel industry – called our Terms of Engagement – in 1991. This meant setting standards for all contracted factories globally for worker’s rights, a healthy work environment and ethical environmental practices. At the outset, there were fears that these would drive up costs and hamper our own competitiveness. In fact, these practices were quickly adopted by other companies, who used the Terms of Engagement as a template to write their own.

A commitment to values has guided our leaders, employees and family shareholders to put the company’s voice, reputation and influence on the line – even in the face of controversy or opposition. In these moments of truth, we have been able to influence how others think and act, raise standards in our industry and even make history by championing equality and justice. 


The Levi Strauss Foundation doesn’t shy away from tough issues, having made the first US corporate donation in the fight against HIV/AIDS to San Francisco General Hospital in 1982 and acting as a champion for diversity and inclusivity ever since. Given that the organisation is a corporate foundation, how do you balance risk with impact?

Sometimes the answer is as simple as “because it’s the right thing to do,” regardless of the risk. I’m humbled to work for a company that has taken stands for diversity and inclusivity throughout its 164-year history. These include gutsy decisions to racially integrate factories in California and the American South long before it was legally mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and breaking new ground by being the first corporation to extend health benefits to unmarried domestic partners in 1992. 

It wasn’t a calculated decision to be among the first companies to respond to the AIDS epidemic in 1982 (even before it was formally named but called “gay cancer”). At that time, it was a mysterious but deadly virus that happened to impact employees in our San Francisco headquarters. Wanting to raise awareness, concerned employees reached out to the leadership for assistance. Company leaders responded unequivocally: fearing that these employees would bear the brunt of intense stigma and fear, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder handing out leaflets to educate colleagues. It was the right thing to do.

But it is a balanced and considered approach. Our company leaders have not been afraid to take bold stands on certain issues of the day. We can’t take on all the issues that matter. We have to decide where we can lend the most value with our voice and support. And this creates tension – but this tension ultimately makes us stronger.


You’ve said that it’s impossible for politicians, nonprofits and foundations to define social issues, that this is the role of communities and their leaders. How does the Foundation find and empower these emerging social justice leaders? 

We keep our ears to the ground; we stay connected with our grantees and their communities; we network with other foundations and companies. Our hometown of San Francisco is a cradle of innovation – not only in the technology sector but also in the social justice realm. Local civil rights leaders have a track record of generating wins and forging models that ripple widely across California and the nation. 

The Levi Strauss Foundation has a long-standing commitment to supporting progressive change in our headquarter community, such as supporting marriage equality and the HIV/AIDS response. We believe in the power of equipping emerging social justice leaders for challenging modern frontiers. Through an initiative called Pioneers in Justice, we support clusters of next-generation leaders over a five-year duration. We invest in their ability to activate new audiences, collaborate in new ways and expand their reach across sectors.

We believe that supporting justice leaders is a lynchpin to forging better communities. They are evangelists of values, first-movers in protecting the rights of the most marginalized in society and drivers for positive change in the face of these turbulent times. 


How do you define advocacy and what do you as see as philanthropy’s role in this space? 

I believe advocacy aims to create social change at the systemic level by changing laws and policies or how they are applied. It encompasses a wide range of activities: educating the public and the media about an issue and its impact on communities, encouraging voter participation, holding government agencies accountable, providing evidence to change ignorant or discriminatory laws and policies.

In philanthropy, advocacy is sorely misunderstood: some consider it legally risky or dismiss it as controversial, while others (erroneously) conflate it with lobbying.

Advocacy is the basic tenet of democracy: a vital tool for surfacing the voices of marginalized or vulnerable citizens and for participation in the vital issues facing communities. It is a high-leverage, high-impact strategy with proven return-on-investment. If the philanthropic sector’s role is to support a thriving democracy, it has a crucial role to play by funding advocacy.


You’re on the Board of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which describes itself as “an independent watchdog for foundations”. What does responsive philanthropy look like?

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) is built on a simple but powerful premise: ask thought leaders from the nonprofit sector what they need to be effective and meet the promise of serving the public good. Based on these candid conversations, the organization developed a voluntary set of guidelines called Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best.

It calls on foundations to invest at least 50 percent of its grant dollars to benefit marginalized communities (broadly defined to include lower-income communities, elderly persons, women, veterans, immigrants and refugees, racial or ethnic minorities, indigenous people, etc.). This seems like a no-brainer to benefit society, but I was rather shocked to learn that only 13 percent of surveyed foundations met this suggested guideline. 

The NCRP also calls on foundations to invest at least 25 percent of its grant dollars for advocacy, community organizing. But despite compelling evidence that these are the most effective strategies for strengthening democracy and advancing justice in our society, only seven percent of surveyed foundations met this criteria. 

In addition, the NCRP urges funders to give 50 percent or more of its grant dollars for general operating support, and 50 percent of grants over multi-year horizons. Both strategies are fundamental to allowing nonprofits and foundations to have an impact on the issues, causes and communties they care about – over the long haul. But it is surprising that fewer than 16 percent of foundation meet each of these guidelines. 

By applying the NCRP’s “outside-in” perspective to our grantmaking, the Levi Strauss Foundation has honed its approach to driving community impact. 


The public policy environment in the US has changed dramatically under the Trump administration. What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for the work of the Levi Strauss Foundation and for philanthropy more broadly?

The current political landscape represents among the most disruptive moments that many of us have experienced. And moments of disruption call upon all of us to look at our strategies and playbooks and discern whether to stay the course, do more of what we’re doing or shift course. 

The Levi Strauss Foundation “pressure tested” our mission to advance the rights and well-being of underserved people in places where our company has a business presence, and we observed a “bunker mentality” among many communities about which we’ve long cared. We felt the need to step up our support for vulnerable groups in the crosshairs of the new Administration’s policies – including Muslims, South Asians, immigrants and the transgender community.

The philanthropic sector is independent and nimble. It is ideally positioned to address pressing trends and urgent issues. At its best, it is strategic, courageous and highly responsive to the events of the day. The Levi Strauss Foundation believes this is a critical moment to take a stand for an inclusive America.     


What’s one key learning from your time in philanthropy that you’ll be looking to share with Australian funders during your visit in September?

Our experience in Australia is limited, so I am thrilled about this opportunity to engage with the Philanthropy Australia community. I look forward to learning about how Australian funders are responding to the “movement moments” that are emerging such as immigration, racism and marriage equality. I look forward to sharing our experiences and lessons learned about funding community organizations at the forefront of social movements – and also mobilizing our own voices as companies and foundations during these moments of truth. 


Hear more from Daniel Lee at the Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit on September 11-12

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