Stories in philanthropy

“As funders I think we can all do a better job of listening”: Fred Blackwell, The San Francisco Foundation

The San Francisco Foundation, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, is one of the largest community foundations in the US with $1.3 billion in assets and an annual funding distribution of almost $90 million. Ahead of his visit to Australia for the 2018 Philanthropy Australia National Conference, CEO Fred Blackwell talks about the organisation’s three pathways to greater philanthropic impact, the pursuit of racial and economic inclusion and knowing when and where funders can use their voice.

Nicole Richards, Aug 2018


Two years ago, after much external conversation and consultation, The San Francisco Foundation launched an ambitious Equity Strategy to better address the breathtaking inequity currently engulfing the Bay Area.

Although The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) had a long history of pursuing a social justice agenda, the decision to bring a laser-like focus to racial and economic equity, required a re-imagination and re-orientation of the organisation. Though the process was extensive, the act of locating the Foundation’s new north star wasn’t difficult.

“When we started having discussions with community members and experts and policy people, and looked at the data, everything started to point in one direction: racial and economic inclusion,” says Foundation CEO, Fred Blackwell.

“We need to be responsive to the issue of the day here in the Bay region and this is it.”

“Early on we did an equity profile for the Bay Area and saw in detail how the demographics of our community were changing. The very people who are becoming the majority from a population point of view are the same people who are being left behind.

“When we did an analysis of what the benefits to the Bay Area economy would be if we just closed the racial income gap, we found that it would result in an extra $117 billion circulating in the economy. Equity isn’t a zero-sum game. Doing this work isn’t about figuring out a different way to divide the pie, it increases the pie. Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable benefits us all.”

After months of internal planning and external conversations, the Foundation formulated three pathways to equity: people, place and power. 

“These were the themes that were always surfacing,” Blackwell explains.

“In order to give people greater access to opportunity, places have to be able provide the kinds of services and supports and networks that lead to better outcomes.”

“All the great ideas we could have around improving access to opportunity wouldn’t have the kind of impact or sustainability if the ideas weren’t connected to a really powerful educated, trained, set of leaders in the community with the ability to articulate what they want to see happening in their area. That’s what the power work is all about – a stronger political and civic voice coming from the people who are impacted most by these issues.”

“A lot of what we support in that power area is connecting people to advocacy for policy and systems change and thinking about how political voice contributes towards transformational change.”

Blackwell, who is himself a seasoned social justice campaigner, explains that community foundations in the US, are not bound by the same limitations as private and family foundations, “and have the ability to engage in lobbying around issues and policy that align with their organisational agenda.” In the recent case of The San Francisco Foundation, that issue was affordable housing.

“Housing is an issue that we’re really grappling with in the Bay Area,” Blackwell says. “Through our advocacy we’ve been able to fund polling to see what voters might support in terms of creating a bond and funding stream to develop more affordable housing. We were able to support the initiatives to get that on the ballot, as well as some of the voter outreach and engagement.

“It costs about half a million dollars to produce one unit of affordable housing in San Francisco,” Blackwell continues. “We spent about that same amount of money on these initiatives which went on to produce around $2 billion worth of public money towards public housing production. That shows you the bang for buck.”

By refining its focus, the Foundation’s grantmaking practices were also overhauled. Whereas previous TSFF grants averaged $25,000, the organisation’s average grant now is $80,000 and almost half of these are multi-year commitments.

“It’s something we’ve been hearing from the field for a long time and we’re finally being responsive,” Blackwell says.

“In order to do the work and do it well, non-profits need flexible and multiyear support to have a certain level of predictability about the resources they have to work with into the future.”

“Making change like this doesn’t come without its criticism,” Blackwell admits. “Now that we’ve sharpened our focus, the number of issues people can get funded for has shrunk and because we’re making larger, multiyear funding commitments, we’re giving out fewer grants.”

A Rapid Response Fund, established in 2017, has however, been a welcome extension to the Foundation’s grantmaking capacity. The Fund’s sole focus is to support movement building.

“We were hearing from our non-profit partners that things were coming up at the community level that were relatively spontaneous and that they needed a place to go so that communities and community groups could respond quickly to new and emerging issues that they didn’t have ability to plan for.”

Unlike the Foundation’s other grants, Rapid Response Fund grants range from $1,000-$25,000 and are dispatched quickly, enabling TSFF to support some of the smaller, grass roots community-based groups that wouldn’t necessarily receive funds through the Foundation’s larger grantmaking program.

“What’s been interesting,” Blackwell says, “is that other philanthropic institutions are investing in the Fund, as well as our donors, because they see it as a great vehicle to be responsive to our community. A lot of these grants are going to communities and organisations that are responding to the divisiveness in the US right now. A lot of the work is serving immigrant and refugee populations. The Fund has helped us be responsive to the moment that we’re in.”

Asked if philanthropy is keeping pace with the rate of social change spurred by “the moment” in the US right now, Blackwell is philosophical.

“In some areas philanthropy is keeping pace and is even on the cutting edge for things like the environment and how foundations can advocate for environmental justice issues and make sure our investment policies align with those approaches.

“In other areas, I think we’re behind. I’m a person who believes philanthropy and the non-profit sector has a very important and vital role to play in civic life and discourse, and in times like this when the country feels quite polarised, I feel we haven’t done enough to step in and try and unite.”

“You know, I often say that here at The San Francisco Foundation on any given day you’ll see corporate leaders, elected officials, government bureaucrats, leaders of faith-based institutions, neighbourhood advocates and non-profit executives coming through our doors – that’s a unique set of relationships we hold. From time to time it’s important to use that position in a way that allows our voice to have impact,” Blackwell says.

“The flipside is that it’s very important for us to understand the ecosystem before we step in – we can easily undermine the efforts of our non-profit partners or skew the debate in ways that aren’t helpful if we don’t do our homework and know what where’ talking about.

“As funders I think we can all do a better job of listening.”




Fred Blackwell’s session at the 2018 Philanthropy Australia Conference is proudly supported by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

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