This piece was originally published in Philanthropy News Digest.
Cathy Cha, who officially stepped into the role of president of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund in January, has long worked to advance new models for how foundations can collaborate with advocates, communities, and government to achieve greater impact. Cha joined the Haas, Jr. Fund in 2003 as a program officer. From 2009 to 2016, she managed its immigrant rights portfolio, leading efforts to bring together funders and local leaders to strengthen the immigration movement in California. For the past two years, Cha served as vice president of programs at the Fund.
Cha co-created and led the California Civic Participation Funders, an innovative funder collaborative that is supporting grassroots efforts across California to increase civic participation and voting among immigrants, African Americans, and other underrepresented populations. She also worked with legal service providers and funder partners to launch the New Americans Campaign, which has helped more than 370,000 legal permanent residents in eighteen cities become U.S. citizens, and helped jumpstart efforts to create the African American Civic Engagement Project, an alliance of community leaders, funders, and local groups working to empower African-American communities.
PND asked Cha about new efforts at the fund, its priorities for 2019, and the evolving role of philanthropy in bringing about a more just and equal society.
Philanthropy News Digest: Your appointment to the top job at the fund was announced in January 2017, and you’re stepping into the shoes of Ira S. Hirschfield, who led the fund for twenty-eight years. What did you do to prepare during the two-year transition period? And what was the most important thing you learned from Ira?
Cathy Cha: One of Ira’s greatest contributions was the way he encouraged the fund’s board, staff, and grantees to really dream about how to have more impact in the world. That dare-to-dream philosophy has allowed us and our partners to reach ambitious goals—from achieving marriage equality to making California the most immigrant-affirming state in the country.
Today, the fund remains committed to supporting people’s best aspirations of what’s possible for their communities. In 2018, we co-launched the California Campus Catalyst Fund with a group of undocumented student advocates and community experts. With investment from thirteen funders, we’re now supporting thirty-two urban, suburban, and rural public college and university campuses across the state to significantly expand legal and other support services for undocumented students and their families at a time of incredible need. It’s a great example of how philanthropy can work with community partners to catalyze and support solutions that make a real difference.
PND: Over the last two years, the fund managed an organizational transition that included the expansion of the board to include members of the next generation of the Haas family and the hiring of new staff at both the program and senior leadership levels. What was the overarching strategy behind those moves, and what kind of changes do you hope they lead to?
CC: During this transition, we were intentional about addressing a couple of key questions. How can we keep this organization relevant and responsive in a volatile and changing environment? And how can we set ourselves up to write a bold new chapter in the Haas, Jr. Fund’s work? We want to be positioned for bigger impact to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. We’re building a leadership and staff team that represents and affirms the fund’s enduring values. Our new board members are committed to building on their grandparents’ legacy, and they bring new and valuable perspectives to the fund’s work. We have staff members who have lived the immigrant experience, people who are LGBT, and individuals who are the first in their families to go to college. Whether I’m working with our board or the staff, I see a team with deep connections to the communities and the issues we care about, a profound belief in civil rights values and leveling the playing field, and an abiding commitment to excellence and progress. That gives me real hope and confidence for the future.
PND: In January you said you would “be launching a process in the weeks ahead to explore how the fund and our partners can strengthen our impact.” What can you tell us about that process?
CC: These are extremely trying times for our country. Many communities we care about are feeling threatened and vulnerable. Given the challenges of this moment, as well as the opportunities that come with the changes we’ve experienced at the fund, it’s an opportune time for us to think creatively about how we can have more impact.
These are extremely trying times for our country. Many communities we care about are feeling threatened and vulnerable....
Like any other foundation, we are always evaluating how we can do a better job. But in the coming months, we want to take some time to think in new ways about how to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make a positive difference and up our game. That’s going to mean reflecting on some of the lessons from our recent work, weighing where we’ve made mistakes and why, and understanding how we can maximize the huge potential of our staff and our nonprofit, government, and business partners to make the world a better, fairer place.
PND: What is your top priority in 2019?
CC: I’ll share two key priorities. The first is to work with our board and staff so that we’re clearer on how the fund will have continued impact. The second is to make sure we’re moving full speed ahead with our work at a time when fundamental rights and opportunities hang in the balance. That’s why we’re investing in the drive for equal civil rights protections for LGBT Americans. It’s why we’re working with the San Francisco Unified School District to help all children reach their potential. And it’s why we’re supporting new racial equity work and helping movement nonprofits strengthen their leadership and their ability to raise the resources they need to make a difference. We want to make sure we are doing everything we can in 2019 to stand up for the idea that this is a better nation when everyone has a chance to thrive.
PND: In addition to leading the fund’s immigrant rights grantmaking, you served on the board of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) for seven years, including two years as co-chair. Are grantmakers in the field of immigrant rights more open to collaboration today than they were, say, a decade ago, and if so, why? Do you think that’s the case in other fields as well?
CC: GCIR has been at the leading edge in facilitating funder collaboration to get better results. It’s part of a sea change over the last decade in philanthropy’s approach to working together. No matter the size of our grantmaking budgets, there’s a growing understanding that we can’t solve big, intractable problems alone. We’re more effective when we form strategic partnerships and check our institutional egos at the door.
You only need to look at the incredible surge in voter turnout in Orange County last November, particularly in communities of color, to see how funder collaboration pays off. We’ve been working with other funders and local partners for years—in Orange County and other parts of California—to build power and voice in low-income communities. Those partnerships are starting to deliver real results. The Haas, Jr. Fund could have invested in this work on our own, but we’re achieving so much more by teaming up with our funder partners.
You only need to look at the incredible surge in voter turnout in Orange County last November, particularly in communities of color, to see how funder collaboration pays off....
PND: In July 2017, you wrote in a blog post, “Why I am Hopeful,” that “[t]he bottom line is that ‘We the People’ need to stand up and use our voices—and our votes—to make a difference...and it will require deep investments in community organizing, civic participation, movement-building, and leadership development.” Are you more hopeful today? Are you seeing those kinds of philanthropic investments at the levels needed?
CC: The results of the November 2018 elections make me more hopeful. We had record numbers of women, LGBT candidates, and people of color running for office in California and nationally. We had millennials voting in record numbers. And in many communities, it was low-income voters and voters of color who put their favored candidates or issues over the top. A lot of that is the result of local groups doing the hard work of organizing, lifting up community leaders, and educating people about important policy issues.
We have a long way to go, but we’re finally starting to see the electorate and our elected leadership moving in the direction where they resemble the larger population, and that’s great for our democracy. But it’s never a given that this kind of progress will continue or that we won’t backtrack. There are real barriers in the way of broader participation for many communities, and voter disenfranchisement is real. No matter what issues our foundations are focused on, we can go a long way to achieving the goal of a fairer, more equal, more representative society if we invest in the work of organizing and voting.
PND: Before joining the fund, you worked on issues such as affordable housing, homelessness, workforce development, and community development. From your perspective, what, if we’re able to achieve it, would “a society that supports, respects, and values the contributions of all people“ look like?
CC: When I drop off my six-year-old daughter at school in the morning, I see all these beautiful kids of different races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and talents. I look at those little faces and I wish every one of those kids, along with every other child across this country, got a fair shot at reaching their full potential. That’s one way to measure how we’re doing when it comes to creating a more just and equal society. What would it look like to give every child and every person an equitable chance at opportunity?
In California’s K-12 public schools, more than half of all students are Latino. So you can’t really look at education in California without looking simultaneously at immigration....
Looking at it that way can take us out of our silos and help us see how our work connects across issues and communities. In California’s K-12 public schools, more than half of all students are Latino. So you can’t really look at education in California without looking simultaneously at immigration. And what about those students who are African American, or LGBT, or from homes where parents are struggling to get by? It’s hard to separate what’s happening in our schools from all the other things happening in kids’ lives. All these issues are interconnected, and we will have greater impact to the extent that we think holistically about how to solve problems and spur real change.
PND: The lack of diversity in leadership positions within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors is a continuing topic of discussion. What needs to happen for that to change?
CC: On my first day in my new role at the fund, a colleague told me that only 1.3 percent of foundations are led by API (Asian Pacific Islander) women. That really surprised me. So did the fact that only around 10 percent of foundation CEOs are people of color. Philanthropy clearly has a ways to go before we can say our field is truly representative of our society.
That said, I am starting to see some positive movement. I think the path to continued progress lies in changing how philanthropy values talent and experience. Traditionally, the philanthropic field has valued academics with PhDs and those from elite educational backgrounds. But increasingly, I think philanthropy is recognizing what leaders bring to a foundation when they are closer to communities and community issues. There is a trend toward valuing lived experience. At the Haas, Jr. Fund and other foundations, you increasingly see staff who have experienced firsthand some of the fundamental inequities in our society. And you see foundations placing a real value on their staff’s ability to connect and partner with people across races and cultures, whether in our local communities or around our interconnected world. Philanthropy is more effective when leaders and staff reflect—and deeply understand—the communities at the heart of our work.
PND’s Kyoko Uchida conducted an email interview with Cha in January. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at Mitch.Nauffts@Candid.org.