Man with rainbow flag Photo by Charlotte Fiorito

Haas, Jr. Fund Profiled on Marriage Equality

Reporter Julian Guthrie profiles the Fund’s early support for marriage equality

In 1999, the Haas, Jr. Fund board decided it needed to do more to support the freedom to marry. It has been involved ever since. The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

When members of the Haas family of San Francisco sat down for a meeting in 1999 to talk about financially supporting the gay-marriage and rights movement, it was matriarch Evelyn Haas who said, "These are rights that everyone should have. People need to change and move on."

At that time, there were no states with marriage equality or civil unions. There are now 13 states with marriage equality, and a handful of states on the verge of providing marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Ira Hirschfield, president of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, recalled the meeting with Evelyn Haas and her children, Betsy Haas Eisenhardt, Walter "Wally" Haas and Bob Haas.

"It was really a poignant moment," Hirschfield said. "We wanted the directors to understand that this could be contentious, that some considered (gay marriage) deeply objectionable, and that we could get a lot of criticism." From that meeting, the Haas Jr. fund went on to pour millions of dollars into a variety of key organizations fighting for equality and opportunity for gays and lesbians.

"If we pause for a moment and reflect on where we are, the fund's roots and mission are very much the same," Hirschfield said. "Our mission is fairness, equality and opportunity. You see that expressed in everything we do."

Haas family standard

Over six generations, the Haas family of San Francisco has distinguished itself as one of the nation's most charitable families. The descendants of Levi Strauss, who inherited the multibillion-dollar clothing empire that turned blue jeans into an American icon, have a standard for giving: They do it quietly, smartly, and progressively.

Various branches of the Haas family have created their own foundations, each with a distinct mission statement and agenda. At times, the funds collaborate, but for the most part, they operate independently. The largest of the family funds is the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, established in 1953. With assets of $441 million, the fund will give grants this year of around $30 million. Since its inception, it has given away more than $450 million.

Although many of the grants are targeted at progressive national social causes, from gay rights to immigration reform, the Haas Jr. money has also transformed the Bay Area with its $30 million gift to the national parks. This includes the restoration of the 100-acre Crissy Field and the creation in the Presidio of 24 miles of trails, six scenic overlooks, and the opening of San Francisco's only campground.

The fund has given nearly $20 million to UC Berkeley to expand research and teaching on diversity issues, provide new scholarships for low-income students, and make equity and inclusion a priority on the campus. And the fund consistently gives to programs in the city's public schools, and backs local arts institutions from the San Francisco Symphony to the Museum of Modern Art.

The three children of the late Walter and Evelyn Haas - Betsy, Wally and Bob - serve as directors of the fund. Walter Haas Sr., who was CEO and president of Levi Strauss from 1958 to 1971 - and bought the Oakland A's in 1980 - came up with the idea for the Season of Sharing Fund to help people who were not eligible for other charities. The Chronicle's Season of Sharing, still supported by the Haas Jr. fund, has raised more than $90 million for families and individuals across the Bay Area.

"Even after 60 years, we're constantly learning," trustee Wally Haas said. "One of the important lessons is that real change takes time. Working on tough social justice issues to help level the playing field requires patient philanthropy."

He added, "Through the wins and losses, staying rooted in our values - fairness, equality, opportunity - keeps our eye on the prize. And what better place to do this work than from right here in the San Francisco Bay Area? A place that inspires us. A place we're privileged to call home."

Student aid

One of the fund's more recent grants was $1 million to Cal for scholarships for students who are in the country without proper documentation, marking the largest gift for scholarships of this type at a university. The gift is expected to help nearly 200 Cal students from 20 countries who are ineligible for federal Pell Grants, work-study programs or federally backed loans.

"We were one of the first foundations to make a significant stand on behalf of Dreamers," said Matt Foreman, director of the fund's gay-and immigrant-rights programs. "This is an example of where the door of opportunity is closed to these people unless we can help effect change. In a time of enormous controversy around this, the Haas Jr. fund wanted to step forward and show what's possible for these young people."

The Fund is also a founding member of the New Americans Citizenship Collaboration, which is backing efforts across the country to have eligible residents become citizens.

Another key area of the fund's giving is education.

"Just as gay and lesbian rights work is about closing an opportunity gap, so is our support for reforms in San Francisco public schools," said Sylvia Yee, the fund's vice president of programs. "This means keeping an eye not on the usual K-12 needs, but on preschool to 12th-grade needs, so that kids from all neighborhoods have equal chances."

The Fund has also helped create eight neighborhood beacon centers across the city, serving 11,000 kids and families each year. The centers provide after-school programs and education. And the fund helped launch the Coaching Corps, formerly Team-Up for Youth. Begun in 1999, the youth program has introduced more than 20,000 low-income kids to sports, and trained 2,500 coaches. The initiative was the brainchild of Wally Haas, who believes in the power of sports to transform lives.

Commitment to diversity

"We have a commitment to ensure that people from all walks of life can thrive here and enjoy where we live," said Jennie Watson, a vice president of programs and special projects at the fund. "Since we opened the Rob Hill campground in San Francisco's Presidio, 16,000 kids from underserved neighborhoods have been able to spend the night there. Of the 24 miles of new trails we are funding, 18 are complete and offer incredible hikes that are absolutely free to the public."

As the fund's president Hirschfield said, "Our directors believe that you take on big challenges - and that you are in for the long haul."