Fatima Angeles of the Levi Strauss Foundation – Transscript


Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.

Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and nonprofit communications, produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.

Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.

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Eric: So let’s get onto the show.


Kirk: And we’re back. You know where you are. We know where you are. You’re at Let’s Hear It.

Eric: I know where you are. You’re in the sun and I’m in the fog. That’s where you are.

Kirk: I can’t, I can’t help it. I love being in the sun. I know you, I know you love being in the fog.

Eric: You’re a sunny guy. That’s what it is.

Kirk: We have sunny, sunny days ahead. Sunny topics ahead.

So, you know, before we start this conversation, and your set-up, for a second, there was a really interesting reflection at the end of this interview that I just wanna actually acknowledge as we get started that this is a dark and frightening time for many, many, many of us.

Uh, and this conversation is gonna be a really nice shot in that darkness of great light, great leadership. But I just wanted to acknowledge that like there’s so many of us that can relate. ’cause you’re gonna hear this person say they’re frightened of everything, everything they read, and they say it in a very thoughtful, in a very mindful way.

And it just struck me. I’m like, there are many, many millions of us that are living underneath that intense burden, and I just wanted to acknowledge it. It’s a hard time. It can be a hard time.

Eric: You say it with such effervescence though. I feel the dissonance, Kirk.

Kirk: Let’s just call it out. Let’s acknowledge it.

But it was a, this is a great conversation, Eric. Tell us, set this up. Tell us about it. ’cause this is there, there, once again, there’s gonna be a lot to talk about.

Eric: I spoke with Fatima Angeles, who is the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation. Now this is the second second-timer. We’ve had, we’ve had two CEOs of the Heinz Endowments and now the second executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation.

And Fatima, as maybe you can figure out already, um, is a really thoughtful, really interesting person. Levi Strauss Foundation is a corporate foundation, of course, but it doesn’t seem to realize that, it seems to just be working on justice and doing the right thing and not as a traditional corporate philanthropy might.

Kirk: So this is Fatima Angeles, new CEO, started in August 2021, so three years, less than three years into the role. And you know, Levi Strauss, as we heard her, in our earlier conversation, was an early and important funder on HIV-AIDS issues, and folks should jump to the Levi Straus website because they funded that issue for 40 years, and it’s mentioned in this interview.

They wrapped up that funding and actually issued a report about that work last year. What a testament to the impact you can have for getting involved in an issue that you know many people weren’t at the time, and then watching the wholesale shifts and actually one of the reasons they say it’s okay for them to shift funding priors because there’s an enormous amount of money going into HIV-AIDS research. And so Eric, I thought that was, I thought that was just an interesting subtext that was happening in the background of that whole conversation.

Eric: Yeah, totally. I mean, after 40 years, you can’t, you can hardly say, well, they, uh, got in and got out.

Kirk: That’s right. Well, this is Fatima Angeles, the CEO of the Levi Strauss Foundation, and thank you so much for joining us, Eric. This was an awesome conversation. Let’s listen and we’ll come back.


Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Fatima Angeles, the executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, a foundation that continues to surprise and delight observers of so-called corporate philanthropy for its decidedly un-corporate ways of doing philanthropy.

Fatima brings a long career in the foundation world to this position, and she is now sitting in the big chair. Fatima, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Fatima: I am thrilled to be here. I’m excited to talk with you. Here we go.

Eric: Here we go. Let’s do this. I mean, you’ve been in philanthropy for quite some time. You were at the California Wellness Foundation for, is it almost 24 years?

Fatima: Yes. That is a long time.

Eric: First of all, that’s a really long time to be in any one organization. Uh, I don’t think I’ve done anything for 24 years in a row except maybe breathe and, uh, I don’t know, drool. But what was it like to join a new organization after all that time?

Fatima: A couple of things about that. I don’t think anyone plans to stay somewhere for more than two decades, and I stayed at Cal Wellness, not because it was easy. I stayed at Cal Wellness for as long as I have because I had four different jobs while being there. And because it is such a extraordinary organization and felt really, really lucky to have grown up there professionally and to be able to.

Growing my leadership and have a platform for the kind of change I wanna see in the world. And that’s why I was there for so long. It felt like a blink of an eye, but also felt like a long time simultaneously. And so, as you may imagine, thinking about another place and making the jump was a big proposition for me, one that I was ready for, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was frightened. Uh, I was.

Eric: By the way, for the record, I personally have never been qualified for any job. I know you are qualified for your job. I’ve never been very qualified for any job I’ve ever been in, and that is the truth.

Fatima: I don’t know. I think that’s the way to go. There’s something fantastic about that, about going in somewhere you don’t know if you can quite do it, but you’ll figure it out as you go along. I felt ready for this role as executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation. And I was also wondering, you know, am I gonna be the one they want and am I gonna be the one they need in the communities that we support needs as a leader of the foundation?

So all of those worries, but also the different environment. I was gonna miss my homies at Cal Wellness, and that’s a different kind of foundation. There were enough differences that made me worry. And then when I kind of composed myself, I realized that there were many more things in alignment than new things.

And so I walked in with trepidation and confidence, slightly worried, but all of that quickly melted away when I came in because the team was so welcoming and so game and so supportive, both board and staff of the foundation, but also the company. And I fell in love with the Foundation and Levi Strauss and Company quickly, and I continue to be delighted in, in the work that I am so privileged to do, and in the company of amazing leaders in that organization.

Eric: Well, you know, as I said, the Levi Strauss Foundation, that kind of surprises and delights us all. I mean, you’re working on. Some stuff that’s not the normal corporate philanthropy, whatever that’s supposed to mean. So reproductive justice, worker rights, immigrant rights, democracy. I mean, these are the social issues of course, that our future hinge upon.

And you are working on that in the context of a corporate foundation. How do you navigate social issues like that in the. I don’t know if you want, if it, if it is a business setting, but working under the umbrella of a, of a business.

Fatima: Yeah, so a bit about that. I mean, that was the reason I was attracted to the opportunity because the Levi Strauss Foundation operated differently than other corporate foundations.

But to be honest, I didn’t know a lot of corporate funders and the issues that the Levi Strauss Foundation had been working on. Have just been the right ones. Right. So Levi Strauss Foundation was one of the first corporate funders, if not just a funder in HIV and AIDS way back in the eighties. Right?

And supported organizations that we know now as institutions, the Seventh AIDS Foundation being one of them. And that says a lot about the kind of risk that the company is willing to take to allow the corporate foundation to be in that space and all the others sort of follow. So the foundation was in, in HIV, and AIDS funding for four decades.

You tell me another foundation, corporate or not, that stays in one issue for that long. So I was feeling really great about going into this foundation, values alignment, commitment to social justice, and I guess unusual for a corporate funder in a number of ways. Want to stay in something for so long, like HIV and AIDS, and two, to embrace the issues that you just lifted up.

So a couple of things that I learned quickly when I got into the foundation, the. Believe that business should be a force for good and that philanthropy can be a vehicle for change. Positive change. You know, the company has been talking about profits through principles for a really long time, and that creates alignment with its philanthropy and consistency within its philanthropy.

The company also has a strong legacy of social justice work outside of the foundation. It was the first business in the South to insist on a combined workforce, Black workers and white workers, to desegregate that. Long stance around that. It had a long commitment to justice when it was working in South Africa, and the foundation clearly supports all those values.

And so the mission of the foundation is to support pining leaders and organizations advancing justice. There hasn’t been dissonance because I think the values are there. The foundation was born out of the values of the company, and so there’s alignment and.

Eric: Yeah, it’s really an incredible company and, uh, I’m actually wearing Levi’s right now, as it happens.

Fatima: You should always wear Levi’s, Eric, always.

Eric: I will endeavor to do that, but I wanna go back a little bit and get a sense of, of who you are and how you ended up in this work in the first place. I, as I say, I’ve said many times in this show, nobody crawls up onto their parents’ lap and says, you know, mommy, daddy, I wanna go into philanthropy.

Fatima: No one.

Eric: And nobody ever, and you know what? They also don’t say, they never say, I wanna go into philanthropy communications, but that’s another story entirely. How did you find yourself in this work?

Fatima: I’m excited to share this with you just because I think from the episodes I’ve heard, no one comes to this work in the same pathway. So everyone has a different road to take that ends or gets to this weird field of philanthropy. So after undergrad, I went to UC Berkeley. Go Bears. I worked in the community, I worked in south of Market working for a small nonprofit that was aiming to improve life outcomes for young people. And I worked with Filipino youth immigrants and Filipino Americans, and I ran a program that focused on HIV and AIDS prevention.

Then I ended up with a different gig, running a team center, creating and running a team center in south of Market. A lot of what I learned working in a small nonprofit and hustling and making every dollar count and seeing the brilliance of young people and their parents and what they want for their families and what they want for their communities.

Those lessons still stay with me and how I approach our grant making work, how to run a small nonprofit lessons good and bad, I learned from my time in South the market.

So when I was working for the community, I was there for about three years. I was running out of resources to figure out how to make an organization run better, how to make a programs more effective. And I felt like I was inventing things and wanted formal training. I felt that the community deserved more from me rather than sort of patchwork and band-aids. And I went to grad school for public health.

And when I was in grad school, I went to a private school in New York and it was expensive and I needed a job and got wind of an internship program that was looking to support graduate students of color to help diversify philanthropy. It was an internship that was being run by New York Regional Association of Grant Makers, which is now Philanthropy New York. They inherited it from the Ms. Foundation, and I was in the first cohort of that program.

I’d always wondered what philanthropy was about because when I was in the nonprofit organization, I kept writing proposals that kept getting turned down. I wanted to understand the decisions that were being made, the process, it was just a black hole, and couldn’t they see the brilliance of the work I was leading?

Everything we were doing was exactly what they should be funding, but it wouldn’t stick, and so I wanted to see how it worked. And I was an intern for the corporate giving program at Pfizer in New York City, and boy did that opened my eyes into what philanthropy can be and what it can do for communities and what a corporate foundation can do to support the kinds of communities that I came from.

Eric: First of all, working for a small nonprofit and understanding the, boy, the lifecycle of a nonprofit, the fundraising, managing, dealing with very, very low margins, I guess you could say. I imagine that would be useful for you as a grant maker and that working at Wellness for such a long time. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience has affected how you see your grantees and how you work with them?

Fatima: Absolutely. I was really lucky to land at the California Wellness Foundation because our CEO, Gary Yates at the time, who I admire greatly, just insisted that the grant makers that he hired had experience in nonprofit organizations. And that was great because, you know, I came in because I had experience in nonprofits, but my colleagues did too, and so we were able to share with each other what we thought made sense for how we approached the work of grant making. We were encouraged to think about ways that centered the leaders of those organizations and the decisions we make. So an early lesson for me came from Gary Yates, who said, you can have all your fancy degrees, but if you’re working here at the California Wallace Foundation, the experts are the organizations running and moving efforts out in communities.

And that was the framework for the California Wellness Foundation, and I carry that to my role at Levi Strauss.

Eric: Well, Gary is an entertaining dude.

Fatima: Did you know Gary?

Eric: I got a chance. I didn’t know him that well, but I got to see him in action. And, uh, you know, he told you what he thought, which was refreshing.

Fatima: Yeah, it was refreshing. And I, when I look back into my points of view about the work I get to do, a lot of the lessons I learned from Gary Yates. A couple of things. One, you know, it’s not your money. Second, grantee partners are the experts. Listen to them and learn from them. Another one is this notion of core support and multi-year support, and that is strategic. So these are some things I carry with me.

Eric: People are just discovering so-called trust-based philanthropy, but there have been folks who’ve been doing it all along.

Fatima: That’s right. And I’m excited that there is a framework, that there is a practice, and now there’s language around trust-based philanthropy.

Um, it’s been exciting to see that. I guess I’m a little bit bummed that it’s taken so long to get there. Yeah, I’m glad it’s here. I think we can all do better. Having guidelines and frameworks really helps. But I think my perspective on grant making and sort of how to approach the work and how to partner, a lot of that shaped by my experience working in nonprofit, serving on boards of nonprofits, in my early my early days as a program officer and a program director.

Eric: Well, we’re gonna take a very short break and we’ll be right back with Fatima Angeles, the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation.


Eric: You are listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown.

If you’re enjoying this episode, you may just be a rule breaker. Tune in to Break Fake Rules, a new limited series podcast with Glen Galaich, CEO of the Stupski Foundation. Hear from leaders in philanthropy, nonprofits, government, media, and more to learn about challenges they’ve overcome by breaking fake rules and which rules we should commit to breaking together.

We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast (and we’re not just saying that), Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant. You can find them at stopandtalkpodcast.com.

And now back to the show.


Eric: Welcome back. My guest is Fatima Angeles, the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation. We’re just, we’ve been talking about your time at the California Wellness Foundation and how that has prepared you for this moment.

Can you talk just a little bit about what… with great power comes great responsibility, the old Spider-Man adage. How do you feel about this responsibility and the power that comes with leading a foundation after these many years doing a lot of really great jobs, and they will wanna talk about the many things that you did at Wellness, but let’s talk about power and responsibility a little bit.

Fatima: Well, I think that’s a big one. Coming into the field as a program officer, not fully appreciating, you know, your, like, learning. It’s a job that you didn’t think you’d get. What is it? Every foundation is different. This was another early lesson for me as a program officer at the time, the CEO Gary Yates gathered the program officers together and asked the question as he does from time to time, who do you think has the power in this organization at Cal Wellness? ’cause we had been talking about power dynamics in the relationship between a funder and grantee partners. And he asked us the question and I said, well, you, you’re the president and CEO of the California Wellness Foundation. You have the power. And he said, actually, it’s you. It’s the grantmaker. You are the ones deciding who gets a grant, who doesn’t get a grant. That’s a lot of power. That’s a lot of responsibility that you have. So how are you gonna take care of it? And that was really powerful coming from our CEO and when there were many different layers of leadership in the organization.

So I remember my colleagues and I just sort of looking around, one, feeling encouraged that our CEO sees us as the ones with power, but also that tremendous weight of, man, we better get this right. Because all of us had worked in nonprofit organizations. We know what it’s like when we don’t get that grant that we asked for, that we desperately need.

And so having that in the front of our minds always, I think, informed how we behaved and how we connect with leaders, making the risky moves, leading the changes that we all need them to do. And that stays with me now as an executive director of a foundation. And I have young grantmakers on the team, new to the work, new to the field, and we have those kinds of conversations about responsibilities. And I’ll share that I have a slide of Spider-Man. I do. When I do a team orientation, I have a slide because, you know, I’m a nerd. I also have a lot of Star Trek references in my orientation around my grant making team.

Eric: Well, you know, my old boss, Larry Kramer, had Star Trek bobbleheads in his office.

Fatima: Well, this is why I like Larry.

Eric: Also a man without a scintilla of pretension.

Right. Now you worked your way around, I wouldn’t say up, but around Cal Wellness. You were a program director. A director of evaluation and learning, and then finally vice president for programs. If anyone knows kind of the fullness of the responsibility of jobs at a foundation, it feels to me like it, it’s you.

What did each of these jobs teach you about how or how, how are you using this experience to run a foundation now, understanding that you’ve been through so, so many different parts of a foundation.

Fatima: Thanks for that question. I mean, I appreciate this conversation, ’cause I, I don’t, I don’t always sit down and reflect on sort of how I got here.

Eric: This is cheaper than therapy.

Fatima: Yes, thank you. I do still keep at the center of my heart and my mind, my experiences in SoMa and sort of what nonprofits need to stay the course. So that’s in my mind. The lessons I learned as a program officer, also still in, in my mind and in my heart, about listening and, you know, analyzing and responding in the best way possible in terms of what we can provide and what they need and hopefully that’s matched up.

And as a program director, crafting strategies and having a bit of strategic foresight, right? And so you’re not just banging out grants, but really identifying potential opportunities, laying down strategies and goals. They may work, they may not work, but at least let’s figure out if there’s a way to do that.

And as Director of Learning and Evaluation, cutting out the shenanigans, uh, around what to count, what not to count, what’s important to pay attention to and to not burden our grantee partners with a bunch of requests that we won’t read or we won’t use, but appreciating the need for analysis so that we can do our jobs better, that we can be a better partner to leaders, and that we can understand what a movement needs from philanthropy. So that I learned in my role as Director of Learning and Evaluation.

And as Vice President of Programs, bringing all of that together as well as figuring out how to bring other parts of a foundation to fully express the vision and mission of a foundation. And what I mean by that is connecting with comms and understanding what comms can do to elevate the work of our grantees, but also to better articulate our strategies so that it can be better understanding to have more impact.

Partnering with finance around PRIs and MRIs, and identifying and unlocking more tools to get resources out to communities. Working with a board to figure out what they need in terms of information and analysis and experiences so that they can make policies and guidelines to get the foundation moving forward.

So all of that, again, it’s been a gift for me to be able to gain all of this so that I can bring it to bear at the Levi Strauss Foundation.

Eric: Well, I love the shenanigan reduction. It would be a nice metric to report to the board. We reduce, we reduce the shenanigan shenanigans by 50%. Our goal is a hundred percent.

Fatima: And we know what those shenanigans are.

Eric: I know. Well, again, well, Larry used to say beware of false precision.

Fatima: Oh, I love it.

Eric: We have a tendency to try and measure everything down to the nth degree and he cautioned against that because it will kind of blind you to often the things that you’re actually trying to look for.

Fatima: You know, I think in some way, you and I have been in this field for a while, you can talk all day long. I can talk all day long. And is it adding value to the work of our partners? Is it moving us to the change you wanna see? You know, I say all of that. Let’s cut out the shenanigans. And I’m mindful of my role now as executive director, am I creating new shenanigans? Right? And who’s gonna check me to make sure that I’m not asking for and creating work that doesn’t add value. And in that sense, I’m comforted by the board that I have who will call out shenanigans, but also learning from other leaders in the company about how they do their work, how they lead, and how they move fast. So I think that’s another benefit of being in a foundation within a larger organization.

Eric: Well, that’s a great segue, and you mentioned communications, and I think that in this instance, particularly for Levi Strauss Foundation and the work that you’re doing, communications is hugely important. I mean, we’re also, anyone who’s working in these kinds of social issues are working towards creating a new narrative about what success looks like, about what it feels like to belong, all of these things.

How are you using or thinking about communications, both in the context of the foundation and your relationship with this larger entity?

Fatima: Well, communications is huge, and I learned that from another fantastic CEO of the California Wellness Foundation, Judy Belk, who comes from communications.

Eric: The best!

Fatima: And under her leadership, the light went on.

Grant dollars are one thing, but man, can it go further if we invest in comms and narrative change. That’s true for the organizations we support. That’s also true for the foundation itself. And I bring that to the Levi Strauss Foundation. And again, another stroke of luck is that we have such a robust communications department at Levi Strauss, and so leaning into their expertise, understanding how they think about comms and how it moves and participating and engaging in the work that they do informs how we think about communications from the standpoint of the foundation.

We are much more aware of the role of communications and narrative change in the, the work of our grantees and in our own work. And the communications and narrative change is a crosscutting element in all of our grant making, right? So in each of our portfolios, we wanna make sure that we’re supporting communication strategies or storytelling strategies. Again, to move hearts and minds to move policy to reframe the issue that supports the work of our grantee partners. And we are trying to be better as a foundation, how to communicate the value of the foundation externally and also internally. We are a big brand, Levi’s, but we’re a modest funder, and so communications helps elevate and extends our reach and the work of our partners.

Eric: Well, I love this idea of integrating communications into the grant making. Often at foundations, they ask the communications to do the communicating after the grant making is done, and it feels to me like a hugely wasted opportunity because we are really trying to change, we’re trying to move how people even think about any issue. And to do that you have to understand the concept of communication strategy.

So I don’t mean to preach here, but it’s just so refreshing to hear that and I so encourage foundation CEOs out there to continue to think about, maybe call Fatima and ask you for your thoughts on how you’re doing this in your work.

Um, in just a couple of minutes that we have left, if you had one piece of advice for your counterparts at other foundations peer-to-peer marketing is of course the best kind, what would you tell them about maybe what you’ve learned and a lesson or two that you’ve learned and, and how they might be able to benefit from it?

Fatima: I don’t think I come with anything new with this question, Eric. What I hope is that enough of us say the same thing over and over again, and actually do it together.

One, cut out the shenanigans. I guess that maybe should be a T-shirt. And what I mean by that is all organizations have that, even our grantee partners have that. It’s because we’re humans and we, we bring that stuff to the work we do. But if we could streamline processes, protocols, requirements, meetings, and really center the question in each of these activities:  are we adding value to the work that we need to be doing? Is it getting the dollars out faster and more responsibly into the hands of the folks who know best? Are we learning what we need to learn so that we can make better decisions? And are we saying what we need to say enough and loud enough to move our agenda?

And so centering that and centering the leadership and the brilliance of our community partners, I’ve heard that on your podcast, I believe that.

And I can’t believe that I’m still gonna say this, but general operating support is the way to go. Still not quite understanding the resistance to it because it allows the organization, in particular, policy advocacy organization to move fast. And, man, now is the time to do that, given what we are up against. So core support, multi-year, let’s fund our partners like we want them to win.

I mean, I guess this is not anything like what Yoda would say, but I believe in the power of convening and funders can do that. When you bring brilliant minds together and if you bring them consistently together, amazing things happen, right? You, you help build trust, you help build partnership. You’ll learn, not in a, a echo chamber, but funders can do that. And I’m still trying to figure out how to do that at Levi’s because we are a global funder, but we’re a modest funder, and so how do we bring people together in a meaningful way that doesn’t deplete our annual budget.

Eric: I guess Yoda would say many minds together bring things good or something.

Fatima: I like where you’re going with this, Eric. Let’s keep, let’s keep figuring that out because that could be a T-shirt for the podcast.

Eric: Yodic syntax. Now, in the last seconds, what gives you hope about the future, particularly with regard to your foundation’s work?

Fatima: Well, you know, a couple of things. I’m still thinking about that last question you asked, Eric.

I’m really interested, and maybe it’s not so much hopeful, but I’m interested in finding new ways or just, I guess not new, finding real ways of supporting the leaders of our organizations and the way they need to be supported.

We are asking them to change the world with $5, and that’s rough, ’cause they have to find $5 from a bunch of folks to get to the work they need to do. So one, how do we support them in the way that we believe we want them to win, but also how do we support them so that they are healthy? That they are in fighting form?

You know, one of our board members at Levi Strauss Foundation has been looking at the role of wellness and wellbeing in nonprofit organizations, and what does that look like when we have strong, supported, and safe leaders who are taking charge of these movements. So I’m thinking about that.

What am I hopeful for? You know what? This is a, a dark time coming up to the upcoming elections. I’m frightened of everything I read. I’m a little nervous every time I open the newspapers or click on newyorktimes.com. Well, what’s giving me hope are young people and I maybe I’m saying that ’cause I have two young adults in my family, and my daughter and son are so much better equipped to analyze and assess the current situation and can articulate the areas that need work, in a much better way that my husband and I ever did when we were their ages. And I’m hopeful because they have context analysis, arguments, and ideas for how to turn this world around. I’m hopeful for them and for that.

Eric: Well, I agree with you. I don’t wanna put it all in the next generation because it’s unfair, but I am definitely inspired by them and, and encouraged, and I’m encouraged by you and your work, and I’ve really, really enjoyed speaking with you. What you’re doing is fabulous, and it’s delightful to see leaders who have these kinds of, like, deeply felt connections with the work.

And I just thank you for, for everything that you do.

Fatima: Thank you for having me. It’s been a joy to talk with you.

Eric: Such a joy. Fatima Angeles, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation. Thank you so much.


Kirk: And we’re back. So what’s the title of this episode gonna be? Is it gonna be “Drop the Shenanigans?” That could be a good one.

Eric: Has to have shenanigans in it. Yes.

Kirk: Oh, but can I, can I offer another one? This was towards the end of the conversation “Fund our Partners Like we Want Them to Win.”

Eric: Yeah, you’re right.

Kirk: Oh man, how good is that?

Eric: That’s pretty good. You’re right. Well, and what, what’s the point of dipping your toe in anything when it comes to supporting organizations that you want to actually make a difference?

Kirk: So once again, we have somebody on the podcast who’s come through this incredibly interesting path to be in the role that they’re in.

And you know, I always love it when our guests have this experience of how to run a small nonprofit, what it takes to make that succeed. And I just feel like that flows through Fatima and on all of her thinking about all the work that she’s gonna be doing, all the investments they’re making at Levi Strauss, that she’s drawing constantly on that lived experience.

And I, and I loved her reflection. She was so used to submitting all these proposals, having all this thinking, all this greatness, and they’re all getting rejected, you know? And so she goes on this lifelong learning process of learning how that process works. But I kind of wish, I wish we could inject that “I ran a small nonprofit” DNA into everybody in senior leadership, let alone CEOs, like everybody who’s in the, in the philanthropic space. I just feel like it’s an invaluable perspective.

Eric: Well, yeah, and this notion that, I mean, we’ve seen it a lot, that strategic philanthropy, so-called strategic philanthropy, in which the funder has a very specific set of outcomes that they wanna have, and they, in a sense, hire organizations as their subcontractors to achieve whatever the funder’s goals are.

Kirk: Subcontracted agents for change, apparently.

Eric: Exactly, and I don’t know, maybe that works in certain instances, but there’s also a really great case to be made to go to an organization that’s working in an area that you care about. Okay. So you get to pick that part and say, what do you need in order to, what are you trying to achieve and what do you need in order to get there? And then just giving them that. And it’s a really good strategy if you ask me as a funder to ask organizations that are doing the work what they need, and then just meeting those needs, fund them like you actually want them to win.

Kirk: There’s so much good stuff in this reflection, career and trajectory and arc. So 24 years at the California Wellness Foundation and, and one of, another great word, I think this might be the first time this word has been uttered on Let’s Hear It. Fatima starts this new role frightened. Becomes the CEO of the Levi Strauss – And, and I thought about that. I was like, you know how often that, I wonder if that should be like almost another one of these criteria. It’s like, we should all be doing stuff that frightens us. We should do it somewhat regularly. And, and, and what grace, what courage that comes along with that, that, that finally was gonna say, yeah, I had this incredible tenure.

And by the way, the California Wellness Foundation is, uh, is no small thing. That’s no small deal. And to say, no, I’m gonna actually take a big jump, expose myself to incredible risk, try to learn a whole new thing. I don’t know. I, I thought that was really cool that, that she was so honest about that. It’s like, it’s scary. It’s scary to run these big organizations.

Eric: Well, Fatima has worked for two of the great foundation CEOs, Gary Yates and then Judy Belk. These are extraordinary grant makers and fascinating, wonderful personalities and human beings. And so she has had the chance to see two leadership styles that are exciting, highly engaged, really thoughtful.

And I think that I’d be frightened too if I were trying to follow in those types of footsteps, if not at the same foundation, but understanding that you’ve, you’ve worked under these great leaders and to try and capture the best of what they were able to offer and bring it to some new institution would be daunting.

I’d make a terrible foundation leader anyway, so I, I’d be frightened no matter what, but I, you know, I just, I see that here’s the chance. I also see that when you’ve been in a leadership position of the foundation, but not the leader for a long period of time, you kind of take notes and you figure out, well, what would I do if I had my shot?

And we talked to Chris DeCardy at Heinz who had the same experience and, and the answer to, for me anyway, at least in this foundation is really creative, but also kind of soulful and caring philanthropy. And that’s, that is a beautiful combination.

Kirk: Well, and across so many different domains. I have to tell you, you asked one of the all-time great questions though.

Eric: Why thank you, Kirk. I agree.

Kirk: What, what did these past jobs teach you? And, and all of a sudden, Fatima starts going through this, well, you know, I’ve worked in strategy, in goals, in planning, but then I worked with evaluation, which is where the Shenanigan Reduction Act is formulated.

So let’s reduce the burden of what we’re asking people to report to us, has to understand communications, has worked with the finance department. And by the way, will you please explain PRI and MRI? It just came by so fast. But then also, also you have to work with the board, right?

So all the different dimensions that go into this work and foundation leadership. And, man, you know, I, I wonder how much actually she knew, I wonder how much she actually knew that she didn’t know she knew until she got a chance to put this all into practice as the, as the executive director of the foundation.

Eric: Well, we’ll have to go back and ask her again, but a PRI is a program related investment in which you make an, an investment in a company or a financial tool, a mechanism, to help an organization out of your grant’s budget. So that might be that you would underwrite a loan or you would write down a loan for a grantee, or you would buy ’em a building and then they would pay the rent, that kind of thing. So it’s an actual financial investment. We always, always talk about investment and investing in our grantees, but we don’t mean investing actually, we’re just talking about, you know, helping. But in this case, it’s a financial instrument and investment, and it comes out of the program budget.

A mission related investment can be an investment, a financial tool that is made out of the corpus, out of the endowment, and sometimes it pays market returns, sometimes you will take a discount against those returns for the purpose of providing a, a good thing, a philanthropic goal, so that’s PRIs and MRIs.

Philanthropy Funding 101.

Kirk: But you clearly get the perspective that in a […] role, you’re bouncing across a bunch of different functions all time.

Eric: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. She’s, she’s done every job and working every kind of, every nook and cranny of philanthropy, which is really helpful when you’re running the show and y ou know, ’cause you’ve been there and you’ve done it, and it’s really helpful to be able to support your team and to help the foundation advance its goals by really understanding every, every little nuance of the place.

Kirk: So after all these years of experience, after all of this mountain of evidence that’s accumulated, after we can so clearly say, let’s fund our partners like we want them to win, which is again, just genius. I’m so glad we heard that on this podcast.

Why are we still talking about general support funding for nonprofits? Like it’s this plea that we’re shouting into the wind. Please give these organizations general operating support, make it multi-year, become actual partners, invest in their expertise and capacity to create real change, and minimize the burden to them while you help them do that.

Why is this still being discussed as a novel idea? And yet, you know, I, I love that Fatima was saying that she was a little bummed that it’s taken us a lot to get here. Like there’s, there’s more and more people moving in that direction, but it still is a transition that’s happening. Man, could we just make that plea? Let’s just universally adopt that model and, and see what change comes out as a result of that.

Eric: I agree. I think a lot of folks have been talking about it for quite some time. I don’t think it’s as novel as some folks would think. I’d be curious to see what the actual data are about those sorts of things.

Maybe we’ll call someone over at GuideStar Foundation Center or somebody’s like, what really, honestly, truly what percentage of grants are general support, and sometimes you make a so-called general support grant to a program. Which is still considered project support. So that doesn’t count. If a nonprofit has an environment program and uh, does something else, and you give them general support for their environment, it’s still considered a project grant.

But that’s, that’s okay. The purpose is the same or the, the themes or ideas are the same. But yeah, you’re right. I think more general support, longer term. Organizations can then do their planning. They can use the money however they want, and they can also lobby with it because you are allowed to lobby with general support money. ’cause the foundation didn’t tell you you had to or couldn’t do something. So anyway, you’re right. I’m with you. I think that’s probably, like I said, a little more common than some might worry. But I, I also think that the best value in philanthropy.

Kirk: Can we have somebody come on the podcast and talk about trust-based philanthropy?

Eric: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. I’m all for that.

Kirk: And so what is it exactly? It’s, I trust that you’re gonna do what you say you’re gonna do and that our goals align. Is that the essence of it?

Eric: I, I guess you could reduce it to that, but yeah. I mean, it is, it is…

Kirk: How difficult do we make it on ourselves to cut a check, say, go get great outcomes, and tell us how it goes. How much language do we need to wrap around that?

Eric: No, no, no. But the other thing is that you have to have a deep relationship with the organization so that you, everybody knows what everybody’s talking about, so you, you know that you’re in alignment. So once you kind of get to that point where, Hey, look, I know the work that you’re doing, I know it intimately, I really understand it. Here’s the money. Go and tell me what you need and I’ll support that. The, you know, you can’t just sign up, uh, for trust-based philanthropy on Monday and start making those kinds of grants on Tuesday. You actually have to have relationships with folks, and in order to have relationships with folks, you have to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and that takes time.

But I believe in the… the concept is find organizations with whom you are really closely aligned and give them what they need to win.

Kirk: It takes time and takes capacity. And it’s funny because that that means people power on both sides too, right? Because that’s one of the things I see a lot of program officers suffering from is they just have so little time to really be focused in any one place because they’re moving so many grants, working so many processes.

And so I love this drop the shenanigans notion. And how, how viable is that? Because it’s so funny, I love that word too. It’s like I wanna bring that into our, our organizational context, because it can mean, it means everything. It means so many things. It’s so salient, it’s so spot on.

Eric: It’s also, it’s self effacing, it’s an acknowledgement of some of the goofiness of our, of our work. You know, it’s a, it’s, yeah. It’s, it’s a, a joyful, entertaining word and I, I’m all for that.

Kirk: But it’s a nice also reflection of kind of this, I, I love it every time when you’re doing kind of an organizational assessment piece, it’s sort of, let’s talk about the unwritten rules. Let’s talk about the rules that are rules, but nobody is really talking about those rules and that we have to live with it, and can we clean those up?

So, so do you think we can do this like this, this advice here, let’s center the question. Are we adding value? Can we get the dollars out faster, more responsibly? Are we learning what we need to learn? Are we saying what we need to say? How difficult do you think that really is for philanthropy at scale to get to that crucial piece of just being that plain, that efficient, that forthright, here’s our purpose, here are the resources, let’s be your partners. Tell us how this is going, but let’s not unduly burden this with any process along the way.

Like how realistic do you think that really is?

Eric: I think it’s doable. I, you’re right, it takes time, it takes talent. You have to have people who have the ability to hear. You know, truly listen, and it takes humility, which in philanthropy, you know, you don’t always get, so in a sense, you have to recruit for, you have to recruit people who don’t think that it’s about them. It’s really about the work and the, and the organizations that are doing that work.

I said this a million times, like the people who work at philanthropy, they’re like the kids who watch the other kids playing on the playground. ’cause you know, they’re not really, really doing the same stuff that the grantees are doing, and you have to be okay with that and you kinda have to like it, which is I’m gonna be here, I’m gonna be helpful to you, what do you need? And you use your expertise and your experience of having seen different organizations in different settings and understanding what they might be able to take advantage of and where their opportunities are, where the challenges are, and being able to have those conversations in a kind of a caring, safe way as opposed to, I’m gonna tell you what’s wrong with you and I’m gonna fix it. Because that doesn’t work.

So I think it takes the right kind of personality to do that. And just like it takes the right kind of personality to run an organization that is dealing with addressing challenging issues or finding hopeful solutions, that’s a different kind of personality as well. And if you get these pieces fitting together well, you can actually make a ton of difference.

Kirk: I always have this question of how much of this is the person, how much of it is the training, how much of it is the perspectives, the experience that they’ve lived. But this reflection at the end of your conversation when Fatima is talking about how to better support leaders of organizations, and I always appreciate that lived experience of, again, having come from a small nonprofit, the ability to say something as poignant, as we’re asking people to change the world for $5 and we’re actually not even giving them $5. We’re saying, here’s our quarter. Go find the rest. And, uh, and so just these open-ended questions of how do we support people so they believe we want them to win, again, what does that look like? And also, you know, how do we support people so they’re healthy, they’re in good fighting form?

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anybody reflect on the notion of wellness and wellbeing in nonprofits with a particular emphasis on leadership. And that’s such an interesting idea to me, and I wonder what that is gonna look like for the Levi Strauss Foundation and others that think about that. But this way of really understanding the human dimensions of human leadership in terms of these organizations.

’cause even this idea of like supporting organizations so we know we, they want them to win. Like so much in my experience in the field, it’s actually funders fund at the field level. So not only are you like a subcontractor for change, but your little organization is just one of 15 rows on a spreadsheet. And so as long as the spreadsheet adds up to whatever your grantmaking budget’s gonna be, that’s what you’re trying to accomplish. But actually, you need to look across, you need to look at each of those organizations and be like, well, you know, what, what resources are we providing and what does overall health and wellbeing for that organization look like?

And again, it just feels like there’s a, there’s a quiet reflection here that building deeper relationships, more honest relationships, going a little bit deeper in terms of what this could really be about in terms of the change that we’re trying to create. That’s kind of where the game is gonna be at, maybe going forward. And, and I don’t, man, if, if Fatima can help others understand that perspective, that that feels like that’s gonna have an enormous beneficial outcome for the field.

Eric: I totally agree. And if you think about it, if a funder can say, what is it going to take to win? How much money, how much talent, where are those people, and where are those dollars gonna come from? And if you can’t answer that question, that’s tough. You really kind of need to know the answer to the question. Now you, you could be wrong, but you have to have your own hypothesis about what it’s going to take. And then you just do that thing.

And a lot of funders are in multiple businesses. We’re funding the environment and we’re funding oceans. We’re funding conservation with like, oh, you have five or six or seven different things, and you may determine that you don’t have enough to really achieve lasting success in any one of them. And your decision may be to consolidate, which means you’re not gonna fund the things that you used to fund.

All those conversations are very challenging. It is a very, it’s a moving target and that makes it hard. And you wanna do as much as possible, but you can’t go as deep as you need to. And therefore, maybe that you have to make hard decisions.

But philanthropy is a zero sum game. You have only so many dollars to share, and when you spend them here, you can’t spend them there. So I don’t envy most foundations from having to make those kinds of decisions, but it, it is also true that if you have to have your own hypothesis about what winning looks like and how you’re gonna get there, and that will help drive your decision making.

Kirk: And that’s, it’s always a tough dance on the grant seeking side too, you know, is the grantee, the person who’s looking for the resources to support this change. You might have an inclination to say, you know, it’s gonna cost this much, but that number feels like it’s untenable. So you start bargaining yourself down from the get-go just to try to get, come up with something that you think will work with the, uh, grantmaker’s budget.

And so it’s, it’s a really difficult dance to sort that through and get to the right. Clarity about what investments are gonna be most necessary. And even, even again, back to being frightened, feel the bravery and the courage to actually say to somebody who could potentially fund you, but could say yes or no, actually this is really what this is gonna take to get this work done.

Eric: Yep. And you know, getting back to Fatima and Levi Strauss Foundation, I really have the sense that they have a real clarity of their mission and what it’s gonna take to get there and this belief in the grantees and an understanding about who they are and what they do. And finally, from a corporate philanthropy side, like this isn’t about marketing, it’s about social change.

And I think that that’s a really amazingly fabulous mission for a any foundation, but moreover for a corporate foundation to just be brave enough to understand who they are and what they wanna achieve, and not worry about whether it’s gonna sell jeans or not.

Kirk: And you asked at the end, you know, what gives you hope? And, and that’s when Fatima reflected on what a dark and difficult time this is. But, but I’m listening to that thinking, well actually, Fatima, you’re, you give us hope. It’s people like you who give us hope. You’re actually the hope creator.

So, I hope that, I hope that Fater could feel that. Get some, uh, resource outta that because actually it’s people like her that are showing up for this work and doing it in such a considered and thorough and solid way for so many years with so much intelligence and so much grace. That is where our hope comes from.

So thank you, Fatima, for the hope.

Eric: You landed the plane, Kirk. You started by trying to bum us out, and then you, you just made it happen. You, you, I mean, you, you worked it out. Welcome to another therapy session with Kirk Brown.

Kirk: That’s right. Let’s fund our partners like we want them to win, and therein lies all of our hope. Well, that was awesome, Eric. My goodness. Fatima, thank you so much for joining us. That was incredibly gracious and generous for you to join us and three years into your tenure as the CEO of the Levi Strauss Foundation.

So excited to see what’s ahead for all of your work. And Eric, my goodness, that was really awesome. Thank you for doing that.

Eric: Well, that was fun, Kirk, and thank you as always for your trenchant observations and incisive questions.

Kirk: Thanks everybody. We’ll see you next time on Let’s Hear It.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at luminafoundation.org.

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.