Rob Hope, Initiative Officer, Bay Area Workforce Funders Collaborative, The San Francisco Foundation

Elena Chavez Quezada, Senior Director, Expanding Access to Opportunity, The San Francisco Foundation

The San Francisco Foundation has a creative grantmaking strategy tailored to its community and the urgency created by the Bay Area’s rapid change. All of The Foundation’s work is centered on equity. Their program areas – people, place, and power – require them to think cross-issue. One initiative is the Bay Area Workforce Funders Collaborative, which brings funders together across the region to develop innovative, worker-center approaches to the future of work in San Francisco. We chatted with Rob and Elena about the Collaborative, equity, and thinking cross-issue.

The Bay Area Workforce Funders Collaborative envisions a Bay Area where all people feel secure in their home and community. The Bay Area’s innovation economy is fueling dramatic income inequality and displacement—every day we see a lot of homelessness and also extreme wealth. The cost of living is skyrocketing, and incomes aren’t keeping pace for most people in the Bay Area. The changing nature of work, including the replacement of full-time family-sustaining jobs with part-time, low wage, contingent work, is creating structural deficits in our economy that are threatening the wellbeing of our communities. We believe workforce development systems and programs should be a crucial piece of solving these problems. That’s the focus of our Collaborative.

We think about the workforce system globally – employees, employers, and everyone working to make the connection between them, including community colleges, workforce development boards, apprenticeship programs, community based organizations, worker organizers, and more. We structure our work around three areas.


We start with bringing more transparency to the workforce ecosystem. We think about transparency in a couple ways. First, we aim to help people who don’t have a lot of expertise with the workforce system understand it better, like workers, employers, and funders. We want to help the system be clearer and more transparent to those outside of it so that new voices feel empowered to join the conversation about how the system can work better.

The other side of the transparency coin is around the system’s performance. The nature of work has changed a lot, including career pathways and trajectories. It is continuing to change more and more rapidly. It’s never been more important to know what strategies are working and for whom they are working, yet we lack a dynamic data system that can tell us that in real time.

As we lead with a racial and economic equity perspective, it’s important to know what’s working for low-income people of color in particular. We don’t just want funders and policymakers to have this information; we want to empower the job seeker or student to make decisions that will help them achieve economic security. We ask people to invest their limited time and resources in attending a program or school, yet we give them little information or evidence about what works and their likelihood of success. The stakes are high for people who are already struggling to make ends meet. A more transparent marketplace where students are making informed choices can not only help individuals, but can create clearer signals for programs, funders, and policymakers about what is working, what isn’t, and what they can do to perform better.

Worker-Centered Design

Our second strategy area is worker-centered design. Education and training programs have evolved to put the needs and interests of employers at the center of their work. One of the byproducts of this shift is that workforce development has become less responsive to the needs of students and workers. We believe the way to resolve that is to center the voice and ideas of workers, job seekers, and students as the field looks for new solutions – not just as feedback providers, but as partners in crafting questions, making meaning of data, and designing solutions.

Future of Work

Our third area is around the future of work. This is an area that we’re continuing to define, especially as it relates to the issues presenting the greatest threats and opportunities to our Bay Area communities. Most discussions we see and participate in about the future of work center around automation; less are about job quality. When these discussions do happen, they tend to be focused on employer-driven solutions and are based on assumptions about the inevitability of current trends continuing. Workers aren’t often part of these conversations or at the table helping us think about how the future might look different or what decisions we want to make right now.

There are people talking about income security. The nuance here is that we’re thinking specifically about workforce development–we have a system focused on helping people get the skills to have better paying jobs, but that system isn’t thinking about how it ties into income security issues. They are training people for current jobs without much thought about how to increase the availability of quality jobs. We’re missing an opportunity by not incorporating the job quality conversation directly into our workforce development work.

Here are a few examples of our recent grants:

  • One of our goals is to support and learn from organizations who are trying new approaches to persistent challenges. For example, in our worker centered design program area, we gave grants to four worker organizing groups in various stages of developing or operating worker training programs. We’re really interested in exploring how these training programs look different when they are developed with the well-being of workers front and center.
  • Also in our worker centered design area, we gave a grant to a local organization to hire consulting help to engage their participants directly in designing a new program. Many organizations want to have meaningful input for their participants, but it’s harder than it seems because of power dynamics, cultural differences, and other barriers. Getting meaningful input from a diverse group is challenging.
  • In our transparency program area, we gave a grant to an organization to do an historical analysis of the Bay Area workforce system through a racial and gender equity lens. They are developing case studies of policies, practices, and narratives that implicitly and explicitly privileged white men and tracing the legacies of these policies through time. We’ll then work with local workforce development boards to develop strategies to counteract the persistent limiting impacts of these policies, practices, and narratives on economic opportunity for people of color and women.
  • One final example focused on our transparency work is Project Signal, a pilot project to develop a “workforce data trust.” It’s an open-source, individual-centered data system with multiple data contributors, potentially including wage information from the state, student completion information from community colleges, credentialing data from workforce development boards, and more. Because it’s open-source, we can connect this data to online sites people are already using to show the long-term wage impact of specific programs and institutions broken out by race, age, and other factors.

The time is right for large-scale change. We have a brain trust (advisory council) made up of nine people from the community, including worker advocates, public workforce officials, and workforce development providers. Their feedback and ideas ground our strategy in what’s happening on the ground in our area—what is most important to the people we want to see succeed. They give us feedback on projects and insight into what others are doing in a similar space. Because it’s a mix of workers rights and workforce development experts, we give them a lot of space to talk about what integrating the two might look like and how we can work towards shared goals.

There are two things that jump to mind. There is a lot of value in questioning assumptions about the effectiveness of systems, especially based on the experience of people who use those systems. How do people outside the system feel about the system? Where is there success? Where is the system not working? We try to read the tea leaves and rely a lot on thought leaders and experts, but too often, as a field, we miss out on the true experiences and ideas of people using the system.

The second point is urgency. I fear our region is going to look very different in ten years if we don’t solve some of these problems around income inequality urgently. That level of urgency demands big change, risk, and hard conversations. People come into jobs in workforce development with really strong intentions and passions around helping people achieve their goals and thrive. A lot of times, we lose sight of that passion when we move into systems change work. We need to hold on to and leverage those dreams to help everyone be more ambitious and set higher standards for what our systems can and should accomplish.

When Fred Blackwell came on as CEO in 2014, he came with a desire to double down on our focus on racial and economic equity for the Bay Area. We’ve always been attuned to issues of racial and economic equity, especially in a place where we have incredible wealth alongside many low-wage jobs and people (particularly people of color) being displaced and forced to move out of the Bay Area, but doubling down on equity means that we must have a more interconnected approach to grantmaking. It means breaking down our internal siloes at the foundation and more broadly within philanthropy.

It’s not easy, and we’ve been transparent about some of our own challenges. Working across issues requires shifts in the way we are staffed, our grantmaking criteria and processes, and our relationships with community organizations and other stakeholders. As we work through these challenges, it can be difficult for current and prospective grantees to understand where they fit in our funding priorities. We organized our work into three interrelated pathways that we are referring to as People (expanding access to opportunity through removing systemic barriers), Place (anchoring communities to help people feel deeply rooted and connected), and Power (nurturing equity movements to ensure a strong political voice for all). We certainly have more work to do as we embrace this new framework, but we believe this will help us advance racial and economic equity in the Bay Area.

In order to maximize our impact on low-income communities of color in the Bay Area, we must work across multiple issue areas. At the end of the day, individuals don’t identify themselves by gender one day, race another day, or employment status yet another day; people have multiple layers to their identities and navigate those different aspects every day, all at the same time. Why, then, would we create artificial walls within our philanthropic institutions? For funders that are interested in working across issue areas, I recommend embracing the discomfort and building in space for self-reflection, failure, and continuous improvement.