Small Funder, Big Ambitions: Inside the Levi Strauss Foundation

Original article can be found in Inside Philanthropy.

by Paul M.J. Suchecki

The Levi Strauss Foundation is still inspired by parent corporation’s founder, Bavarian-born Levi Strauss. After his father died of tuberculosis, Strauss immigrated to New York at age 17 with his sisters and mother. There, he joined his two older half-brothers in the family dry goods business. After hearing that gold was discovered in California, he set off to San Francisco to seek his fortune. He found it selling textile and making clothes for miners. One of his denim customers, tailor Jacob Davis, approached him about an innovation: reinforcing denim pants at points of strain with rivets so the trousers would last longer. On May 20, 1873, a patent was granted jointly to Davis and Levi Strauss & Company, which gave birth to the iconic blue jeans. By 1877, Strauss was worth more than $4 million in 19th-century dollars.

Strauss became a prominent leader in San Francisco’s growing Jewish community, giving generously to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, and funding a temple and a cemetery. He established 28 scholarships at the University California, Berkeley that are still available.

In 1902, Strauss died at the age of 73, leaving the bulk of his $6 million fortune to his nephews with additional behests to local charities. To this day, Levi Strauss and Company is a privately held corporation.

The Levi Strauss Foundation was established in 1953 by four Levi Strauss & Company executives as a way to formalize the company’s commitment to charitable giving. It recently marked a milestone of $300 million in grantmaking. “When it comes down to who we are as a company and foundation, we look to our founder Levi Strauss, who was a pioneer,” said Daniel Lee, the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, in a recent talk with Inside Philanthropy. “We look to fund people who have those pioneering characteristics, people who show innovation and originality, people who show empathy, willing to work with those most marginalized, people who will not flinch and will step up to the challenge with courage, going where others fear to tread.”

If you want to see how that thinking plays out across years of grantmaking, the foundation has a handy, up-to-date grants database. As for how nonprofits end up on this list, Lee explains:

In the areas which we fund, HIV human rights and social justice, and worker rights involving the apparel sector, I have a staff that looks to find those who are game-changing in the field. We do a lot of our work proactively to reach out and do a lot of inviting of grants, but we also have a lot of folks contact us.

For nonprofits, it’s helpful that Lee has been on the fundraising side before, as a founding board member of the Massachusetts Asian AIDS Prevention Project.

“I find it important to spend as much time as possible in a busy day to speak with folks, because I have a deep sense of empathy of what it takes to be running a nonprofit and be raising money,” Lee said.

He can also attest to the importance of boards. “When you have those boards that can fire from every cylinder and use their contacts to fundraise, that’s great. It’s urgent work for anybody involved in social change.” Especially today, because he’s noticed that the donors to many nonprofits are graying, and that side of the base is growing stagnant. “When you look at the future of the nonprofit sector, and many organizations that are struggling for funding, it’s that ability to create a sense of the greater good among more folks that’s going to be really key.”

Lee can speak first-hand to the competition for funding from the the foundation side of the fence. He told us that for every grant awarded by LSF, there are at least 20 worthy organizations he turns down. “Our resources are far outstripped by our ambitions.”

What do Lee and his staff look for in nonprofits? “Program models that work, driving policy change, and people who can construct a narrative, a moral and political consensus around change.” He also examines how scalable the program models are.

“Great leaders and great organizations drive meaningful change,” Lee said. He looks to fund people who are fearless, “people who are not willing to make incremental change, but look far into the future, people who are able to experiment early and often, people who aren’t afraid to fail, but are transparent about failure.”

Lee looks for people who learn from their mistakes. “Those who are true innovators in the social sector are those who reach outside their bubble, someone in the nonprofit sector who can translate their work to the business sector using metrics very powerfully, people who are very good story tellers, people who are very good at engaging with government.”

That bar may sound high, but the Levi Strauss Foundation is in a position to be selective, given the stiff competition for its grants. Keep that in mind if you approach this funder. “We want to get the most impact from the $7.5 million we grant each year,” Lee said.

Finally, Lee noted that the foundation was ready and willing to stick with issues over an extended period of time. “We are a long-haul player. We get in early and stay the course.”

He pointed to the foundation’s pioneering efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which has been going on for 33 years, ever since the Levi Strauss workforce in San Francisco and New York faced a mysterious, fatal disease. LSF is still committed to the battle, having poured $50 million into that effort alone. “HIV is the most stigmatized medical condition in history. HIV funding is still needed in China, India, Russia, South Africa, and Brazil, where a lot of funding has pulled out, despite there still being a lot of stigma and discrimination.” Although based in San Francisco, LSF is now a global foundation with two-thirds of the funding directed outside of the U.S. “We focus on places where we have a business presence and there’s a lot of need.”

One notable domestic effort is LSF’s Pioneers in Justice Program. The foundation backed five San Francisco nonprofits to use the power of social media and networking to advance their missions. “Five who are at the forefront of transforming the civil rights and social justice sector emblematic of a sea change, a generational change, technological change, and the collaborative sea change,” Lee said.

The five are: the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which works closely with city’s African-American community; Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which challenges the public on immigration issues; the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Equal Rights Advocates; Chinese for Affirmative Action, which is providing the infrastructure for a new network; Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality; and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which started a new website and social media effort to reach out to the Latino community.

A Princeton graduate with a Master’s from the Harvard Divinity School, Lee said the core values of both LSF and Levi Strauss & Co—originality, empathy, integrity and courage—really matter to him, although he admits that working for LSF was not a career path he anticipated. Yet, for the past seven years, he has been the foundation’s executive director. Before rising to the top spot, he worked as director of grantmaking programs for LSF. He is also a board member of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and the Council on Foundations.

As a final piece of advice, Lee told us that nonprofits should “stay true to one’s values, and the change they want to drive, finding likeminded souls. I hope that the most persistent champions will find their funding.”