Women's Foundation of California's CEO Surina Khan
Surina Khan traveled and listened
We are your statewide women’s community foundation and we are accountable to you. Illustrator: Marissa Klee-Peregon.

Last month I celebrated my first year as CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. Since 1979, this statewide community foundation has been strengthening the economic wellbeing of women and families and I am honored and humbled to build on that legacy.

This first year, I have logged thousands of miles traveling the state and meeting with many of you. I’ve been to San Diego, San Bernardino and San Francisco. Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Sacramento. Riverside, Long Beach and Fresno. Sierra Foothills, Monterey and Silicon Valley. And pretty much everywhere in between. I’ve driven through what seems like every town and townlet in the Central and Inland Valleys and flown up and down the coast more times than I could remember.

(A really big thank you goes to our official airline, Southwest Airlines, for helping me stay responsive and connected.)

I met with hundreds of you: advocates and community leaders, policymakers, donors, foundation and corporate leaders. Everywhere I went I asked questions and listened deeply to the answers: What are our true strengths? How do we best support our grant partners? How do we best make a difference in the lives of California women? What role should we play in policy advocacy? What could we be doing better, why and how?

The answers I got were honest and thought-provoking, kind and encouraging, challenging and at times difficult to hear. I welcomed and cherished them all. You reaffirmed our core value that those who are closest to the problems in their communities are best qualified to develop solutions to those problems. You asked us to continue investing in women and girls through grantmaking. You encouraged us to focus on training grassroots women leaders in policy advocacy. And you asked us to focus on strengthening the culture of philanthropy in California.

Back home, the Foundation’s staff, board and I reflected on thousands of hours of conversation, our expertise, experience and strengths and we refined our program strategy as a result.

Our mission—to advance economic wellbeing of women and our communities—remains unchanged. But to achieve our mission, we’re focusing on women’s leadership and two clear, unequivocal approaches: philanthropy and policy. We are investing in and training women to be leaders in philanthropy and policy advocacy because we know that together these two powerful groups will ignite and fuel social change in California.

Mission and Approach
We’ll achieve our mission by focusing on women’s leadership in policy and philanthropy.
The crisis facing women in California

As you know only too well, California has incredible wealth and yet too many women in our state live in poverty. Ours is the seventh largest economy in the world and yet we have the highest poverty rate in the nation: one in four Californians lives in poverty. The poverty rate is especially high among women of color and single mothers. At the same time, retired women in our state are much more likely to live in poverty than retired men.

Consider the wage barriers women face in our state. In 2014, women in California made 84 percent of the wages of their male peers. The gap is even larger for women of color—Latinas in California make 44 cents for every dollar that white men make, which is the biggest gap for Latinas in the nation.

44 cents for every dollar? That’s not only unjust but unforgivable.

Wage Gap California
The wage gap is just one example of women’s economic insecurity in California, especially women of color.

Far too many women and families in California are living month-to-month and paycheck-to-paycheck, never knowing when one financial setback—a trip to the emergency room, an unexpected car repair—will push them to the brink of poverty and homelessness.

Like you, I want to live in a California where every woman and her family has a stable and safe place to live. Where she can put healthy food on the dinner table every night. And in the morning she has childcare and reliable transportation so she can get to her job. A job that pays her a living wage and allows her to provide for her family and save for emergencies and retirement. And if she or her kid gets sick, she has health insurance and paid sick leave so that she doesn’t have to choose between keeping her job and the wellbeing of her children.

I want to live in a California where every woman has the opportunity to decide where, when or if she is going to have a child. And if she chooses to have a child, she won’t be pushed to the brink of poverty for making her decision.

Focusing on women’s leadership

I know that together we can make this vision possible. I know that together we can solve the most complex problems and remove some of the most pervasive barriers that women and families face in California.

At the Women’s Foundation of California our solution is to invest in women’s leadership at all levels and especially as policy advocates and as philanthropists.

Women leaders in policy advocacy

We know first-hand what extraordinary feats women policy advocates are capable of.

Over the years, we have trained more than 300 grassroots women leaders through our Women’s Policy Institute and those women have helped pass more than 23 bills into state law. One of those laws is the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which provides overtime pay to an estimated 100,000 California housekeepers, child care providers and caregivers. We trained the talented immigrant women workers who made this groundbreaking law possible and we gave them the tools they needed to gracefully kick down the doors of the Capitol and win state recognition for their dignity.

This year, we doubled down on our investment in women policy leaders because we know that they’ll use their new skills and networks to double—no, triple, even quadruple—their policy impact on our state. In partnership with The California Endowment, we expanded the Women’s Policy Institute and trained 20 more women in county-level policy in Riverside. What’s more, we’ll soon start training women in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

When it comes to policy advocacy, we know that our role is to be a supportive partner to the advocates who are best situated to bring about policy change. We are steadfast in our belief that the people closest to the problems in their communities are best positioned to develop solutions to those problems. A grant partner once said it and we cannot agree more, “We are the experts of our experience.” At the Foundation, we exist to identify, support and ignite the experts.

Leaders in policy advocacy
Our role is to identify, support and ignite the experts in our communities.
Women leaders in philanthropy

As the only statewide women’s community foundation in California, it’s our duty to support women’s philanthropy in California and foster a culture of giving in our state. We’re committed to our six giving circles and are determined to grow the overall number of women philanthropists in California.

Today only seven percent of all philanthropic dollars goes to support women and girls’ causes. When we started out in 1979, that number was one percent. We have a lot to be proud of and, yet, we have a long way to go. We need to activate more women of all socioeconomic backgrounds to use the power of their purse string to ignite social change.

Over the last fifteen years, our giving circles have collectively awarded $10.4 million to more than 500 outstanding community-based organizations that are improving the lives of low-income women and girls.

We’re so proud to work with the visionary women, girls and men of the Economic Development and Justice giving circle, the Race, Gender and Human Rights giving circle, Violets’ Giving Circle, Women Give San Diego giving circle, WomenGO! giving circle and Women + Girls in CA giving circle.

Our goal is to grow our giving circle model and engage more women in collaborative community philanthropy. We believe that our giving circle model of philanthropy—philanthropy that’s deeply respectful, engaged, collaborative and supportive of the grassroots leaders and organizations—is gamechanging. One giving circle member captured our philanthropic philosophy best when she said: “We are not the leaders. The advocates are the leaders. And they’re leading with such hard work, strategic thinking and dedication.”

In addition to the giving circles, we’re supporting individual women philanthropists through our donor advised funds. We provide these ambitious women’s rights activists with administrative, financial and programmatic support so that they can best support the women’s rights organizations and leaders in California.

Our philanthropists are deeply respectful, collaborative and supportive of the grassroots leaders and organizations.
Strengthening women’s economic wellbeing through grantmaking

In addition to training women to be leaders in policy and philanthropy, we are committed to supporting women’s rights movements, organizations and leaders through grantmaking.

Many incredible groups are using intersectional approaches to advance women’s economic wellbeing in California and we’re committed to supporting the most innovative and effective among them through timely and responsive grants. The issue areas we support may change over the years, but we’ll never stray from our focus on strengthening women’s economic wellbeing.

This year in partnership with leading Foundations in California, we collectively awarded $300,000 to six organizations that are strengthening the civic engagement of low-income women and women of color in the Inland Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino. We are proud to host the California Civic Participation Funders Collaborative and partnering with our colleagues at the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation and the Progressive Era Leadership Project.

We awarded $500,000 in grants to six organizations that are helping women get and stay in jobs that provide a living wage. This initiative, Bridge to Living Wage, supports women’s employment and career growth in the ever-expanding healthcare sector.

In September, we awarded $450,000 to 20 reproductive justice organizations in California because we needed to ensure that California continues to lead the nation in advancing women’s reproductive rights. You saw what happened in Congress in September: A bill that would limit women’s reproductive rights passed through Assembly. Luckily for us, it died in Senate. But we cannot rely on luck. More than forty years after Roe v. Wade, we still need to fiercely defend women’s hard-won right to control our own bodies.

I’m proud of everything we’ve been able to accomplish this past year…and we have a lot more in store. In particular, I’m proud of our incredible staff and board who work tirelessly every day to bring our mission to life. And I’m proud of you for continuing to learn and work with us in support of women’s rights in California. We hope you’ll continue sharing with us your opinions and ideas, both encouraging and challenging. Because we are your women’s community foundation and we are accountable to you.

Here’s to growing and improving, without fail or fear.


P.S. A big thank you to our intrepid illustrator and current Wellesley College student, Marissa Klee-Peregon. You’re brilliant!

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