Foundation Center West 40th Anniversary: A Conversation with Charles Fields of The Irvine Foundation

This year, Foundation Center West is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a resource hub for social sector professionals and organizations. This is the first installment in a blog series highlighting our four decades of social sector service. We spoke with some of the leading voices in Bay Area philanthropy, including Charles Fields, chief of staff and planning at The James Irvine Foundation


FCW: What do you believe makes the Bay Area social sector unique?

CF: We have significant inequity in the Bay Area, but we have a robust social sector that aims to address the inequity here. Bay Area nonprofits are robust and sophisticated. As organizations, they benefit from the fact that a lot of folks who come from impacted communities are actually leading their work. And the Bay Area philanthropic sector is also robust. On a national scale, the Bay Area ranks alongside New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. as having the most sophisticated philanthropic culture. I think the nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area benefit from both having good relationships with foundations, and access to resources probably more readily than organizations in the interior of the country. 

I also think nonprofits in the Bay Area respond to a great myriad of issues that affect our citizens – from water and drought, urban poverty and criminal justice, to issues that are impacting low income communities and communities of color. The Bay Area social sector benefits from a diverse grouping of organizations addressing a diverse array of challenges. And I think they have had, and will continue to have, some really spectacular wins – even though there is always more work to do. 

FCW: What role does The James Irvine Foundation play in the Bay Area social sector?

CF: We seek to fund organizations that are expanding economic and political opportunity for Californians who are working and struggling with poverty. As I mentioned, there is great inequity in California: we have some of the wealthiest individuals in the world living here, and we also have the highest poverty rate. At Irvine, we feel it's our institutional responsibility and mandate to try to be able to support people who are working but unable to support their families. How do we help make sure that jobs are paying a living wage? That folks have child care? That folks have access to the types of resources that help them to succeed in society? We don’t consider ourselves a leader on these causes by any means. Instead, we hope to join many other foundations and many other nonprofit organizations who are working to make communities better. 

FCW: What do you think local nonprofits need to thrive here in the Bay Area?

CF: It's expensive in the Bay Area. It's a very expensive place to live and work. I read in a report recently that in Oakland and in Alameda County, organizations are getting pushed out of their spaces. Simply finding a place to deliver their services and meet with their constituents is a problem. So it’s expensive all around: for your employees to find housing; and for your organization to find office space.

Nonprofits in the area also want to appeal to local funders. For Irvine, we value organizations that use evidence-based practices in their work, engage their clients and constituents in ways that inform their work, have systems and staff in place to ensure sustainability, and whose missions or work align in some way with our own focus.

FCW: What is your position in regional philanthropy?

CF: Irvine is focused on California, and our support, through grants and partnerships, has reach across the state. We have offices in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. The large coastal cities tend to have a lot of wealth, and the interior parts of the state – especially in places like the Central Valley – tend to have a significant amount of poverty. Simultaneously, nonprofits in places like Fresno, San Bernardino, and Riverside have limited philanthropic investments in their communities; they have to do more with less. We are focused on getting into those areas of the state that are underserved – by the philanthropic sector and that have a lot of poverty and need. We call this our “priority regions initiative,” where we have set aside resources and focus on parts of the state that ultimately have a really high level of need and historically haven’t had a high level of philanthropic resources coming in.

FCW: What do you see as the role of the Foundation Center in the Bay Area social sector? 

CF: I think the Foundation Center plays an intermediary role between foundations and nonprofit organizations. Sometimes philanthropy can be like a black box, you don't know how it works, you don't know what a foundation’s issues are, some foundations don't have websites. As a grantseeker, it’s hard to engage with foundations – you don’t know how, you don’t know what your proposal should look like. 

The Foundation Center provides really good information about foundations: what their priority issue areas are, how much they do in grantmaking, what their priorities tend to be, how to access them. Foundation Center also provides a more general understanding of the trends that are happening in philanthropy. 

Ultimately, foundations and the broader social sector are all working towards the same goal. We play different roles, but we're all working towards the same goal. The Foundation Center helps us all work together better. Without the Foundation Center, you have a gap in understanding between the two. And connection between foundations and nonprofits is ultimately what's going to make us successful in solving the big problems that we face. 

Read Part II in this series, featuring Jan Masaoka, chief executive officer of CalNonprofits.

Read Part III of this series, featuring Lisa Hoffman, Bay Area social sector coach, consultant, and Zen priest.


Charles Fields is chief of staff and planning at the James Irvine Foundation. He joined the Irvine Foundation’s San Francisco office in late August 2016. He has more than a decade of leadership experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, funding and supporting social change organizations to achieve greater impact.