Foundation Center West 40th Anniversary: A Conversation with Jan Masaoka of CalNonprofits

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 Jan Masaoka, chief executive officer at The California Association of Nonprofits. 

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

JM: Northern California nonprofits have more than twice as much money per capita than Southern California nonprofits do, as we found in our economic impact study of California's nonprofit sector, Causes Count. And people come from all over the world to the Bay Area in order to change the world, mostly in progressive ways. So we have an activist population that is progressive, nonprofits with more money than others, a great climate, and terrific burritos. Paradise!

It's much easier for a plant to grow in rich soil than in the desert. We have very rich soil for nonprofits in the Bay Area.

FCW: What role do you play in the Bay Area social sector?

JM: Resident crank and pessimist. Actually that role acts as a disguise for my real self, which is closet idealist.

FCW: What do you believe the Bay Area nonprofit community needs to thrive?

JM: We're already thriving. A better question might be: what do Bay Area residents need to thrive? And what can Bay Area residents do to help others elsewhere? In parallel, foundations often ask, “Which nonprofits are the best?” Instead they could be asking, “Which nonprofits can we boost to support the ecosystem in which they dwell?” We know that a healthy forest can’t be supported by foundations focusing on the best, most appealing grantwriting animals. Great theatre lives only in a great theatre community; great children’s services thrive in an ecosystem of children’s providers.

And we nonprofits: instead of asking, “What are our goals and vision?” we should be asking, “Who is our community, and what do they need our organization to be doing right now?”

FCW: How is Cal Nonprofits addressing the needs of Bay Area nonprofits?

JM: As a "chamber of commerce" for nonprofits, we work for an economic and regulatory climate in which nonprofits can do their best work. For example, together with 300 nonprofits last month we were able to stop a bill in the California legislature that would have sharply curtailed the contracts with government through which health, human service, animal rescue, environmental and other nonprofits serve their communities.  

We also have a platform to speak to philanthropy. For instance, we just launched GrantAdvisor, a Yelp-like website where nonprofits can post reviews of foundations and engage foundations in discussion about nonprofit ecosystems. In another example, we issued an open letter to California foundations calling on them to fund nonprofits that had suddenly higher expenses due to the increases in minimum wage. Only two foundations responded, but we hope we got it onto the radar of many more of them.

FCW: How do you see the Foundation Center playing a supporting role in the Bay Area social sector?   

JM: You can visualize the Bay Area social sector as a city, with a few skyscrapers, a lot of medium-sized buildings, and thousands of cottages. The Foundation Center is a neighborhood library in that city.

Read Part I of this series, featuring Charles Fields, chief of staff and planning at The Irvine Foundation.

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


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Jan Masaoka is the chief executive officer of the California Association of Nonprofits. She is a leading writer and thought leader on nonprofit organizations with particular emphasis on boards of directors, business planning, and the role of nonprofits in society.