The social justice sector is at a critical inflection point – a moment where many of its fundamental assumptions and old ways of operating are being challenged. New tools and strategies are needed to strengthen the sector to advance its goals of achieving justice and opportunity for all.

Pioneers in Justice: Building Networks and Movements for Social Change is a new case study by Heather McLeod Grant about the Levi Strauss Foundation’s groundbreaking five-year effort to help a group of Bay Area social justice leaders scale their impact by investing in capacity building and supporting new ways of working. 

The case study shares many of the rich stores and lessons emerging from the Pioneers in Justice initiative, as these young leaders work to scale their impact and build social movements through the power of social media and networked action. What they are learning – and how they learned it – is something that everyone interested in the larger social sector will be curious to find out.

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Supporting Pioneering Nonprofit Leadership: A Pre-Flight Briefing

Five tips to help foundations supporting leadership development prepare for a successful journey.

Daniel Lee, Executive Director, Levi Strauss Foundation


Like many of us, I spend an inordinate amount of time on planes, and over time, I have come to appreciate flying as a rare sanctum for reflection. One ritual in this sphere, the pre-flight safety demonstration, ranks among my favorite (although I can recite verbatim much of United Airlines’ safety video, this feat qualifies me for little more than my Twitter handle, @flybyboy). The pre-flight briefing ritual offers preparation and instruction for the unexpected, and highlights the service and amenities that accompany the journey.

Investing in nonprofit leadership development, as other authors in the “Talent Matters” blog series have shown, is high-leverage strategy that can further the goals of any foundation. It is not a one-off, transactional proposition but a dynamic, iterative voyage. This blog piece offers a “pre-flight briefing” for foundations on (or curious about) the journey to supporting nonprofit leadership.

The Levi Strauss Foundation is carrying out a five-year initiative called Pioneers in Justice, focused on our hometown of San Francisco – a cradle of innovation in both civil rights and technology. In a nutshell, we are supporting five nonprofit leaders who are shaping the next wave of social justice work as they use the power of social media and networks to advance their missions and movements. In June, we published a case study by Heather McLeod Grant on the initiative’s textured results and lessons; recently she contributed a handy overview of her findings (well-worth giving a moment of your undivided attention).

We have learned a tremendous amount about how to invest in and support leadership networks as a tool for transformative social change. In recent months, I have had numerous conversations with foundation and nonprofit leaders on these themes – and it has been encouraging to witness a groundswell of peers who are exploring and championing leadership development as a powerful tool for philanthropy.

However, it is striking that several foundation staff experience a disjuncture when seeking board support for leadership initiatives. Trustees and donors are generally the real decision-makers in our institutions, but they may not be steeped in the realities, norms and challenges of the social sector. Moreover, internal cultures within foundations – often guided by the calculus of logic models, anticipated outcomes and narrowly focused metrics – have a tendency to be risk-averse. These cultures may pigeonhole leadership development as a soft or “uncredentialed” approach.

Admittedly, this work is kind of messy: it involves embracing both complexity and emergence; it doesn’t lend itself to strict, linear thinking. But when it works, it serves as a potent “super-vitamin” for amplifying impact across multiple levels of the larger systems we seek to transform.

What follows are some tips to prepare for a successful journey.

  1. Make the case for change management

Nonprofit leaders operate in a rapidly-shifting, increasingly interconnected environment. Perhaps it’s hiding in plain sight: change management has become a vital skill of our day.

When tasked five years ago with reinvigorating our hometown philanthropy, the Levi Strauss Foundation eschewed the reputational or civic investment that is the norm among corporate foundations – and instead gravitated to our city’s venerable social justice sector. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to many civil rights nonprofits that have been around for decades. We observed a number of these were undergoing pivotal leadership transitions between Baby Boomers and a new cadre of ethnically diverse “Gen Xers”. While traditional ways of operating were still effective, the digital age had ushered in new tools and approaches that these legacy organizations had not yet fully embraced (and weren’t sure how to). Many legal advocacy organizations, for instance, were finding themselves flummoxed by Twitter, as intricate cases and controversial issues seem impossible to distill in 140 characters.

The new cadre of leaders recognized that new tactics, tools and strategies were necessary to take their work into the twenty-first century. They were intent to find ways to navigate more turbulent waters (influenced by an economic recession, the mounting pace of change and disruptive technologies) and give permission to their organizations, networks and movements to thrive.

While we have focused on supporting leaders in social justice, one would be hard-pressed to find any sector – affordable housing, health care, business, education, government – that is not grappling with the sea changes described here. Whether designing a place-based initiative, driving change on a specific issue or working across issue “silos,” foundations can unlock tremendous impact by supporting nonprofit leaders to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. It all starts with the recognition that change management is a vital skill of the day – something that trustees from every walk of life can readily grasp.

It is telling to point out that when we introduced the Pioneers in Justice to our board, it actually spawned requests to have these leaders speak to Levi Strauss & Co. employees. As a 162-year old, values-driven company embracing a start-up mentality to drive business success, we have much to learn from the instincts and acumen of these remarkable leaders.

  1. Expand the toolkit

From the outset, it was clear that bolstering these leaders and organizations to drive meaningful change would call for approaches beyond traditional grantmaking, with its tangible sets of deliverables on fixed timelines. We embraced experimentation (knowing that some of the pasta wouldn’t stick to the wall) and broadened our toolkit.

Of course, grants served as a vital starting point, both to build social media capacity and support experiments in breakthrough forms of collaboration—reaching across sector, field, and constituency, and mobilizing both trusted and “unlikely” allies. We hosted bimonthly “pioneers forums”—learning sessions that featured case studies, training, and guest speakers—knowing that amid their rigorous responsibilities, nonprofit leaders rarely have space to connect with peers, have frank discussions, and “peer around the corner” in anticipation of challenges facing the field.

We aimed to use all the leadership tools at our disposal—convener, organizer, relationship broker, listener, policy promoter, and knowledge disseminator. As Tessie Guillermo, CEO of ZeroDivide (a terrific partner in building the social media and communications prowess of these leaders) said, “This is part of a movement in philanthropy—a departure from traditional grantmaking toward change-making through a broader set of levers.”

  1. Invest in multiple layers of an organization

Sparking change demands commitment and due consideration at different levels. While an executive director is the face of change in an organization, support from the board at a strategic level and stellar staff capacity to execute are critical factors for success. Against this backdrop, we offered opportunities for support across the organizational chart.

One year into the initiative, we supported a retreat by Rockwood Leadership Institute for three senior leaders (executive, senior staff and board member) from each organization. This approach – a departure from the norm of seeing one person per organization attend these four-day sessions – yielded a range of unexpected benefits over time. Additionally, we partnered with ZeroDivide on a series of workshops for communications and technology staff, given their crux role bringing to life their leaders’ visions through social media.

This is a decidedly non-linear approach, and striking the right balance between these layers is more an art than a science. But addressing multiple levels of the systems that our nonprofit partners navigate has massive upsides: it allows funders to identify the many fruitful points of leverage where we may intervene and extend timely support.

  1. Broaden the time horizon

According to Bob Haas, president emeritus of our foundation: “One of the most difficult lessons in philanthropy is to be patient and stay committed – especially when the going gets tough. Real change is hard. It takes time.”

When embarking on Pioneers in Justice, we recognized that in order to have an impact, we needed to go slow and deep. It was new practice to focus so intensively on five organizations. We also sensed that we needed a five-year duration to show that fundamental change is possible through these leaders’ embrace of technology and the power of networked collaboration.

Our conclusion: long-term commitment, grounded in shared values and rigorous goal-setting, has its rewards. Commitment fosters honesty and intimacy. In turn, this fuels risk-taking and more expansive ambitions, such as these:

  • Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, with its deep roots in the city’s African-American community and legacy of pro bono legal aid, is bringing its core services directly to low-income neighborhoods rather than having clients trek downtown to legal firms – bucking the status quo to better serve constituents.
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus is leaping into the digital space to engage Asian Americans on challenging immigration issues – aiming to debunk mythologies of the “good” and “bad” immigrant to drive broader support for reform.
  • National Center for Lesbian Rights and Equal Rights Advocates have forged unprecedented ties with perhaps “unlikely” allies – including the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office – for its Let Her Work campaign, which champions formerly incarcerated women and recently gave rise to policy change reducing barriers to employment.
  • American Civil Liberties Union – Northern California has created impressive momentum expanding its cornerstone “know your rights” outreach among regions and groups that it identifies most at-risk for civil liberties violations. The organization made inroads into the chronically underserved Central Valley of California and reached Latinos through a popular new Spanish language website and a bold national campaign and bus tour to bring attention to racial profiling.
  • Chinese for Affirmative Action is serving as a “backbone” for a dynamic new network, Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality (AACRE). Its members include a range of progressive community organizations, and it aims to serve as an inclusive home and ballast. AACRE offers shared back-office capabilities and spawns new kinds of collaboration – for instance, between marriage equality and prisoner reentry advocates.

Each of these reflect decisive moves to expand the mission of the organization (and perhaps what it means to be an identity-based organization in this age), driving inclusivity and embracing marginalized groups not previously seen as “one of us.” No doubt, leaders cannot cultivate these kinds of innovative changes overnight.

  1. Bring the worlds together

Meaningful philanthropy requires outstanding partners. At our foundation, it has proven invaluable to forge direct connections between our board members (in our case, family shareholders and business leaders) and community partners. Through site visits and board sessions, we curate conversations that bring to life the challenges of change management and the standout leadership characteristics of our partners. (The book Forces for Good can be a powerful touchstone for these dialogues—in fact, our staff embraces its guiding principles to help identify game-changing leaders and propel impact across our strategies.)

This helps everyone discern the long-term lifecycle of change—warts and all. Our board understands that bad policies and egregious rights violations often trigger the “issues and events of our day.” These threats, however, may instigate a perfect storm of change if community leaders are deft, savvy, and tenacious enough to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. We know that it is not possible to predict these circumstances or foster this spark of change in every instance; we embrace our role of providing patient capital and preparing our partners for these watershed moments.


For foundations, the journey to supporting nonprofit leadership may not be terse, linear or free of bumps and turbulence. But it comes with few risks and potentially lofty rewards – especially over the long haul. Finally, it’s not an “all or nothing” proposition: Take any of these kernels of insight and apply them to enhance your journey.

A version of this piece appeared on the Stanford Social Innovation blog on December 3, 2014.