USC Price School of Public Policy

Los Angeles Urban Funders: Lasting effects, lessons learned after ’92 civil unrest

June 9, 2017


From left: Elwood Hopkins, Dannielle Campos, Robert K. Ross and Wendy Wachtell

By Susan Wampler

In the wake of the 1992 Civil Unrest, 21 Los Angeles foundations united to help heal the social ruptures that drove it, working collaboratively to improve socioeconomic conditions in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including disbursement of $25 million in grant funding.

On June 1, the USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy hosted foundation and community leaders for “Los Angeles Urban Funders in Retrospect: Lasting Effects, Lessons Learned After the 1992 Civil Unrest” — marking the 25th anniversary of this watershed moment in the city’s history. The convening is part of a larger inquiry by CPPP and sponsored by Bank of America, with additional support from the California Endowment, that includes three roundtables, in-depth interviews, and a forthcoming paper.

In welcoming the attendees, Professor James Ferris — founding director of CPPP and the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Non-Profit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy — noted that the creation of Los Angeles Urban Funders (LAUF) is a story embedded in the history of Southern California but that has national implications. In many ways, LAUF was the forerunner of philanthropic initiatives focusing on collaboration, place, community revitalization, and collective impact.

LAUF’s former Executive Director Elwood Hopkins, now president of Emerging Markets Inc., provided an overview of LAUF’s long-term impact, explaining how unprecedented the collaboration was in a city then known for its fragmented philanthropic field.

“LAUF initially was met with skepticism,” he said. “It was a highly experimental effort that challenged closely held assumptions about how philanthropy should do its job.”

LAUF began as an ad hoc group of foundations and trustees, later becoming a formal consortium that allocated pooled resources in three low-income neighborhoods — Vermont/Manchester and Hyde Park in South Los Angeles, and Pacoima, an immigrant community in the San Fernando Valley — over the course of a decade, 1996–2006. Each of the participating foundations had an equal vote and was expected to contribute to the pooled fund in an amount relative to its overall grant-making capacity.

“LAUF built on indigenous local efforts already at play,” Hopkins said. “We were looking for communities where partnerships were already forming.” A key emphasis was on building economic opportunity, a driver of change that historically had the least amount of philanthropic funding. LAUF also employed a bimodal funding mechanism, with its foundation members continuing to make conventional grants in the targeted communities but reserving the pooled money for riskier, less conventional approaches.

Joseph Drown Foundation President and former LAUF Co-chair Wendy Wachtell during a panel discussion highlighting the foundation perspective noted that on almost every front LAUF was doing things that philanthropy locally had never done before. “We were going into the communities and, for the first time, saying ‘You’re equal stakeholders in this conversation.’ We knew we had not served these communities well, and we were looking for a new model. We were out on the ledge together.”

The foundation panel also featured Dannielle Campos, senior vice president and ESG program director for Bank of America Charitable Foundation, and Robert K. Ross, MD, president and CEO of the California Endowment. Campos cited former Bank of America Foundation President Caroline Boitano’s pioneering work as a LAUF founder, adding, “We were at a moment when we could bring all of our resources, not just philanthropy, around the table and think about how to bring economic opportunity to the communities we serve.”

In addition, the audience heard perspectives from representatives of the neighborhoods that benefited from LAUF’s work: Gloria Lazalde, resident leader and community organizer in Pacoima, and Mary Lee, deputy director of PolicyLink in South Los Angeles. Lee recalled that a number of nonprofits in South Los Angeles were initially skeptical of LAUF, worrying that it would represent business as usual in how funding decisions were made.

“One of the things that immediately began to convince the community-based organizations that this was a different approach,” Lee said, “was LAUF’s willingness to be long-term and place-based.” Lazalde added, “The approach was really tailored around the needs of the community.”

Still, Hopkins said, what LAUF achieved at the neighborhood level has not yet been widely shared. By the time LAUF adjourned for the last time, it had made an indelible mark on the landscape of Southern California philanthropy. It had modeled new and effective ways for foundations to work with each other and with low-income communities. It had demonstrated that heightened collaboration among foundations translates into greater cooperative activity at the neighborhood level, which in turn translates into improved community outcomes. LAUF had been widely recognized as a model for more collaborative philanthropy and, in the end, it also provided some insights into the limitations of philanthropy’s capacity to sustain collaboration indefinitely.

Other lessons learned include the importance of maintaining a steadfast commitment to a neighborhood, adapting to each community’s capacity level, investing in nonprofit management assistance, sharing risk with crucial partners, and identifying the best timing in which to engage the public sector. LAUF has been criticized for engaging the public sector late in the process, but early government involvement can overwhelm community residents, Hopkins noted.

During the foundation discussion, Ross said, “The key lessons for philanthropy are to be anchored in the reality of what marginalized, stigmatized, oppressed communities are dealing with, and to lead through listening. The stakes are extremely high, and I think the timeliness of this conversation, and the conversations that will follow as we move forward, is critical.”

“The issues that first prompted Los Angeles Urban Funders — a deepening and combustible economic divide, violence sparked by community-police relations that are less than desirable — these things are more relevant today, not less,” Hopkins added, urging philanthropic leaders to learn from the lessons and “move on in a bigger way.”