California faces multiple crises. Can we solve them without help from philanthropy?

California is no stranger to crisis.

Nearly 20 years ago, when we were experiencing rolling blackouts across the state and the fallout after the dotcom bubble burst, the governor invited nonprofits and philanthropists to join him in solving the most pressing social problems of the day. But philanthropy was wary of getting too close to government, and government quickly became too distracted with the energy crisis to cultivate meaningful partnerships with philanthropy.

Today, skyrocketing housing costs are forcing Californians out of their communities and onto the streets, our education system ranks among the lowest in the nation and more than a million Californians don’t have clean drinking water.

We are in the middle of a mess in our state. But, today, the sector has changed. We are finally willing to admit that we need each other.

California is the land of innovation. But that innovation does not need to be confined to the tech giants of Silicon Valley, the biotech labs of San Diego or the entertainment masterminds of Los Angeles. We have the opportunity to marry California’s innovative spirit with state government and, in doing so, help solve many of our greatest and most pressing social issues.


In fact, many of our greatest innovators are hard at work in local communities solving the most pressing social problems we face.

In October of 2017, when the fires ravaged Sonoma County, leaving hundreds of people without homes, La Luz Center in Sonoma didn’t just rebuild housing. They saw it as an opportunity to train low-income workers in the construction trade. In the Bay Area, Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae, developed a network of mobile showers for the homeless, using “radical hospitality” to give their guests dignity, a first step in rebuilding their lives. And in Stockton, Mayor Michel Tubbs guaranteed 100 low-income residents $500 a month to see if a system of universal basic income might alleviate some of the daily shocks of living in poverty.

People are coming together across sectors like never before to address long-standing problems. In a recent census convening in Sacramento coordinated by Philanthropy California – a statewide collaboration of grantmakers – every square inch of the room was packed with community leaders, philanthropists and government officials. It was so crowded that people were literally sitting on the floor, taking notes. Together, they are devising a shared strategy to count every Californian in the 2020 census and avoid the billions of dollars in lost federal funding as a result of undercounting in the past.

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Kathleen Janus 2017 Michelle Pattee

In Los Angeles, the California Community Foundation is pulling from its endowment and partnering with foundations, developers and lenders to help ensure LA County is successful in its commitment to more than triple the production of affordable housing and support services to keep low-income populations housed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has once again invited philanthropists, social entrepreneurs and CEOs to be part of his agenda for change in California, and this time the response has been overwhelming. As I step into the first-ever role as senior adviser on social innovation for Newsom, I am committed to elevating stories of social change from every community and building strong multi-sector partnerships across our state.

Private philanthropy is nimble enough to invest in research and development, while government has the unique power to purchase and scale new solutions. And of course none of that matters without strong nonprofits on the ground who are implementing services, welcoming clients through their doors and being responsive to their lived experiences.

In order for us to move through the crisis we’re seeing in California, we have to ensure that we are not only investing in service to our communities but acting as a unified driver of growth, change and justice for all.

Kathleen Kelly Janus is the senior advisor on social innovation for Gov. Gavin Newsom. She wrote “Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference
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