The Libra Foundation: Where We've Been and Where We're Going

By Crystal Hayling, Crystal Hayling

On January 31st in Oakland, I joined a remarkable lineup of social justice leaders at Justice Funders’ State of the Movement. The event convened philanthropic and movement leaders who are committed to reimagining communities and building economies focused on care, cooperation, regeneration, and social well-being.

Crystal speaking at Justice Funders’ State of the Movement

In my brief address, I shared my vision for The Libra Foundation and the many ways we are attempting to redefine the way we do philanthropy. I’d like to share some of those thoughts here on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Introducing Libra 2.0

The Libra Foundation was founded in 2002 with an endowment of $33 million by a progressive, Chicago-based family.  In 2017, the family decided to build an in-house team to help bring forth the next chapter of The Libra Foundation.

From left to right: Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

Fast forward to today. This is the founding team of Libra 2.0. When I was hired in 2017 as their first in-house Executive Director, I knew we had to boldly support movement strategies that build collective power, hire brilliant, heart-driven humans with a longing to do philanthropy differently, and be brave enough to show up as our authentic selves with wealthy people. Here’s how we’re turning our principles into practice:

What we fund

The Libra team’s guiding principle is that those who are closest to the issues understand those issues the best. They are not only the most equipped to build solutions, they are the most effective at implementing those solutions. This means low-income communities of color building power from the ground up, inspiring big local change that creates influence on the national level and national/transnational coalitions that are working with partners around the country and globe. This means focusing on key areas where human rights are ignored – criminal justice reform, gender justice, and environmental justice. We fund, when possible, at the intersections of these issue areas. No one issue solely affects a human being. We are not single-issue people; we are whole beings.

This also means funding people like Gina Clayton who founded Essie Justice Group, a network of women who have incarcerated family members. Each woman in the network is nominated by her incarcerated family member. Together, as Black and Latinx women, formerly and currently incarcerated women, transwomen, and gender non-conforming people, as sisters, they are driving fierce change to fight the injustices created by mass incarceration.

That means funding groups like Southerners On New Ground (SONG), which has been organizing LGBTQ communities across the South for 25 years. In their annual report, they write:

“How, with the boot of the state on our necks, do we build with a base of badasses in these grim political times? How do we embody the vision we hold while dealing with the stark reality of our context and conditions? We have one answer: US. Together we have been able to not just do more, but to leverage the capacity of our Kinship Network to tackle these questions.”

SONG pushes us to more deeply understand that supporting racial, economic, and environmental justice means a greater investment in Queer Liberation, especially in the South.

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At the end of 2018, we moved millions to new projects with greater mission alignment to each other than ever before, such as Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Project South, Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE), and We Got Us Now.

How we fund

If we don’t know by now, then we really haven’t been listening – it’s not only about what you fund, it’s how you fund. We’re saying goodbye to stale bureaucratic habits – never-ending paperwork, low trust, and restricted funding (to name just a few). Hello general operating support grants, multi-year support, real conversations, and streamlined proposals and reports. If we want to make philanthropy more equitable, effective, and empathetic, these shifts are imperative first steps.

Dealing with our privilege

Privilege feels great, but privilege narrows our vision. It is actually impossible, when one has abundance, to completely remember what deprivation feels like. If one has never felt systemic oppression, it can be difficult to even see it, much less support work that addresses it. Our staff team includes two children of immigrants and two African Americans with deep personal Warmth of Other Suns family histories. Yet even those of us who grew up low-income, but now work in philanthropy, can’t claim to see these issues entirely from the perspective of those most impacted.

This is even more true for people who have grown up in wealth and privilege. The family behind the foundation is delving deeply into the question of what it means to be an ally. They are learning how to de-center their privilege and practices around not always being the deciders. They are learning how to organize and activate other people of wealth to support movements and progressive solutions. Our board chair, Regan Pritzker, recently hosted a book club for a group of her white friends to discuss Robin DiAngelo’s White Privilege. This gives us some common language from which to excavate the divides and build trust.

If we’re really committed to the potential of using wealth for good, philanthropic endowments also must align with our mission. The Libra Foundation’s endowment now stands at $420 million, all of which is invested for impact. The vast majority of the endowment is invested in screened funds and equities, with a minimum of 10% allocated for direct investing in companies with non-extractive practices committed to building just and equitable businesses.

A New Home

When I first proposed to the family that Libra should be close to but not inside of the family office, they thought it was a terrible idea. But they listened. When I started talking about being on the ground floor, not in a hermetically sealed and secure high-rise, they furrowed their brows. I described a place with simple beauty and art. A warm, welcoming space that grantees could use for staff and board retreats, free of charge. A place that does not do what most foundation offices do: demand that those who enter stiffen their spines, switch their language, and chuckle instead of belly laugh.

Small meeting room / Wall of Resistance Posters in Community Conference Room

This is the new Libra Foundation office. We moved in two weeks ago. It is a house and it feels like a home. It has couches and kitchens and creaky doors and lots of color. More loud than hushed. A joyful place for discussing, debating, dreaming, and not just strategic planning. We are planning events that uplift a new vision for philanthropy. A few grantees are already planning on giving it a test run for their own small group gatherings in the coming weeks.

In the words of Frederick Douglass,

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”

Our role in philanthropy is to fund the struggle. This is how we will build a shared practice for philanthropic transformation, and that’s our goal for The Libra Foundation.

Crystal Hayling is Executive Director of The Libra Foundation, based in San Francisco, funding organizations working to advance human rights and racial, economic, and social justice.

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