Greater Good Blog

San Francisco: A City in Need of a Civic Agenda

Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis

Income inequality is at the forefront of people’s minds nationwide, and many donors are eager to contribute to solutions. In San Francisco, where income disparity is growing faster than in any other US city, factions have begun pointing fingers, with workers in the resurging technology sector pitted against some of the city’s longer-standing residents. Leaders who have courted the technology sector are now pleading with tech companies to give back to the community. But without a clear, proactive civic agenda, donors who want to contribute to a stronger San Francisco are left to figure out on their own where and how their resources can make a difference. While their individual efforts may chip away at the city’s challenges, they would better support meaningful, lasting change if they were aligned behind a shared vision and set of priorities.

San Francisco seems to be mired in a reactive mentality that restricts the ability of its leaders to work together to think big and define what better looks like. When Mayor Ed Lee and School Superintendent Richard Carranza approached CEO Marc Benioff to support schools earlier this year, they asked for iPads for every middle school student. Benioff complied, but he also asked the city and school district to go back and define the vision for education in San Francisco and determine what we need to get there. Only through shared understanding of such a vision can philanthropists figure out how best to contribute their expertise, networks, and financial support.

Benioff, who has become the peer leader of tech philanthropy, has also launched SF Gives, an initiative to raise more tech dollars to support antipoverty programs in San Francisco. Working to draw more tech dollars into a pooled fund is a positive development. But this approach runs the risk of leaving out stakeholders who may have vital perspectives about where and how philanthropic and public efforts may make the most impact. For instance, are antipoverty organizations the most strategic fit for tech resources?

Other cities around the country are doing a better job of proactively planning for a better future. In Boston, for example, the Boston Foundation spearheaded efforts to bring together public, private, and nonprofit sector stakeholders to create Civic Agenda 2030. The agenda lays out clear goals and milestones for Greater Boston in four key areas: infrastructure, civic culture, jobs, and human capital. The award-winning Boston Indicators Project draws on publicly available data to track and report on key metrics in each area every two years.

When it comes to aligning private resources behind civic goals, we also can look to Denver and Los Angeles, which have each embraced new models for building partnerships between the public, business, and philanthropy sectors. These cities are proactively building relationships across sectors through what the USC Center on Philanthropy has dubbed “offices of strategic partnerships,” which provide the infrastructure for aligning resources behind pressing public priorities. These offices are responsible for matching the city’s priorities with private donors who want to contribute.

What these cities have in common is an aspirational approach to civic planning that moves beyond reacting to crises. They think big about what they want the future to look like and engage all key community stakeholders in authentic ways to assure that they are united behind a shared vision. Then they create the infrastructure needed to sustain efforts and align resources behind these priorities.

What are the catalytic opportunities for philanthropy in San Francisco now? A few ideas:

  • Support the San Francisco Foundation to lead a collective planning effort that engages key stakeholders (including the private and tech sectors) in defining “Vision 2030 San Francisco.” If any city can figure out how to democratize planning (think crowdsourcing), San Francisco can.
  • Fund cross-sector planning efforts in whatever issue area you care about. Across departments, city leaders have been operating in “emergency, reactive” mode; they now need to engage key stakeholders in thinking big.
  • Advocate for the creation of an office of strategic partnerships in the mayor’s office (and fund a few years of operating expenses) to focus on proactively making matches between civic priorities and philanthropy.

Leaders in our city—donors, nonprofits, the private sector, and city officials—need to build real and sustainable partnerships across sectors. It is past time for San Francisco to define what we want our future to look like, and to begin working together to get there.

Based in San Francisco, Managing Director Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis leads Arabella’s Philanthropy Management line of business, supporting family and individual donors. She is a long-standing city resident and has worked in philanthropy and the social sector for over 20 years.

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