Don Howard, CEO of The James Irvine Foundation

Don Howard is President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine Foundation, leading the foundation to focus on a singular goal: ensuring all low-income workers in California have the power to advance economically. (Don joined Irvine in 2013 as Executive Vice President directing grantmaking activities.)
He serves on the Public Policy Institute of California’s Leadership Council and the California Community Colleges’ Chancellor’s External Leadership Advisory Council.
Prior to joining Irvine in 2012, Don was a partner at The Bridgespan Group, where he served as a strategic advisor to nonprofit and foundation leaders, and led Bridgespan’s San Francisco office for more than a decade. Earlier in his career, Don helped corporate leaders formulate strategy and improve the effectiveness of their organizations as a Principal at Booz Allen Hamilton and later as a Managing Director at the Scient Corporation.
Don grew up in Long Beach, California, and came to the Bay Area to earn his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford University, where he also obtained his M.B.A. from the Graduate School of Business. He has written, spoken, and taught classes on issues of philanthropic strategy, nonprofit management and funding, and social entrepreneurship.
As a volunteer, Don has been an activist around HIV and other health-related issues, serving in the past on advisory boards at the San Francisco Department of Public Health; University of California, San Francisco; and the National Institutes of Health. He has acted as an advisor to the boards of several San Francisco community organizations and served on the board of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Don also has worked extensively outside the United States, including a volunteer posting with a USAID-sponsored initiative to provide business advice to private enterprises in Central Europe.
Bio Source: irvine.org
Transcript:
Alan
Welcome back and busy here today with Don Howard. Welcome to today’s show.
Don
Thanks for having me, Alan
Alan
So Don, for the listenership can you give some background of what led you up to where you are today.
Don
Sure but first, let me start with where I am today. For the listeners to know I have the privilege of leading one of California’s oldest philanthropic institutions, the James Irvine Foundation, we do grant making here in California about 100 million dollars a year to address income inequality in our state and ensure that low wage workers have the power to advance economically. It’s been a long journey to get there, I would say my personal backstory really resembles like that of so many Americans have sort of a traditional immigration story. My grandmother came here at age 19, with reportedly $10 in her pocket through Ellis Island, and came here for a better future for her and her family. And she worked very, very hard to amass a small savings and that savings allowed my mom to go to college. And that allowed me then, to take the next step in our journey as a family. My mom was a single mom, two kids, she worked a ton to save the money needed for us to get an education. And she just drilled that into our head from day one. And then I got a quite a lucky break and was admitted to Stanford. And that just changed the, the trajectory of my family and our economic prospects quite dramatically. But she also drilled in as a depression era child, my grant, my mother drilled into my head, that I needed to get a job. And I had the clear mandate going to college that I was looking for a career in addition to a good general education. I embraced engineering was Industrial Engineering at Stanford, and similarly got on a track to be a management consultant because that was a good job. Now because it particularly sung to my heart or was something I was exceedingly passionate about. Awesome learning experience and a wonderful network building experience. I worked at a firm called Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the larger consulting firms. They sponsored me to go back to business school and I went to Stanford, and continued as a consultant after that opportunity, Intel, which I sort of woke up and asked myself, gosh, now that you’ve done everything that your mom encouraged you to do, what do you really, really want to do with your life, and I began a bit of a journey. It took me about three years to reposition myself into mission driven work. I started by that journey by taking a leap from Booz Allen to join a program modeled off the Peace Corps called the MBA enterprise Corps. And I spent the better part of two years in Poland as a volunteer business consultant after the wall came down and the economy transitioned to a market economy. And I got the bug for helping other folks and the work that I did came back, San Francisco, in the midst of the HIV epidemic and hitting my community quite hard, and took up grassroots activism as a sort of nighttime avocation. alongside my daytime work, I returned to Booz Allen for the third stint, and it had probably the, probably the sole person at Booz Allen who by night was wild eyed activists with white picket signs and by day was trying to advise energy and chemicals companies on their strategy that led me ultimately into nonprofit work. In management consulting field, Bain and company and other management consulting firm was starting a nonprofit subsidiary called the bridge gang group. I joined early on and became the head of the San Francisco office of bridge span, where it was for about 11 years.
Alan
Tremendous background. But I want to roll back to your mom, did she immediately come to the west coast was there a stop on the east coast for a bit.
Don
So as my grandmother who came from Italy, she emigrated, and she was on the East Coast for the bulk of her life. She only spoke broken english but was quite the entrepreneur, she bought and sold houses. On the east coast, she had six kids. Tough luck. She had 11 pregnancies, six live births. But the six kids worked really hard with her to basically flip houses back in the 40’s and 50’s. And that led to a small savings and ultimately, it was my mom who came to the west coast, seeking a better life and a land of milk and honey. She came out to California during a teacher shortage and started working as a teacher.
Alan
How old were you?
Don
At that point, I wasn’t born yet. My mom came here before I was born and was in California for about three or four years. She did a little stint overseas for an hour space company met my dad in Germany. She had my sister there, my sister’s about three years older than I am, and then returned to suburban Southern California, Anaheim. And I was born in the city of orange in 1963.
Alan
You have a tremendous experience and educational background out of Stanford graduate degree moved into the private sector consulting, you move through, you know, some top tier firms, and then transitioned into the nonprofit sector. Why?
Don
As I said, I, I realized through to my early career that I really was living out my mom’s sort of sense of what the American dream was, what she believed was that it was about economic security and financial stability. And I when I got to the point after an MBA at Stanford, and, you know, eight or so years in management consulting, I realized I probably could count on my next paycheck, I wasn’t going to go hungry. And I think that opening really led me to be more to really question my own motivation and ask what really were my values? Not my mom’s values? Or how do I build on her values. And to me, you know, to whom much is given much is expected, I think it was that was really reinforced at Stanford is this sort of leadership philosophy. And I also grew up Catholic in Catholic schools just had a tremendous sense of service and commitment and obligation. And, as I said, My real pivot into mission driven work was around the HIV epidemic. And I think it was Margaret Mead, who said, you know, it takes a small group of folks to change the world or expect that they can. And what I saw and the work I was doing around HIV activism was just how important it was for a community to stand up to expect elected representatives to serve them well, and to demand change if it wasn’t happening. And a lot of real systems and policy changes happened during the 90’s that now spread throughout our healthcare system, the way we develop drugs, the way we price drugs, the way patients are involved in research, all came from activism that happened during the HIV epidemic. And it was that kernel of an observation that led me to think, I should be doing this for my profession, not just in my spare time. And really, fortuitously and I do think fortune shines on the wall prepared or whatever that saying is, has been was starting a nonprofit subsidiary, I was almost, you know, tailor made for the role right out of Central Casting, I had this background of eight years or so at Booz Allen, and I had this experience in the nonprofit sector and mission driven work. And I was able to bring those together to then advise other nonprofit leaders how to scale their impact and, importantly, how to work with funders, like foundations. One of my clients was the Irvine Foundation, I got to know the CEO there had known the CEO previously, but got to know him quite well. And he ultimately invited me to join as the lead on the grant making work, sort of the number two, back in 2013 right as my kids were being born.
Alan
How big is the or the Jane driven foundation?
Don
Mr. Irvine left, he owned at the time back in 1937, a swath of land in Orange County that was eight miles of coastline 20 miles inland, if you can imagine all centered around, you know, sort of Newport Beach, and he left half of the ranch to benefit the people of California, we devested in the 70’s. The endowments now, about two and a half billion dollars. And we do grant making of about $100-$105 million a year at this point.
Alan
What constitutes the criteria, something that the Irvine foundation wants to become involved with.
Don
So we are a little onion well in the world of philanthropy, and that we have one singular goal as an institution, which is to ensure that low wage workers in California have the power to advance economically. And that was a transition made under my leadership and with our current board with a hypothesis that by being focused on one goal, we would have more impact in the grant making that we do. So we are all in on efforts to help scale up low wage workers for better jobs, to help ensure low wage workers get paid what they’re due and get paid well enough to enter the middle class. And we’re looking at issues of what it costs to live in California for low wage workers. So we’re looking at issues around affordable housing as well.
Alan
What a vision James Irvine had dying in 1937, but leaving this foundation that is still very active today in in helping to lift the those who are not as capable. I want to go back to this area, I’m going to coin the term self reliance of this lower income sector. And we’re faced with a crisis in homelessness and housing costs and the Irvine Foundation is jumping right in the middle with social impact. How do you deal with this?
Don
Well, we started with the observation that the California is working population, a tremendous number of folks are living in very precarious economic straits. And estimates are that about 40% of California is live at or near the poverty level. And when you look at workers working Californians, we just commissioned a pretty broad survey, close to 47% of workers identify at or below their local what it costs to live locally, not the national poverty rate, but a local cost of living. And that’s not sustainable as a status not morally right and the nor is it economically smart for us to be creating such a big divide and such a brilliant underclass in our state. So what we’ve gone about doing is really putting our arms around low wage workers and listening to their needs, understanding the challenges that they’re facing. And then making grants what we consider to be investments in social change in leaders and communities that are doing the best work, where they have evidence that what they’re doing is making a difference. So we have one of our initiatives is called better careers, A $120 million commitment over six years to help strengthen and scale the best workforce development programs in our state, that have evidence that they can put folks into living wage work. And in giving them large investments that are flexible, and they can use this they need to they can innovate, to find ways to serve more folks more effectively, and hopefully help lift some folks out of poverty and help those folks get into living wage jobs.
Alan
Don, as you issue grants to various organizations. How do you build accountability for what they do with the money?
Don
That’s a great question. We’ve embrace accountability is one of our values at the institution. And our grant making is organized into these initiatives that where we have very clear goals for success, very measurable goals. And that’s hard to do in philanthropy because a lot of social changes and measurable. But in our better careers initiative, which I mentioned, the grantees there have very specific goals of placing underprepared underpaid workers into better jobs, training them, helping them get placed, helping them succeed in living wage work. So you can measure that you can see a year after our folks in those jobs have their wages increased, etc. So we do measure that we asked our grantees to report back on that. We also have a set of goals for each of these initiatives that is at a higher level, if you will, around innovation for the future, doing things cheaper, better, faster, and a set of goals around trying to scale the impact by affecting public policies, nonprofits are really a smaller part of the workforce development system in our state. So the real impact will come from demonstrating better ways, and embedding those better ways into public policies that govern the broader economy. So we have very clear, measurable goals. We do also, and I think this is important to know if you’re someone in the audience is a philanthropist or a budding philanthropist. We respect the leaders of those institutions to know about how to do their work in the best way. We also embrace the idea that the best ideas are outside the building, you hear that a lot in Silicon Valley, we’re taking that into philanthropy. The leaders in these communities who run these organizations are closer to the problem. The constituents, the members of these groups are the ones who can identify what’s working and what’s not. So we give them on unrestricted capital, what we call general operating support, so that they can invest to scalar impact on their terms, not through some ideas we might have from our vantage point,
Alan
I love it. And then that way, it allows innovation and in such a come through. With the foundation how many employees are there?
Don
So we have about 55 staff members between an office here in San Francisco, our headquarters and a pretty significant size office in downtown LA.
Alan
In the San Francisco office roughly how many people there?
Don
40 of those 55. Folks, we have our own internal investment office, so we have about five folks who are on investment team. We have about 25 folks who are on our grant making team,
Alan
So I have I have to ask this question. So James Irvine, Southern California, Orange county, headquarters, San Francisco, what happened here?
Don
Well, Mr. Irvine’s father made the family’s initial wealth by selling hard goods to the gold miners. Not a story. That’s, a common story for some in San Francisco, I think the Levi Strauss foundation is a good example of this. His legal offices, the business offices of the family were always in San Francisco, it’s where the lawyers words where the accountants were. Mr. Irvine loved the ranch, which was purchased after his father’s death. And he loved living on it and turning it into an operating agricultural business. So we spent more time in Orange County, but the family offices, so to speak, stayed in San Francisco.
Alan
When you look at the foundation today, how do you choose your partners?
Don
So, you know, we’ve set this goal of advancing the cause of low wage workers. And within that, we’ve identified what we think drives, and there’s a lot of evidence around this a lot of good research around what drives economic mobility. So you need to train for a job, that’s a well paying job. So job training becomes one of the areas we’re investing in. So it’s within that that we then need to choose who are the organizations that we’re going to invest in. And not to unlike maybe some of your venture capital colleagues, we have a due diligence rubric that we use, we do landscaping of the organization’s we run them through a set of analyses, and we try to surface those that we think have the greatest opportunity to make a difference, and can do it at the most effective, do it the most efficient way and make grants to them. We do reserve just think it’s important to know, in for some segments of California, and some segments of our California communities, they’re not well served by these bigger organizations. So if you’re in Fresno, or if you’re a returning veteran, let’s just say, there may not be one of the organizations that passes our due diligence may not actually be serving you. So we reserve a certain amount of our grant making for organizations that are a little earlier stage or working with populations that are a little harder to serve, to make sure that we don’t have the rigidity of a due diligence process meaning that we are not able to serve everyone in California,
Alan
With all the things that you have going on the social impact, I love the programs that you’re working with, and lifting those who, who need help the most, what are some your favorite organizations that you’re working with today?
Don
That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child, that’s a little tough to do. Let me just point out a couple that I think are really impressive. Year Up is an organization many folks are familiar with, they help young folks who are disconnected from education and from work, get back on track and train up, do an internship and then get placed in a job. We’ve been providing considerable support, they have a great amount of effort that what they’re doing is making a significant difference. And they’re doing it at a scale that is really impressive. There’s another organization here in the Bay Area called Jewish Vocational Services, or JVS. They similarly have really figured out how to work with employers to place newcomers, particularly immigrant community members into jobs in the Bay Area. The list could go on, we do have about 20 or so of these core grantees around workforce and workforce development. Let me let me mention one last one to just give you a little breath. The Center for Employment Opportunities works with people coming out of the justice system helps put them to work initially in contracts they have with state organizations like the roads, to do road work and such. But then, with that base, begin to train them up for better paying jobs, and help place folks into work then can help them lift their families into the middle class.
Alan
For person has a cause and an organization how do they contact you?
Don
If you are someone who has resources and you want to support some organizations, we publish all of our grantees and the focus of the grants on our website at irvine.org. You can scan that for ideas on folks who you might want to support. We’re not a grant seeking institutions so we’re not the kind of organization that could take somebody else’s money. But I think the research and the due diligence, and the help beyond the dollars that we provide these grantees makes them great investment candidates for others.
Alan
So Don when everything’s said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
Don
One thing to know about me as I have twin sons who are six years old. And so I think quite a bit now about legacy. And I hope the lessons I can convey to them about service, about giving back about making a difference, will stay on beyond my time and make a difference in our state. And in our country. I sometimes find myself despairing over the state of our world, and then I’m with my boys and I realized the potential they have to make a difference. I also spend a lot of time trying to make sure they know the privilege they have. My grandmother, as I said, came with $10 through Ellis Island, and my mom worked hard. And I’ve worked hard, I want them to know that they have an obligation, again, to whom much is given much is expected to give back and I hope they both grow up wanting to do that. But knowing that the resources they have are not evenly spread. folks don’t have the same lifestyle that we get to have and that it is the more important for them to make a difference in somebody else’s life.
Alan
It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on our show. I’m walking away from this thinking here I’m sitting across the table from an individual that has a great educational foundation. They could do anything they want in the private sector, but they chose a pathway in life of lifting and building, the less fortunate. I really appreciate you being here today.
Don
Thanks for having me.