Women’s Foundation of California Celebrates 40 Years of Social Change

On October 17th, 2019, the Women’s Foundation of California (WFoC) celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a major announcement: the organization pledged $40 million to gender justice, and began its groundbreaking campaign to raise the funds to facilitate another forty years of gender justice grantmaking.

Surina Khan, CEO of the WFoC, celebrates her 5-year anniversary as CEO alongside the Foundation’s 40th birthday. (Photo credit: Women’s Foundation of California)

Less than a month later, the WFoC is more than halfway to its goal of $40 million. This stunning fundraising effort is the result of a steadfast community of donors, supporters, and activists, which the Foundation has built over forty years of campaigning for social change.

“We want to use this opportunity to raise the profile of all the community leaders we support,” says Surina Khan, CEO. “We also want to invite people to join the campaign so that we can adequately resource our partners for the next forty years.”

2019 has been a critical year for the WFoC. The Foundation celebrated its fortieth birthday, its fortieth Women’s Policy Institute bill signed into law, and forty million dollars in funding to community-based organizations (in addition to more than 550 public policy Fellows trained through the Institute).

“We’re now seeing the fruits of forty years of our labor: through all of our community partners through the WPI, through our grant-making, and through the other partnerships that we have in the state, we really have improved the lives of millions of Californians,” says Khan. “I feel like that is our biggest victory to celebrate. It also shows us a path forward–the work is not yet done, even though we have so much to celebrate.”

As the organization celebrated its forty-year anniversary, Khan celebrated her own: five years as the Foundation’s CEO. Now entering her sixth year in the role, Khan hopes to position the Foundation as a leader in social justice, an example in participatory grantmaking, and a driving force that changes the way our society thinks of gender. Through the longstanding Women’s Policy Institute, partnerships with community-led and community-focused organizations in California and beyond, and programs like the $10 million Culture Change Fund, Khan and the WFoC plan to lead by example.

Calling herself “a proud Californian by way of Connecticut and Pakistan,” Khan has been involved with the Foundation since 2004, when the Women’s Foundation of San Francisco and the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation first united under the new moniker, the Women’s Foundation of California. Khan started with the Foundation in a volunteer capacity, but her passion for the industry and her commitment to the organization soon saw her rise through the ranks as a senior program officer.

In 2011, Khan left the WFoC to design and launch the Ford Foundation’s LGBT rights initiative. She brought her experience with her when she returned to the Foundation to take on the role of CEO in 2014, helping to expand the WFoC’s programs in California.

“I just fell in love with California,” she says. “There are so many things to love about it in terms of the beauty, the landscape, the weather, the people. But in particular, in terms of the work we do with the Women’s Foundation of California, California is a really important state, both in the context of the country and in the context of the world. We have a global economy–the fifth-largest in the world–and we have amazing resources here, as well as problems we still have to solve.”

Progressive California activists, legislators, and policy-makers have a major ally in the WFoC. For the last fifteen years, the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) has facilitated the training of more than five hundred and fifty leaders in social justice. WPI Fellows have gone on to lead communities, build coalitions, and spearhead campaigns that turn brilliant ideas into laws signed by the Governor of California.

“There’s a direct correlation for the Women’s Foundation of California and all of our partners–our fingerprints are all over California’s success,” says Khan.

For example, the WPI was instrumental in the passage of Senate Bill 24 (the College Student Right to Access Act), which requires all publicly-funded universities in California to provide medication abortions through their student health centers. Started as a student campaign at UC Berkeley, SB 24 gained critical traction from WPI Fellows.

“Governor Newsom not only signed [SB 24] last month, but he held a signing ceremony in the Governor’s Office,” says Khan. “It was incredible to be able to see the students and all the organizations that worked so tirelessly on this bill be celebrated by the governor himself and his staff.”

This is just one of the WPI and the WFoC’s incredible accomplishments in the state of California. WPI Fellows and WFoC grant partners have been instrumental in the passage of bills like the Name and Dignity Act–one of the first bills authored by currently and formerly incarcerated transgender people, and signed by a sitting United States governor–which gives transgender people the right to change their names and gender markers while part of the criminal justice system.

Similarly, a team of WPI-trained, WFoC-sponsored activists garnered national attention when they successfully redirected LA County funding–intended for the construction of a new county jail–to fund the construction of new mental health treatment facilities.

The Foundation invited Diana Zuniga and Eunisses Hernandez, two WFoC partners who worked on the LA County funding campaign, to speak at a board meeting about the “David and Goliath moment” of their victory.

“Listening to them brought tears to my eyes,” says Khan. “It was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments that just inspires me to keep doing this work.”

These groundbreaking victories stand as inspiration for change-makers and social justice activists across the country.

“We’re in a political climate where there’s so much misogyny every day, where there are so many abortion bans across the country,” says Khan, reflecting on the passage of SB 24. “Here in California, if we’re able to say, ‘Look, we’re able to advance access to abortion,’ it becomes a source of inspiration and hope for other parts of the country, as well as a real life model about how we did it.”

Over the next forty years, Khan’s hope for the WFoC is to set up the Foundation as a source of inspiration, guidance, and oversight for similarly groundbreaking campaigns, in California and across the country.

“There’s a popular saying here: ‘So goes California, so goes the nation,'” says Khan. “We’re in a particular moment here in California where we’re still able to pass progressive policy. We’re still able to address the health and vibrancy of social justice, gender justice, racial justice, and economic justice movements. And that is going to have a ripple effect out to other parts of the country.”

“Just like California leads the way in progressive political and cultural issues, the Women’s Foundation of California is really aiming to advance the conversation on what gender means and to be an example of what true gender justice and liberation can look like,” Khan adds. “When I came into this role, I asked a couple of important questions: ‘What does the 21st-century Women’s Foundation look like?’ and ‘What are we best at doing?'”

Khan focused the organization’s forward-thinking strategy on the answers to these questions. In her time as CEO, she has worked to help the organization live its values and articulate those values as a team, particularly through making a commitment to diversity in the organization’s internal structure.

The WFoC focuses on gender justice by investing in communities, training community leaders, and connecting partners across the state who can raise the profile and visibility of issues the Foundation holds dear. To reflect this commitment, WFoC builds its staff on diverse grounds that reflect the state of California’s true population, with 80% of staff members and board members identifying as people of color, women, and/or members of the LGBTQ community.

In the past year, the WFoC took this commitment one step further by writing these diversity requirements into their organization bylaws.

“We’ve always had this practice,” Khan explains. “But now we’re making sure it’s institutionalized.”

It’s impossible to talk about the organization’s values without also calling attention to its community- and trust-centric grantmaking structure. Because the organization is both grant-seeking and grant-making, they use their experience in the grant-seeking side of philanthropy to better inform the decisions they make as a funding entity.

To do this, WFoC works hard to lower the barriers to entry into its employment opportunities and grant-making programs. For example, the Foundation holds education to high regard (and supports it through training programs in the Women’s Policy Institute), but has done away with education requirements for employment.

For grant-seekers, the Foundation accepts applications in any format and in any language, from traditional online applications to video submissions to simple phone calls. Using a model built on trust, the Foundation affirms its belief that the people closest to the problems are also the ones closest to the solution.

To that end, people who come from backgrounds that traditionally raise barriers to entry–those who are previously or currently incarcerated, people from low-income areas, or people who have not reached formal education milestones for a variety of reasons–are often better-informed as to the specifics of their community’s problems. And using the same reasoning, these people are also better-equipped to discover the solutions to those problems.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement in the philanthropic sector,” says Khan. “I want philanthropy to be focused on allowing movement leaders to be able to do their work, rather than have to prove that their work is valuable.”

Forty years of success speak for themselves. Through its participatory approach, a commitment to communities and their unexpected leaders, and a firm reliance on values, the WFoC will continue to be a front-runner in Californian policy change. And ultimately, in change that affects everyone.

“I firmly believe that even with a small amounts of resources, we’ve seen a lot of traction and progress,” says Khan. “If we can invest adequately in gender, in women and girls, in gender non-conforming people, in trans women, then we will see progress for everybody.”


For more information on the Women’s Foundation of California, visit womensfoundca.org.

To learn more about the Culture Change Fund, read about WFoC’s $10 million commitment to changing the way we think about gender. For another perspective on the magic of participatory grantmaking, read our interview with Swatee Deepak, director of With and For Girls.

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Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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