Six Questions for Cathy Cha, President and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

Photograph courtesy of the evelyn and walter hass, jr. fund

Cathy Cha is the president and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a San Francisco-based family foundation that supports power-building, grassroots organizing, and policy advocacy to advance equity and justice in the Bay Area and California as a whole. 

Prior to her appointment as president and CEO, Cha had a number of other leadership roles at the fund, including serving as program director for immigrant rights. Prior to joining Haas, Cha worked as an independent consultant, program officer at the Boston-based Hyams Foundation, and project manager at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, among other positions. 

We recently spoke with Cha about her career, her experience as the daughter of Korean immigrants, threats to American democracy, and some of the key issue areas Haas is funding. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and length. 

To start with, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

My parents are immigrants from Korea. They grew up during the Korean War. My grandfather was a rice farmer, and my dad came here to study to go to grad school and literally came with just a small bag, his life savings, and money cobbled together from family. My mom came a couple of years later, and then I was born. And then fast forward, my father finished his degree and became a professor. My brother and I, we both went to college and went to grad school, and my parents sponsored many family members to come to the U.S. 

My parents came with a big dream. And so when I look at what’s happening now with folks from Mexico and Haiti and Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan, China, India — they’re all coming to this country with a lot of the same dreams that my family had. I’ve really benefited from a more generous and inclusive immigration system. I think about my family and all of the shots that this country gave them. And I wish we were doing more of that today. Because I really believe that folks who are trying to come here are coming with that dream, and want to both improve their own situation, their family situation, but also want to give to this country in terms of the economy and community.  

That’s how I got into immigrant rights work. I was the director of Haas’ immigrant rights program for many years, and I worked with immigrant rights leaders from across the state. We were one of the first funders of the Dreamer movement in California. I got a chance to have a front row seat to see California go through what was kind of the residue of the Schwarzenegger years and Prop 187 and Pete Wilson, and we really could have gone the way of Arizona. There was that kind of xenophobia and rhetoric about immigrants taking our public resources and filling the slots in our classrooms. And it was really the strength of immigrant leaders and communities and the movement in the state that has propelled it to where it is now, which is proudly the most welcoming, inclusive pro-immigrant state in the country.

I think we’re showing the rest of the country that this is a strong path that we have taken. And I think it’s really important for us in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, and as a state, to show other states that are more on the fence or going in a more negative direction about what a positive path, being pro-immigrant and welcoming and inclusive and equitable, looks like. That’s one of the important things that I think California offers to the rest of the country. 

What led to your career in philanthropy?

There were two things happening when I was going to college in terms of activism: one was abortion rights, and the other was divestment from South Africa. Like so many students, college was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. I started to volunteer with an abortion hotline, where people could get vetted information about where they could get abortions. I would volunteer every week, and people would call me, and I would hear their stories about the trouble they were in and the tough decisions that they were making. I ended up being the coordinator for that abortion hotline. And that really opened my eyes to the world of nonprofit work. 

I think young people today know more about philanthropy and how to get into philanthropy and think of it as a career option, but back then, I didn’t think of philanthropy at all. When I was doing this abortion work, I wasn’t looking for a job at a nonprofit. I just really cared about abortion access as an issue, and I stumbled upon this nonprofit and started getting involved with them. Then I started working for United Way, and I really got a sense of the nonprofit sector. Then I went to grad school at Cal in city and regional planning with a desire to understand more of the policy and systemic issues that impacted urban poverty, so I focused on affordable housing development.

I ended up working for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, and then I moved to work for a private consulting firm that was basically helping local governments better use their federal funding and improve their housing and homelessness policies. But I felt really far away. When I was working for Tenderloin, I was literally interacting with residents and community members every day. And when I was starting to consult for public departments and for different cities, I never talked to folks. It was just government staff. And it was very unsatisfying. 

I ended up moving to Boston, and one of my colleagues said that I should think about this job in philanthropy, for this local foundation called the Hyams Foundation. And I realized that philanthropy was kind of my calling because it was closer to community. I can be in a room full of community leaders, but we’re far enough away and we get that bird’s-eye view about systems and about policies, and about what different sectors need to do to make an impact. I think philanthropy is this very powerful sweet spot where you can hear the good ideas that bubble up, get the soulful connection of working with community leaders, stay grounded in the reality of problems, while also supporting the hopes and dreams of community folks and lifting them up.

What brought you to Haas?

You have to work with an organization that aligns with your values. And that’s true with the Haas, Jr. Fund and the Haas family, which values inclusion, respect, collaboration and courage. The mission — advancing equality and justice so that every person can thrive and live life with dignity and hope — is that value alignment.

You also have to work for a place where you can be yourself. There are a lot of companies and other organizations that I don’t think I could work for. We haven’t gotten everything right, but we try. Every single board member and every single staff person at this organization tries. That’s what keeps me here. It is working with this amazing and committed board and staff who try to do better and try to do good for other people.

The Haas Jr. Fund is celebrating its 70th year. What do you think about the work that the fund has been able to accomplish?

I think one of the really powerful things about our 70-year history is courage. I hope more foundations are really leaning into that because in order for us to think of new paths forward, courage is what’s needed. We’ve got to take risks. We’ve got to try new things in order to make deep and lasting changes, in order to lift the communities we care about and put our country or state or city on a different path. And so courage is a throughline for the Haas Fund for 70 years. 

We have a very precious copy of the first grant list that Evelyn and Walter ever had. The United Negro College Fund is one of those first grantees 70 years ago, and you’ll also see grants to Planned Parenthood in those early days. That was courageous for their time. They took on LGBT rights 23 years ago, before the cultural change that we’re seeing now. To have understood 17 years ago that there were undocumented community members in our midst and that we needed to stand up and help them come out of the shadows and help this society be more welcoming and inclusive and help them live their dreams, that takes courage. That is one thing that I think we’ve been doing for 70 years, trying to help unlock dreams for different communities that haven’t had the wealth and the privilege that others have. 

And fast forward to now, very similarly, we are taking on issues that impact a lot of people. So one example of that is taking on college affordability. If you’ve got a young person or a returning student that wants to better themselves, wants to take the hard course of studying and getting a degree, that should be the hard part. Right now, the debt is the hard part. It’s the money that is getting in the way of too many dreams. 

We’re also continuing to try to advance immigrant rights in a very contentious time in this country. I think some foundations might have said, “This is too controversial. We’re out of here.” But we know that we will be on the right side of history. We’re sticking to it. We also have another relatively new program around democracy. We picked this program before the insurrection and before all of these challenges to election integrity. We knew that we needed to help make California an example of what a multiracial democracy looks like, where structural barriers are eliminated, and engaged residents are emerging as leaders in our democracy. 

In terms of philanthropy, what keeps you up at night?

Number one, that philanthropy is not getting to the root causes, to the structural problems. There’s a lot of feel-good philanthropy where people are making investments that aren’t dealing with the structural problem of racism. And I would really say there’s no issue that foundations are working on that can be done without dealing head-on with racism. If you care about homelessness, for example, the homeless population is disproportionately Black. You can’t deal with affordable housing without the history of redlining. You can’t deal with healthcare or COVID without recognizing that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino and Native Hawaiian populations. You can’t take on education without understanding that our testing systems are not equitable. So there’s no issue that we can take on without dealing with structural racism and the root causes of problems. And I’m concerned that philanthropy still is kind of just scratching the surface. 

I think the other thing I would say is, I feel like our democracy is being fundamentally threatened. And I’m afraid that a lot of foundations might be saying, “Well, we don’t have a program area for democracy.” To me, that’s a really great example of philanthropy not seeing the connections. The threats to our democracy that our country is facing right now, that sits above all of our issue areas and all of our program areas. 

You might be concerned about economic development, neighborhood revitalization, healthcare, domestic violence, gun violence, criminal justice, but if you can’t make a connection to democracy from the issue-based work that you’re doing or if you didn’t change during the pandemic, that’s concerning to me, that we’re kind of rigidly moving along and not being flexible and adapting to the new environment.

On the flip side, what are your hopes for philanthropy’s future?

I am hopeful that we are bringing collaboration more into philanthropy’s bloodstream and making partnerships the new normal. When I joined the philanthropy sector 25 years ago, it was very much a go-it-alone place. I think in California, we are really shifting to a place where partnering is a very natural way to work. We’re recognizing, in a really important way, that our society’s problems are so big and so entrenched that even if you’re one of the biggest foundations in the country or the state, it is not enough to go it alone. That means partnering with government. That means partnering with businesses and nonprofits in new ways. And that definitely means partnering with the sector and with other foundations. 

For me, a great example of that is this very broad-based partnership in California called the California Black Freedom Fund. We were all really grappling with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and trying to figure out what we could do. We decided to work together and step up investments in Black power-building so that Black-led nonprofits have the resources they need to tackle systemic racism, move forward on multiple issues — housing, criminal justice, neighborhood revitalization, and healthcare. We knew that if we listened and learned from Black leaders, they were going to lead us to solutions that all of us would benefit from. 

It was really a dozen foundations coming together from the get go, and making it a joint initiative with Black leaders. The California Black Freedom fund has nearly raised $65 million to support Black-led nonprofits across the state. That is so much bigger than any of us could have done if we had done it alone. So we were able to be bolder, more impactful together. And I think that example shows the power of coming together. I feel like we’ve gotten a taste in California of that bigger, bolder collaborative impact, and it’s really becoming the new norm. I’m seeing that kind of partnership in many issue areas, and I really hope it touches the sector across the nation.