Learning From Lia’s Legacy

By Beth RosalesPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

As we enter 2015, we at The Lia Fund would like to extend our best wishes and want to take this opportunity to bid farewell to our colleagues at the Bay Area Justice Funders Network and Northern California Grantmakers.  Our foundation awarded its last grants and officially closed our offices at the end of 2014.  We commissioned a Legacy Report that chronicled our process of giving away $5M in grants to social justice organizations working on climate solutions, community arts, and holistic health & healing. 


Below are excerpts from our Legacy Report authored by Karen Payne.  In sharing, we hope to both share what we learned from Lia’s legacy, as well as impart our notion of what constitutes a social justice funder.


Randy Lia Weil made two highly unusual decisions about the $5 million she left to be donated after her death. The first was that she appointed 14 people she knew and trusted to select the organizations and individuals who would receive funding. Most of them were lifelong activists with decades of passionate dedication to environmental, cultural and social justice issues.  The second unusual thing was that she left no instructions for how or to whom they should give her bequest. She trusted them to decide.


This would prove to be an adventure and a discovery, and not without its challenges for the participants. Everyone sincerely wanted to be a responsible grantmaker and do what Randy would have wanted. But it was a complex journey to turn a group of passionate individuals into a group of effective funders. Before they could make any grants, they had to agree on their mission, vision, and values. They also had to decide how they would operate and make decisions in a way that honored Randy and the values that led her to choose them. It was a tall order.


After spending a year planning to establish the Foundation, The Lia Fund awarded grants to 107 organizations from 2007 to 2014. Most of the grants ranged from $5,000 to $25,000. In total the Foundation gave away $5 million.


Social justice was a criterion that the board and community advisors applied within every issue area. In making decisions, we asked, “Who benefits from this grant?”  “How is it challenging the structures of privilege and inequality?” Funding in each category focused on supporting the leadership, creativity, and well-being of under-served and underrepresented groups including people of diverse races, ethnicities, and cultures, people living in economic hardship, indigenous peoples, veterans, prisoners and ex-offenders, immigrants, women, and youth.


The Foundation’s trustees and community advisers agreed on these underlying grantmaking principles:


Take risks, prepare for setbacks

Offer both general support and multi-year grants

Be nimble

Apply a social justice lensacross all issue areas

Emphasize systemic change, sustainability, and ripple-out effects

Holistic approach: give priority to organizations and projects that

incorporate multiple funding areas.


Below are some of The Lia Fund’s core values, principles, and practices that distill lessons for social justice funders:

1. Democratize philanthropy.

Involve trusted community activists in the process of decision-making about how wealth is distributed.


2. Recognize interconnectedness.

This includes the way the Foundation’s team functions, as well as a holistic approach to the issues that will be funded. Creating a community and building trust among the decision-makers takes time. But it can lead to discovering your team’s common purpose and finding strength in diversity,rather than conflict.


3. Adhere to bold principles.

The Lia Fund’s principles of systemic change, sustainability, general support, multi-year funding, nimbleness, risk-taking a holistic approach, and applying a social justice lens all led to highly effective grantmaking.


4. Be aware of who benefits.

Consider how grantmaking can support the leadership, creativity, and well-being of constituencies of underserved and under-resourced organizations.


5. Develop a trusting relationship with grantees.

Be mindful of the volume of information collected from  grantees and burdensome bureaucratic processes that grantees often have to undertake to receive a grant.


6. Stay committed to core grantees.

Philanthropy has a habit of supporting grantees for a limited time only. Bringing about social change is difficult and does not arrive within the average grant-span of three years.


7. Establish an appropriate infrastructure.

Create an infrastructure that satisfies legal requirements and thorough due diligence, while facilitating the participation of diverse decision-makers and reflecting your values, vision, and mission.



Beth Rosales was the senior philanthropic adviser who guided The Lia Fund for eight years. Beth has worked in philanthropy for more than 35 years in various capacities at progressive foundations including Vanguard Public Foundation, Funding Exchange, Tides, Women’s Foundation of California and Marguerite Casey Foundation. Over the years, Beth has made a priority to “move money” toward strengthening social justice movements across the nation.  She is now retired, but can still be reached at beth@theliafund.org as she ties up loose ends for the foundation.