Julia I. Lopez appears to have been most fortunate in her ability and drive to fit issues that are near and dear to her with jobs that hold sway in those areas.
For instance, with a newly awarded Political Science degree from Newton College of the Sacred Heart (later absorbed by Boston College), she worked on a New Mexico state criminal justice project that led to creation of its Department of Criminal Justice to house the state police, the state prison system, the police training academy.
The Colombian-born Lopez, who moved to the United States when she was 14, went on to work for many years at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. Now 66, she serves as president and CEO of the San Francisco-based College Access Foundation, which has promoted college attainment by low-income Californians through $71 million in grantmaking to nonprofits since 2007.
After working for state government in New Mexico, she went to Berkeley, Calif., for graduate school. With a master’s from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, she focused on human services and corrections in working for the California State Legislative Analyst’s Office and later for the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, where she collaborated with then-Assemblyman Art Agnos and others to create the GAIN piece of the state’s welfare-to-work program, which became a model for federal welfare reform.
“And then the San Francisco assemblyman [Agnos] became mayor and twisted my arm to come work with him and head the Department of Social Services,” she said. She stayed as the agency’s general manager for four-and-a-half years, until 1992, when Agnos left office.
Later that year, a professional placement firm contacted Lopez about a position at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.
That marked the end of her government work and launched her career in philanthropy.
“I went to work for the Rockefeller Foundation because the job they offered me was to oversee U.S. programs on Economic Security,” she said. “Those were issues I saw as near and dear to me. …”
At Rockefeller, she initially worked with education and urban poverty issues as its Working Communities Program director. She was senior vice president, overseeing management and evaluation of its strategic program, which awarded a yearly average of $150 million in grants, when she retired.
She took time off for travel back to her native Colombia as her father’s health declined. She and her two younger siblings had frequently summered back in Colombia during her high school years in Miami. In Colombia, her mother had been an account executive for J. Walter Thompson (now JWT) advertising agency affiliate. In Miami, her mother worked in public relations for Avianca Airlines. Both her parents have passed away, and her siblings live in Colombia.
She credits her mother for driving home the importance of getting an education.
“As long as I can remember, my mother said I was going to get a college education. She didn’t have a college education, but she met a lot of women who did,” Lopez said. “Back in ’40s and ’50s, my mother was meeting a lot of American women who had college educations and who went to Colombia. My dad had gone to college, but I think it was my mother who instilled that in me.”
In 2008, Lopez came out of retirement after about 3 ½ years to accept the position at the College Access Foundation, which helps low-income students get the financial boost they need to go to college. She now lives in San Francisco with her partner, who is retired, and a little Yorkie named Lola.
CB: How has your experience in philanthropy and government policy development informed your work at the College Access Foundation?
JL: I saw it as an opportunity to work with issues I care deeply about — economic equality and security. I had a good sense of both the policies and the government role in addressing some of those issues. Then, working in philanthropy, you have the rules of civil society but you also have the business sector. It’s understanding how the three interact and their respective roles in addressing issues of income and equality and social justice.
Entrepreneurship is no longer limited to the private sector. We now have social entrepreneurs… people who are willing to try things differently. … They want to bring to bear everything at their disposal — whether government, private sector, or community capital — to come together to solve the problems that they’re trying to solve.
CB: Given the extent of the need for college financial assistance, do you feel like you’re making a dent?
JL: We’re new. The foundation opened its doors in 2005. We started out just giving grants for local groups to give grants to kids with low incomes to go to college from very poor areas without a lot of resources. Rather than giving the scholarships to universities to give to the kids, we gave the money to the community groups already working with these kids, and we said, ‘The only criteria is need. If you think that kid could do college level work and get to the other side of that, then give them a scholarship.’
We have been following between 4,000 and 5,000 kids a year, since 2008, when I first came to the foundation. We’re just starting to see the first graduates. We give the scholarships, they choose where to go.
When we compare their performance with kids on their campus, they’re doing better than the population in most of those colleges. 60% of our kids are Latino, Black, Hmong, Asians. This is the story of opportunity. These are very, very low-income kids. 90% receive Pell grants. They’ve gone to crummy schools.
We have now expanded our view from just making scholarships to make sure that every kid in California… knows how to apply, completes those applications and graduates from high school knowing that at least half the college costs are paid for public schools here in California. We want to make sure that those kids [who want to graduate from high school] know at that point that they have financial resources available to help cover college costs.
Our kids are three or four percent of a freshman class at the University of California, so we think we have some insight that you’re going to hear us talk more about in the future.
CB: Why the distinction between giving to community groups and giving to colleges?
JL: We wanted to make the students the driver of their choices. [The community groups’] missions, one way or another, have to do with helping these kids go to college. Second of all, the kids even before they get to the college campus are given a choice. Kids who thought they could only go to a community college are now given the choice to go to a four- year college. There is nothing wrong with a community college, but if they have a choice and the scholarship and want to go to a four-year college, why not?
These are kids that are the first to go to college in their family. We have encouraged — and most of our programs do — renewal scholarships. So they get scholarships year one and know they can come back to get another scholarship, so that keeps them in touch with people back home who they can call and have questions answered. These community programs are so important in helping to account for the success of these students.
CB: How much can students get in scholarship awards?
JL: The amount is determined by the students’ financial need. Our scholarships can range from $500 to $5,000. They are, on average, $2,300 a year.
What we found is that these are incredible organizations that want to help kids on a pathway to college; helping kids on a secure pathway to college really wasn’t their strong suit. So we want to help them to focus on helping kids get to college. [The foundation provides financial support for nonprofits that advise significant numbers of students in navigating financial aid options.] What we do is really helping with student outcomes.
CB: How do you view the landscape of U.S. philanthropy?
JL: I think ‘philanthropy’ just hides many types of activity, and philanthropy in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds. In the 1990s, Rockefeller was in the Top 10. By now it has dropped to [39th
in total giving]. The field has grown by leaps and bounds. You also have enormous wealth transfer of families. [EBay founder and Chairman] Pierre M. Omidyar’s Omidyar Network is an example. He just writes checks either as a for profit or a not for profit, he basically says: I want to do this, what’s the best way to deploy my capital.
Philanthropy was always diverse in how they went about it. But today philanthropy is varied. You really have different approaches to doing good, including for profits wanting to do good. I think that’s been the challenge in the field in that the growth has not been in the old philanthropy. There is an enormous growth in philanthropy outside of them. I think it’s exciting, but I think it makes it more complicated.
CB: What would you like to see happen?
JL: There are two or three things that I think are important. Some of these things are intractable or seemingly intractable. But I think foundations over the decades have done a lot of good work, and in trying and seeing what works. But we have failed to scale up that knowledge. I think we could learn from other fields, like venture capitalists, or from organizations that have really managed to grow and address important issues.
But, as a field, we have to stick to [identified priorities]. We start it and stick with it for about five years and then move on to the next big idea. … It used to be that government could come in and pick some of it up. I think it is a matter of taking the long view, taking what works, growing it and sticking with it. I hear voices from the field expressing frustrations with philanthropy. Every time an officer changes, every time a program changes, they don’t know what is going to happen with their funding.
I think another thing with the world that I’m associated with, although I think we’re getting better at it, is to be really clear as to whom we are doing this for and who we are really helping. In the end, they are at the front lines of our work, and we need to listen to what they’re telling us. Philanthropy tends to be inward looking at times.
CB: What about the low level of funding for Latino communities?
JL: There are questions of poverty, yes. Latinos are disproportionately poor. I view it as our
problem, not just as a single group. . .. There’s nothing that earmarks our money specifically for Latinos. Two-thirds of the students we help are Latinos. We are trying to figure out how to get the next generations of Californians through college, and most are Latinos. It disproportionately affects Latinos, and we have to figure that out.
CB: College Access Foundation has entered into a partnership with the California Community Foundation for scholarships in Southern California?
JL: We have a great partnership with the California Community Foundation. It has one of the largest scholarships programs. They were either giving it to local colleges or in some instances the donors had very specific interests. What they decided to do is to adopt our way of giving scholarships. We are doing large parts of our grantmaking in L.A. [The partnership is] only a year old, but we think the outcomes of our students are compelling so that more and more donors will be interested in putting their money into the L.A. Scholars Fund.
CB: How does your foundation deal with immigrant students who may benefit from the recently approved Dream Act legislative initiatives?
JL: Roughly 10 percent of the students who receive scholarships from us are Dreamers. Over the years, we have supported many, many Dreamers… We have been doing it, we are just ecstatic that California now offers them some financial aid. These are kids who, if you give them the opportunity, they run with it. We’ve been helping those kids practically since 2007.