News and analysis
January 14, 2016

Leader at Haas Jr. Fund Stepping Down After Leading Marriage-Equality Fight

Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund

Under Ira Hirschfield’s leadership, the grant maker "hung in during lean and bad times" to help turn the tide in the movement, says one admirer.

Ira Hirschfield will step down as president and trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund at the end of 2016, leaving the grant maker, which was at the forefront of the marriage-equality movement, looking for a new leader for the first time in more than two decades.

Mr. Hirschfield served as president of the fund from 1985 to 1988 and then departed to serve as director of philanthropy at Rockefeller Family Associates. He returned to lead the fund again in 1992. He is the only nonfamily member on the grant maker’s Board of Trustees. The other members are the three children of the Haases, who grew Levi Strauss & Company from a family business into a global apparel empire. When he steps down, Mr. Hirschfield will assume the honorary title of president emeritus. He will continue to direct the fund’s financial investments and pursue various projects, including an effort to improve philanthropic leadership.

The San Francisco grant maker listed $485 million in assets and paid out $29 million in grants last year.

The Hass Jr. Fund makes grants to support immigrant rights, strengthen the San Francisco Bay community, improve leadership in philanthropy, and help provide all children with quality schools.

But the fund is perhaps most well known for being at the vanguard of the marriage-equality movement. The organization began its support of gay marriage in 2001, long before many other foundations made it a priority. The U.S. Supreme Court extended the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples in 2015, after many state-level skirmishes across the country. During that period, the fund devoted $79 million to LGBT issues, with $39 million of that specifically going toward the marriage-equality movement.

"Under Ira’s leadership, when they had put millions of dollars behind marriage equality and were losing ground, instead of pulling back, they pushed forward," said Kathleen Enright, president of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a group supported by the Haas Jr. fund.

"Haas hung in during lean and bad times," agreed Randall Miller, global-religions program director at the Arcus Foundation, who worked at Haas Jr. under Mr. Hirschfield. "Another foundation would have abandoned the strategy."

At Haas Jr., Mr. Miller directed $9 million in grants to faith-based groups that pushed for the acceptance and equality of gays and lesbians.

Mr. Miller credited Mr. Hirschfield with recognizing early on the fallacy of the popular "God vs. Gays" divide, in which it was assumed that all faith-based groups were hostile to marriage equality.

Before joining Haas Jr., Mr. Hirschfield founded The Philanthropic Collaborative and was a founder and president of the F.B. Heron Foundation.

"From relentlessly working to open doors of opportunity, to ending discriminatory behaviors, to creating places of joy and celebration — all of this is possible and can be catalyzed and nurtured by philanthropy," Mr. Hirschfield said in a statement.

In the next several months, the Hass Jr. fund plans to hire a firm to conduct a nationwide search for Mr. Hirschfield’s successor, according to a statement. It included a message from Walter J. Haas, chairman of the fund’s board of trustees: "Because of Ira’s bold leadership, the Haas Jr. fund and our partners have achieved results that many people initially thought weren’t possible."

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