“Transformation” at the JPB Foundation: Eight Questions with Deepak Bhargava, President-Elect

Deepak Bhargava

In mid July, the JPB Foundation posted a handful of job listings that got people talking.

There were some eye-catching titles: senior vice presidents of both “community and worker power” and “movement infrastructure and exploration.” The descriptions also explicitly called out “issue siloes” as an obstacle to addressing the era’s challenges, and that the grantmaker’s future leaders “must be able to fluidly traverse” between its different areas of work. In these and other ways, JPB named things that people in philanthropy talk about, but aren’t so common in public job descriptions.

“Oppressed people live multi-issue lives,” read one section. “There is no path to a just, democratic and sustainable future without mass organizations of everyday people, but such organizations have been in decline in recent decades.”

Through these clues, including a line that the foundation is in a “period of transformation,” the descriptions offered a glimpse of what’s ahead at the New York-based funder following its major announcement two months ago: that founding donor and president Barbara Picower will step down in February 2024, and former grantee and current board vice chair, Deepak Bhargava, will take over. According to a spokesperson, the hope is that the advertised positions will be have been filled by then, “modestly” growing JPB’s total staff, which currently number 49.

It’s the first-ever leadership change at the $4 billion foundation. Given JPB’s annual grantmaking total of roughly $350 million — it has long spent well over the 5% minimum — this is a significant development in the world of progressive philanthropy, particularly when it comes to JPB’s three current focus areas: environment, poverty and medical research.

Picower, who we profiled a few years ago, launched JPB in 2011, following the death of her husband, Jeffry M. Picower. An investor, he was one of the main beneficiaries of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. She settled claims against the estate for $7.2 billion, and set up the foundation using assets that were left over. It’s been one of the country’s biggest and most influential progressive funders ever since.

Bhargava was one of Picower’s first big bets. He had been leading the Center for Community Change for nearly a decade at the time they met, and the center became the foundation’s largest grantee in its poverty program. “We really hit it off instantly,” he told me.

“Barbara is, in my mind, an unusual philanthropist in that she is deeply, deeply committed to the idea that everyday people have a lot of wisdom about their lives and what needs to change,” Bhargava said.

The relationship has only grown closer. Bhargava left the Center for Community Change in 2018 and joined JPB’s board the next year. He became vice chair last year, while also serving as a lecturer at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. After the transition was announced, the pair co-authored an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which largely hewed to known themes in JPB’s philanthropy, with a few hints of what might shift.

Those wanting a quick summary of how Bhargava thinks about himself might turn to his profile on X, formerly known as Twitter, which starts off: “Activist, author.” 

But if you want a deeper dive, you’re in for a long submersion. Bhargava has written for The Nation, The American Prospect, the New York Times, and many more publications. He has co-edited one book and co-authored a forthcoming volume, “Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World,” with Stephanie Luce, which will be released in November 2023. He even had a Substack, The Platypus, but it will stop publishing at the end of this year.

I recently chatted with Bhargava about the transition and what lies ahead for the JPB Foundation. Immigration, for instance, will “certainly” be part of the foundation’s future funding, said Bhargava, who made it a signature focus at the Center for Community Change and wrote in 2021 that how we respond to climate migration will be a “defining political fault line for our generation.”

He also echoed those job descriptions, citing the “crisis of multiracial democracy” and “low-wage workers” as areas in which JPB plans to fund, and research and evaluation as a function it plans to build out, while stressing that the foundation won’t be “disappearing into a black hole” during this transition. “We will continue to exceed the minimum required payouts,” he told me, noting that perpetuity is still the long-term plan.

Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Your job postings call this a “period of transformation.” Beyond what you and Barbara Picower laid out in your op-ed, what type of transformation should we expect?

The future of the foundation builds on an incredible first 10 years. I see an enormous amount of continuity. The ethic of supporting grantees and people close to the ground and listening really carefully — that will all continue. 

The multitude of issues we face doesn't need a lot of explanation: rising authoritarianism, climate change, economic inequality, rising racism and nativism. They're huge challenges. They are not going to be met by single-issue groups working separately. We need to look at how to build power for those who have historically been denied it. That's always been a theme of the foundation, and that will grow and expand over time. That means investing in organizing and social movements, so those most impacted by issues and problems are able to help set the agenda. That shift from issue to power is very central. 

The other shift is a much greater emphasis on the crisis of multiracial democracy in the country, which is acute. The board has been talking for some time about growing threats to democracy and what the foundation can do. By democracy, we mean not just the usual things — attacks on the voting rights and people's ability to protest, speak freely and learn the truth about their history — but democracy in the broader sense of people's ability to shape the direction of society and their communities. All of that is under threat, and that threat makes it harder for us to address all of the different issues the foundation is committed to. So that's a cornerstone issue for us as we look at the future.

Not many other funders, particularly of JPB’s size, have a position like “vice president of movement infrastructure and exploration.” How did these listings come about and who came up with them?

This focus not on issues, but who has power in society, is a shift. The positions really reflect that. There are some things that are different about them, such as naming community and worker power as important priorities. There's some things named here in a bigger, bolder way that are not typically put at the forefront. 

There's been increasing interest in how to support low-wage workers in philanthropy, and we want to be part of that effort. There's a lot of good work that's been done about how to support and strengthen grantees. Our perspective is that there are key needs in movements around talent and leadership development, infrastructure, resources and so forth, that have been historically underinvested in and undergird our ability to achieve change on a variety of issues. 

We're also really committed to not having siloed structures. There's a kind of “flying V” approach of having people who are able, willing and interested in potentially rotating into different roles in the foundation, which creates a different ethic. And hopefully, a spirit of collaboration, because we all own the whole enterprise, as opposed to one program over here that maybe coordinates with the other, maybe doesn't. We're trying to avoid that.

Where does it come from? From my own experience on the other end of philanthropy, I saw a lot of attention to issues that are the fruits of many years of organizing, building infrastructure and constructing social movements — and I felt like that needed to be front and center. That's kind of the unglamorous part of what it takes to make change; I find it very glamorous, but a lot of people don’t. 

The job descriptions and your comments mention both avoiding silos and the need to support democracy, among other issues. However, right now, JPB defines its work under three areas: environment, medical research and poverty. Will that continue?

The structure is still a work in progress. There’s consultation with movement partners, with other philanthropic leaders, and a lot of internal engagement, learning some of the lessons from the foundation's work. I've been an insider [at the foundation], but obviously, I’m even more of an insider now.

What's likely to happen is that we're going to be evolving the structure and the programming — building on the lessons of the last 10 years and the remarkable accomplishments of the foundation — to put these questions of movement-building and power-building at the center. We'll have a structure that really supports being able to do that. That's as far as I can really go at this point, since we’re still in early days.

You take the reins in February. Other than learning the internal operational ropes, what's happening during that runway?

There are a few elements to it. I’m mostly not externally focused at the moment, but we will be bringing together movement partners early on to help inform the foundation's direction. One of the things that I'm committed to as someone who has been essentially a social movement person, not a philanthropy person, is that our future direction be deeply informed by people who are leading that work. So that consultation will happen one-on-one and in groups, in an ongoing way. We'll also be talking to other folks in philanthropy. 

We're really committed in this period to continuing to do grantmaking. We are not disappearing into a black hole for years and years. We're not going to grind to a halt. That's part of the ethic we're trying to create here. Our grantees feel a sense of urgency of the situation of the world. We should feel that same sense of passion and commitment.

Michael Hamill Remaley titled his 2019 IP profile of Picower “Get to Know Barbara,” because people he interviewed told him that was key to understanding the foundation. Will grantees now need to “get to know Deepak?”

For better or worse, I think I'm a pretty open book. My values and commitments are pretty clear from what I've written and work that I've done. I do really hope to learn, in this perch, from people who are on the cutting edge of trying to solve some of the hardest problems we face. While I have a lot of opinions and ideas and perspectives that come out of 30-plus years of work in movements, I am also really open. Some of the challenges we face, we are going to need approaches, different ways of coming at them. So I'm looking forward to learning.

Put another way, how much should people see Deepak, author and activist, as predictive of Deepak, president of JPB? 

What I’d say is that I've been a beneficiary of, participant and leader in social movements for my whole life. I bring the perspective of the field to philanthropy. I've spent most of my life working in communities without a lot of power, trying to build power with low-wage workers, undocumented immigrants, women receiving welfare and so forth. I've seen people in those communities set agendas, and change policies, institutions and oppressive structures, and I've seen them have transformative victories. I have an abiding faith in small-“d” democracy: the capacity of everyday people to change the world. That is going to be continuous with the foundation. 

I also believe deeply in having serious, rigorous discussions about how to get from point A to point B, with an open mind informed by evidence, bringing diverse people together from diverse standpoints, and a collective approach to solving problems. I’ll bring all of that, as well.

You’re well known for your immigration reform work. How might JPB’s role in that space change under your leadership, if at all?

It’s really too early to say. I have not been actively involved in the movement in a front-line way for some time. So the first order of business is for me to tune in, and to hear from our staff who have been tuned in, and to do some listening about where the movement’s at, what it needs. The surging kind of nativism in the country is of deep and profound concern. How to respond to it and advance the rights and dignity of immigrants is to be figured out. That's the journey we'll go on. It's certainly going to be an important part of what the foundation funds.

You said earlier you have not been a “philanthropy person.” What convinced you to take this position? 

First of all, there's the relationship with Barbara. We are deeply aligned on values, and there are not a lot of people I can imagine having the kind of relationship I do with her. There's a deep level of trust and agreement about a whole set of key things. 

The other thing is that the state of the world is such that I feel the imperative to try to make a contribution to protecting and expanding multiracial democracy and to addressing vital issues of social justice. The foundation is already doing great work, and I want to help make it even better. The situation we face in the country is dire. I hope to be part of the effort for philanthropy to step up and meet it.