Local nonprofit leaders are growing anxious as a national philanthropic organization that has given heavily in San Jose for nearly two decades has been without a program director in the city for nearly a year.
The lack of a permanent program director for Knight Foundation’s efforts in San Jose is hampering the ability of groups to work closely with the foundation and seek more funding from its multi-billion-dollar endowment, nonprofit officials said.
Some, including those supported with multiple Knight grants, are also concerned by an apparent pause or drop in overall grants issued in San Jose, and say the Miami-based foundation needs to better communicate with its grantees.
“The fact that it’s taking so long is really mystifying. There are some really incredible people here locally who could knock it out of the park,” Cayce Hill, director of community garden nonprofit Veggielution, told San José Spotlight. Veggielution is currently supported by Knight with a multi-year $175,000 grant given in 2021.
Knight Foundation operates community programs in 26 cities, though eight larger cities including San Jose have dedicated program directors to help oversee local giving, advocate for funding and support leaders. Its local work is aimed at “building a more engaged San Jose with a focus on creating vibrant public life—drawing people out of homes, offices, and classrooms and into the community,” its website says.
Chris Thompson, the most recent San Jose program director, left in September 2022. The position is still vacant, though Knight said it has interviewed dozens of applicants. The foundation placed Charles Thomas, the Charlotte, North Carolina director, into a double-duty role as interim program director until a permanent hire is made.
“The Knight Foundation is a crucial spoke in a wheel. There are only so many philanthropists and foundations who are focused on San Jose, and this being one of the big cities in the country, we really benefit from (a program director) being in there,” Alex Shoor, director of nonprofit housing advocacy group Catalyze SV, told San José Spotlight. Catalyze SV received a $250,000 multi-year grant in 2021 from Knight to Social Good Fund, the nonprofit’s fiscal sponsor.
Rebecca Dinar, a spokesperson for Knight Foundation, told San José Spotlight that after seeing some “dark warnings” about an economic downturn, Knight had a hiring freeze from December 2022 through March 2023. Recruiting has since resumed and an announcement on filling the position is expected soon.
“We’re as anxious as the rest of the community to find the right candidate to lead this work as soon as possible,” Dinar said.
Hill said Knight never divulged the hiring freeze to her or other local grantees, even as concerns about the long timeline to hire a new program director spread throughout the nonprofit community. Others said they received boilerplate responses to their inquiries.
“The culture of the organization of the Knight Foundation, it can feel very opaque. We don’t have the same conversations with them as we do with other funders,” Hill said.
San Jose not the ‘greatest priority’
Among an apparent drop-off in giving by Knight, Hill said local nonprofits received no clear communication from the organization about any planned changes in funding. Other philanthropic organizations Hill works with experienced financial hurdles, and shared information with nonprofits they fund to help with projections and hiring strategies.
“There were times when it just felt like there was a much stronger partnership between the nonprofit sector and the Knight Foundation,” Hill said. “It has for a while felt that San Jose has not been the greatest priority, and that has been exacerbated in the last few years.”
Dinar confirmed to San José Spotlight the Knight Foundation endowment took a hit last year, reflecting the general drop in the stock market and “typical of what happened in philanthropy, generally.” She said prudent management paused giving for “new, major, multi-year commitments” several months before resuming regular funding commitments.
Knight has 14 active grants in San Jose, ranging from about $58,000 up to $1 million, granted initially in prior years but paid out over multiple years, Dinar said.
Knight’s own grant data shows it gave at least 25 new grants annually to organizations or projects benefiting San Jose from 2013 to 2019 — with some years as high as 33 and 38 grants. Knight gave out 19 grants in 2020, 22 grants in 2021, nine in 2022 and just one so far this year. The grants were spread among nonprofits that support a broad array of efforts including art preservation and display, COVID-19 vaccine outreach, parks and public space reimagining, mobility technology and local journalism.
That appears to follow a downward trend in new Knight grants over the past few years nationally.
“Our commitment to San Jose is steadfast and the approach that Knight takes to its funding is as a social investor. So the idea is to understand where the funds can be catalytic in helping to impact change as defined by the people who live there,” Dinar said.
Shiloh Ballard, outgoing director of Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, said Knight has helped spur change and support programs like Better Bikeways and Vive Calle, among others. Knight most recently supported the coalition with a $200,000 grant in 2015.
But as concerns about Knight spread in the nonprofit community in recent years, it’s been hard to get clear answers from the organization.
“Who do you actually complain to when, as a foundation, there are opportunities that they should be spending money on? They purport to want to do this, but they are absent,” Ballard told San José Spotlight. “How do you find accountability?”
Some leaders say the power dynamics between nonprofits and funders make it difficult to speak up, for fear of biting a hand that feeds them.
Shoor said he and several other nonprofit leaders are eager to see a new director hired in the hopes of increasing Knight Foundation’s investment in San Jose.
“It’s particularly important that those resources that organizations use to build community, and art and civic engagement, are out there on the street,” Shoor said. “Right now the streets are quieter than we would like.”
Editor’s Note: The Knight Foundation has supported San José Spotlight, including through event sponsorships and NewsMatch. San José Spotlight’s office is located in Open San Jose, a community hub run by CreaTV and supported with a $1 million Knight grant.