At the Kataly Foundation, a Pritzker Heir Pursues the Democratization of Wealth

Kataly seeks to boost community ownership and governance in alliance with social movements. Photo: STILLFX/shutterstock

Kataly seeks to boost community ownership and governance in alliance with social movements. Photo: STILLFX/shutterstock

A longstanding pattern in philanthropy holds that as vast generational wealth passes from parent to child, attitudes toward giving often liberalize as heirs reckon with unearned fortunes. That trend, operating alongside wealth inequality unparalleled in living memory, has generated speculation about a new golden age of philanthropy—in numerical terms—befitting what we’ve called a new Gilded Age. But the amount of money available to donors is only one part of the story. What kinds of groups benefit, and which communities and systems are empowered, is arguably the more important conversation. 

For Regan Pritzker, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families and co-founder of the Kataly Foundation, coming to grips with those questions has been a lifelong project. She’s the daughter of Nicholas and Susan Pritzker, whose Libra Foundation has emerged as a leader in progressive philanthropy. Libra’s expanding profile has much to do with Regan herself, who worked for years to shape the family philanthropy’s approach as a member of the foundation’s board. 

Over the past several years, however, Pritzker has come into more of her own inheritance, measured in the hundreds of millions. The result has been Kataly, a foundation separate from Libra that’s out to push boundaries and critique the philanthropic status quo. In terms of process and ideology, Libra’s grantmaking is already pretty progressive. Kataly’s may end up proving even more so.

“It feels a little different than having a very top-down mandate with a mission that’s then carried out by people slotted into very particular roles,” Pritzker said. “It’s really a collection of activists who have found a home together for a period of time… to make the change in the world we’re all trying to accomplish.”

Alongside Regan Pritzker and her husband Chris Olin (in addition to Susan Pritzker, who’s also on the new foundation’s board), Kataly’s team includes CEO Nwamaka Agbo, an activist and consultant whose restorative economics framework plays a vital part in how Kataly moves its money. And that money is substantial. Kataly was created at the end of 2018 with $445 million in assets, a sum that Pritzker indicated represents only a part of her wealth. Here’s a look at how this new activist foundation came to be and where it’s going.

“Supporting our own just transition”

Kataly’s name is a window into its philosophy. Meant to conjure the idea of “catalyst,” the name emerged serendipitously from the team’s initial discussions. It references the Greek root of the word, spelled with a “k.” Like any chemical catalyst, the Kataly Foundation is intended as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The goal is to spend down (or spend out, as Pritzker prefers to say) within roughly 10 years or so. “Part of our work is to support our own just transition,” Pritzker said. She went on to share that the magnitude of her personal wealth inheritance “did not feel right” and that Kataly is a way to move that wealth back into “the public domain.”

From the start, Pritzker knew she wanted to set up a giving vehicle distinct from Libra, which she described as a shared project with her parents and siblings. Rather than doubling Libra’s size with her own individual resources, she contemplated a distinct project, although perhaps not at Kataly’s eventual scale. One factor that led Pritzker to dedicate so much of her wealth to this new enterprise was her encounters with the work Agbo and others were spearheading around restorative economics.

For the Kataly Foundation, the practice of restorative economics involves transforming the financial status quo by investing in strategies that uplift sustainable community ownership and governance of resources. It’s both a repudiation of and a remedy for economic practices that concentrate wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, impoverishing communities that lack the clout to secure a share. For BIPOC communities in particular, Kataly sees a just transition of wealth as one that transfers both money and control of decision-making processes around that money to people who’ve been denied a seat at those tables. 

That ethos contributed to Kataly’s decision to spend out rather than set itself up for perpetuity. It also led the team to adopt an integrated capital approach that embraces impact investments and a values-aligned portfolio alongside multi-year general support grants. 

Philanthropy “can no longer afford to have our endowments and investments working at cross-purposes, undermining the campaigns, organizing tactics and strategies that our grant partners are fighting for,” Agbo wrote in an introductory primer on Kataly’s approach. She also told me that transferring wealth to community-owned and governed organizations “allows us to build up the financial sustainability of those communities, of those projects. Rather than the returns coming back into Kataly, returns are distributed and moved out into the community.” 

Pritzker’s own concerns about how wealth operates led her to take center stage as the Libra Foundation undertook a process to align its investments with its mission six years ago. At Kataly, she said, “We’re still developing what it looks like to have enough liquidity in the endowment investing so we can move grants at the scale we want to move them, while trying to minimize the conflict in our investing.” In that context, the rough 10-year timeframe for spending down is a way for the team to stay disciplined about moving money. 

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for experimentation and iteration in how Kataly envisions philanthropy, both in terms of how it operates, as well as its place in the broader progressive funding context.

“We believe it’s necessary to have projects like Libra and projects like Kataly,” Agbo said, in the spirit of understanding how “all our foundations are part of an ecosystem.” She added, “We need to break the habit that philanthropy can have, that there can be only one right way.”

How Kataly organizes its grantmaking

Kataly has organized its work into three main program areas: restorative economies, environmental justice, and mindfulness and healing justice. According to a grantee breakdown on Kataly’s website, the Restorative Economies Fund has carried out the highest dollar amount of grantmaking so far, with Agbo managing that work herself. 

Restorative economies is where many of Agbo and Pritzker’s critiques of extractive capital bear fruit. Grantees include a strategically and geographically varied set of projects designed, for the most part, with local, grassroots control of economic decision-making in mind. One example is Seed Commons, the recipient of a $1.3 million grant and a $2 million investment. Comprising a network of over 25 community-rooted loan funds, Seed Commons channels resources in a way marginalized communities will be able to control, sidestepping the usual top-down governance of traditional finance—and philanthropic grantmaking. 

Grantees like the Boston Ujima Project, Higher Purpose Co. and the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative are a few examples of other organizations taking a similar approach. In addition to supporting community ownership projects directly, the Restorative Economies Fund backs complementary organizing and advocacy through groups like the Center for Economic Democracy, Restore Oakland and the Right to the City Alliance.

As with all of Kataly’s program areas, restorative economics centers racial justice, supporting grantees focused on the financial empowerment of BIPOC communities. Some good examples include the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation, Native Renewables, Prospera Community Development and the ONE DC Black Workers & Wellness Center. 

Compared to its restorative economies funding, Kataly’s environmental justice grants are smaller but more numerous, most coming in at either $45,000 or $150,000. Kataly has gathered a team of nine environmental and social justice leaders to help develop a program that centers communities disproportionately affected by pollution, disinvestment, health effects and over-reliance on the petrochemical industry. The Environmental Justice Resourcing Collective, as it’s called, includes several leaders from the funding world like Gloria Walton of the Solutions Project and Vanessa Daniel of the Groundswell Fund, as well as other advocates. 

There is some overlap between Kataly’s environmental justice and restorative economies grantees. The former often benefit organizations working for community control of land and resources, such as the Earthseed Land Collective, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Highlander Research and Education Center. There’s also a focus on food systems, workers’ rights and, most of all, BIPOC empowerment. The environmental justice grants also include several efforts specifically oriented toward COVID-19 relief, to which the foundation has dedicated over $7 million in rapid response funding. 

The third of Kataly’s primary program areas is Mindfulness and Healing Justice, where Pritzker’s husband Chris Olin has focused his efforts. As a yoga and meditation practitioner, Olin’s influence may be at play in this section of Kataly’s portfolio, which includes grants to places like the East Bay Meditation Center, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Insight Meditation Community of Washington. The team does see connections between this component of Kataly’s work and its systems change grantmaking. 

“We recognize that while we are resourcing projects to address systems and structural change, systems are made up of people,” Agbo said. “We want to preface and recognize the humanity of individuals doing this work, both those working on the ground and those we’re trying to mobilize to redistribute their wealth and resources.”

Bottom-up and top-down

Both Pritzker and Agbo emphasized the need to support structural change and movement building from the bottom up, via grantmaking that relinquishes funder control, and among the wealthy and privileged via intentional donor organizing. Bottom-up movement grantmaking is integral to Kataly’s programmatic approach, and it was also the primary lens for a round of rapid-response grantmaking undertaken in 2020 to bolster the emergent movement energy that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. 

To the tune of $1.4 million, Kataly backed 23 Black-led organizing outfits and racial justice movement projects like the BlackOUT Collective, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), Dream Defenders, and the Anti Police-Terror Project. Kataly’s rapid response effort segues with its plans to resource Black and native-led organizations in a generational way, engaging with movement leaders not as a fad or a one-time “response,” but over the long haul. The need for generational movement funding was one reason Kataly and a group of other funders—including some big newcomer donors to this work—joined the Libra Foundation last year to set up the Democracy Frontlines Fund

Indeed, encouraging new and existing donors to give in more democratic ways is a core goal at Kataly, which is meant to be “philanthropy-facing.” Where donor organizing is concerned, Pritzker said, “our big frustration is that wealth accumulation is metastatic, and it’s getting worse under COVID.” Meanwhile, she went on, “we’re still seeing laziness around an analysis of where resources should go, and defaulting back to the big, white-led organizations that have not managed to get us out of the problems we’re in because they’re not willing to confront the most provocative question, which is ‘how does our economy serve our future?’”

Pritzker has made a point of involving herself in progressive donor organizing platforms like Resource Generation and Solidaire, where participants are willing to lean into the “taboo topic” of personal wealth. “I would love to see Kataly set a tone that it’s OK and necessary for philanthropy to resource at a big scale these projects that are holding the vision of a transformed society that is regenerative and sustainable,” she said. Agbo added that in addition to conversations about grantmaking, it’s important to engage wealthy individuals around aligning their investment practices with their stated values. 

For additional perspective on how the Kataly team sees donor organizing from the perspective of a philanthropy professional, check out this reflection by Jocelyn Wong, director of capacity building and analyst with the Restorative Economies Fund at Kataly.

Democratizing wealth

Wong says institutional philanthropy has not only failed to offset skyrocketing wealth inequality, but has actually helped to perpetuate it—either by funding policy advocacy that benefits extractive practices, or simply by failing to properly resource organizations and movements proposing bold alternatives. 

In that sense, one of the most interesting dynamics at Kataly is its status as a democracy funder—not in the typical sense, but in terms of its decision to center grantees proposing radical democratization of the economy. Rather than focus primarily on federal or state policy advocacy, Kataly has taken the road less traveled in progressive philanthropy, supporting local practitioners of community ownership and governance of resources. 

Agbo noted that there’s a link to be made between those questions and the democratic process itself. “So many of the ways communities have experienced voter suppression [have] been to deny them access in recognizing their power, and the importance of being able to make decisions about their livelihood,” she said.

Going forward, it’ll be vital for Kataly not only to help its grantees sustain themselves, but to expand their collective movement and its funding sources. In isolation, a cooperative enterprise or community-governed loan fund can only do so much. But as part of a nationally energized movement, it can become a mechanism for broader change.

“So many of these grantees have been in a place where they’re only able to advance what the world tells them is politically feasible,” Agbo said. “We know that what is politically feasible is not what is ultimately necessary.”