Levi Strauss Descendants' Philanthropy a Family Affair

Although the Bay Area's Haas family does not draw much attention to itself, over the course of six generations it has quietly distinguished itself as one of the country's most charitable families, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The descendants of Levi Strauss, founder of the company that turned blue jeans into an American icon, rarely grant interviews, letting their philanthropic work speak for itself. And while the family name is attached to the Haas School of Business and the Haas Pavilion at the University of California at Berkeley, much of the family's grantmaking has been done anonymously. "I've been aware of the Haases for twenty years," said Virginia Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. "I've interviewed over fifteen hundred philanthropic families around the country, and I will tell you the Haas family is a very special example."

The family's legacy of giving began in 1897, when Bavarian immigrant Strauss endowed twenty-eight scholarships at Berkeley, many of which ended up going to women. The family also is descended from Rosalie Stern, who in 1931 donated Stern Grove to the city as a public park. Since the 1950s, family members have established the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, and the Columbia Foundation. "I think the greatest lesson in philanthropy came from our parents," said Betsy Haas Eisenhardt, the daughter of Walter and Evelyn Haas. "We saw them live this every day. We'd go out with them and see the work being done."

Indeed, it was her late father Walter Haas, Jr., who came up with the idea for the Season of Sharing Fund, which helps people who are not eligible for assistance from other charities. Now in its twentieth year and still supported by the Haas Jr. Fund, Season of Sharing has awarded $51 million to needy individuals and families across the Bay Area. "We look at sustainability," said Haas Jr. Fund president Ira Hirschfield. "If you fund something, you don't just do it for three years. We need to know it has a chance to continue."

That commitment and willingness to take the long view helped transform Crissy Field from a rundown former military base into a one hundred-acre gem on the waterfront that is enjoyed by a million people each year. At the same time, Eisenhardt and her brothers Bob and Walter "Wally" Haas call attention to less obvious successes such as Visitacion Valley or certain neighborhoods in Oakland where the family has been active. "It's easy to get caught up in a place such as [Crissy]," said Bob Haas, who was CEO of Levi Strauss from 1984 to 1999 and now serves as chairman of the company. "But it's more important how we can transform lives and create safer communities.

While the siblings acknowledge that tzedakah, the Jewish tradition of charity, has influenced their family, they also embrace a more general sense of civic responsibility. "It's the values of the family — of fairness, equality, and opportunity," said Wally Haas, who co-chairs the Haas Jr. Fund with his mother. "I think we hear the voices of our parents in our giving. They told us, 'Whatever you do, look to make a difference in people's lives.' We are compelled to confront society's more vexing ills."