Engaged Partner Focused on Equity

While I am a self-acknowledged evangelist, I recognize that “equity” is radical thinking in some circles. But for me, and at Meyer, equity has become the driving force in how we approach our work.

The underlying premise begins with the acknowledgement that resources applied equally across the board do not solve deep problems. To meaningfully address the persistent gaps/disparities we witness in Oregon, we need to implement strategies rooted in equity that are not necessarily equal.

Equity is at the forefront of our daily news: you see it every time you read about race, profiling, education-wage-housing gaps, gender rights and disparities, power or privilege, immigration and protectionism. And the list goes on.

Eliminating these inequities has become one of the most pressing and critical issues of our time. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. What we strive for at Meyer, in service to our vision of a “flourishing and equitable Oregon,” is to eliminate barriers that keep ALL Oregonians from reaching their full potential.

This year marks my 18th in the independent sector — 14 years at Meyer and four at the nonprofit Friends of the Children. Before that I was at NIKE in global public affairs and corporate philanthropy.

To sum up my professional endeavors over the past 20 plus years, I’ve been working to solve social problems. It became acutely apparent to me during the past five years that my efforts, while well-intended and productive in many ways, were missing a key component: deliberate and consistent integration of principles of equity.

I came to this realization a few years back when we began using a racial equity framework during extensive equity and inclusion training at Meyer. I’ve blogged before about how insightful and life-changing it was to learn and engage in this very personal and challenging work with my co-workers and trustees, particularly those who represent historically marginalized and disadvantaged populations and spoke openly and courageously about the barriers and challenges they encountered.

Quite simply, their honesty changed the way I view our world, the way I look at problem solving and, in turn, the way we at Meyer approach our work. It especially caused me to reflect on philanthropy and its challenges.

Philanthropy, borne out of wealth, is often at direct odds with equity. Historically rooted in notions of charity or generosity — not ill-intended, mind you — philanthropy can come across as decidedly noblesse oblige. Driven by the moral imperative that comes with power and privilege — an obligation to help others in need — and encouraged by significant tax incentives, a lot of money changed hands under this system. And many positive outcomes were achieved. But has this traditional style of philanthropy taken advantage of its full potential in a way that has created widespread and lasting impact? After two decades in the field, my answer is, to a great extent, “NO.”

In fact, traditional approaches to philanthropy can really miss the mark by not focusing on the underpinnings or causes of problems so often rooted in long-term bias, racism and other “isms” and oppression. In an effort to be “equal,” it sometimes ignored persistent disparities based on such characteristics as race, ethnicity, income, gender, sexual orientation and ability. Often it acted without recognizing barriers imposed by historical disparities now embedded in our organizations, institutions and cultures. It reinforced marginalization by passing over people and communities that have historically been left out. And often it relied on predominantly white, highly educated, well-intended, yet often privileged, foundation leaders, staff and nonprofit executives to decide how best to address the challenges faced by “others.” Rarely were historically marginalized communities included in the development of philanthropy’s strategies and grantmaking.

Over the past 34 years, while Meyer has engaged in good and important work, I’ve come to realize that we — I, as CEO and the organization itself — were not completely immune from this historical culture and approach to philanthropy.

Our equity training, study and collective journey helped us to fully acknowledge the biases that shape our lives and the philanthropic sector we operate in. Before then, I had not completely understood how my privilege as a white guy from a family with the means to make my dreams come true continued to shape my view of our work and the world. Like many in the Pacific Northwest, I was progressive, thoughtful and “colorblind.” And I served no one by not recognizing how deeply historical bias and oppression are embedded in our institutions, our culture and our own subconscious, which naturally frames such things as who we live alongside, who we hire and who we socialize with. And those dominant culture biases and oppressions have shaped our decision making and strategy implementation.

I, and Meyer, are not alone on this journey in Oregon. Philanthropic organizations all over the state also put equity at the center of what they do or have begun to do so. A few examples:

MRG Foundation was borne out of a desire to have the deepest impact on the root causes of social inequity.
The Collins Foundation has been working intensely on equity for more than two years, and finalized in December plans to apply an equity lens to its grantmaking.
Oregon Community Foundation recently released a statement affirming its commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.
Spirit Mountain Community Fund invests in, partners with and supports organizations that prioritize diversity and equity at the leadership level.
Social Venture Partners Portland uses an equity lens to ensure more racially equitable investments close significant gaps in opportunity and resources for children of color living in poverty.
Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington launched a new strategic plan to embed equity throughout our region while developing new and diverse philanthropies.

This is the philanthropic environment into which Meyer Memorial Trust announced a complete overhaul of our strategy last year.

During 2015 we worked to realign our efforts to be more strategic and to have greater impact. Today marks the first day that applicants can begin to apply for $11 million in grants under three of our redesigned funding areas: Building Community, Healthy Environment and Housing Opportunities. We are constructing our fourth portfolio, Equitable Education, with funding opportunities to follow.

We will prioritize work with, and look to work alongside, nonprofit partners who share our interest in increasing equity and inclusion of Oregonians who experience disparities because of race, ethnicity, income, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other historical oppressions.

We have gathered a stellar and diverse staff with content experience to help leverage our grant awards through a multitude of strategies, including taking a more active role to convene and leverage our influence, engaging in independent research/education of policymakers and advocacy, developing new and diverse leaders, and amplifying the voices and work of organizations, networks and coalitions committed to dismantling inequities and increasing equitable opportunities.

We are building in assessment of the progress and outcomes of our grants, programs and partnerships to help us understand both our achievements and our failures. Look for us to course correct when needed — and be fully transparent about what does and does not work and what we are learning.

Meyer is committed to being an engaged partner in this shared work of making Oregon a more equitable place. If you’re here to apply, this is where you go first.

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