Foundations have long devoted resources to address society's problems, but the fact is, of course, that despite our best efforts, those problems persist.
Every day our nonprofit partners doing on-the-ground work across the state change individual lives and transform communities. But they will tell you that they are fighting an uphill battle.
The answer is to change the system. But the human and financial resources that can be harnessed from the philanthropic sector is dwarfed by the potential in the public sector, especially on the state and federal levels. As if it needs to be said, policy makes a huge difference in all our lives.
That’s why Meyer — one among so many other foundations — has moved toward advocacy as a strategic tool and a core focus for social change. We recognize its crucial function as a leverage point in policy and systems change.
Still, there are strict laws that govern what private foundations can do, and many foundations have historically been hesitant to leverage their power and money by advocating. The laws are clear and well-defined: We cannot engage in lobbying or award grants that are earmarked for lobbying, including for specific candidates or pending legislation. That’s the line we must not cross.
We believe that these times provide an imperative for all funders to effectively use allowable advocacy strategies that push right up against that line. There is so much we can do.
We can use our voice
We speak out against specific policy issues we think are counter to our mission and in support of policies that are important to our mission. We have a role to play in educating our community about these issues through speeches, op-eds and articles (on this blog and elsewhere), email newsletters, social media and beyond.
Our staff and trustees speak about issues whenever possible. As examples: Trustee Charles Wilhoite used the occasion of being awarded the Portland Business Alliance’s William S. Naito Outstanding Service Award this year to talk about his experience on Meyer’s learning tour of communities in the Mid-Columbia region and about the plight of Native Americans to whom the federal government has not made good on promised housing. Former trustee George Puentes and trustee Toya Fick see the power in and advocate for an equitable public education system. Meyer trustee Judge Darleen Ortega often speaks truth to equity, racism and other barriers to access to justice.
In the summer of 2016, we co-wrote an op-ed in Street Roots with the Northwest Health Foundation and the Collins Foundation in support of protections for undocumented immigrants in our state.
Meyer has also created an internal Advocacy Committee that allows us to be nimble in responding to the rapidly changing world around us by issuing clear statements and making grant awards. Recently, Meyer joined with more than 170 philanthropic organizations across the country in signing the Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees’ joint statement on immigration policy.
In using our voices, our goal is not simply to speak loudly, but to better amplify the voices of those in our community when their voices are muted by inequitable systems.
We can sponsor research
We believe that good ideas backed by facts will take root and grow. If we want to influence the conversation around particular issues in our four portfolios, we can sponsor research that provides solid evidence about how education gets more equitable, how we create more housing opportunities, how we make our environment healthier, and how we build and bolster communities.
The Pew Charitable Trust has been the master of this methodology. Their strong work on the effects of redistricting, for example, has helped change the way people think about the topic. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has done important and influential work on health care.
Our work is focused in Oregon. Although we are seen as a progressive state that can be a policy laboratory for the country, we have a long way to go to level the playing field for all our residents.
Meyer funds research that can inform policies that align with our mission.
Last year, Meyer awarded a $250,000 grant to a partnership between Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Neighbors for Clean Air and Lewis & Clark Law School’s Northwest Environmental Defense Center. The partnership, BREATHE Oregon, will provide clear scientific data, legal analysis and community outreach so residents and policymakers have the information they need to make decisions that improve air quality in Portland and throughout Oregon. Awards to the Coalition for a Livable Future supported the research and publication of the Regional Equity Atlas, a mapping tool designed to ensure that regional growth and development decisions are more equitably distributed across the region. And Meyer’s funding to the Women’s Foundation of Oregon supported research and community listening sessions around the state that resulted in the Count Her In report on the state of women and girls in Oregon.
As part of our Affordable Housing Initiative, Meyer convened a group of experts to define problems and potential solutions around cost efficiencies in affordable housing design, finance and construction in Oregon. The findings of the study culminated in a 2015 report that has been shared with state and local policymakers and used in the funding of five pilot programs to put the research to practical work.
Our Affordable Housing Initiative also gave a housing advocacy award to the Oregon Center for Public Policy to support research and analyze options to reform the state mortgage deduction, which will help inform the Legislature on tax reform.
These are just a few examples of how we are supporting research that informs policy.
We can use our convening power
It is vital for nonprofit organizations to find common ground and a common voice as they advocate for systems change. We can put on public events (with the media invited, of course) that can act as community education. We can set up programming such as conferences and convenings that pull together disparate stakeholders to discuss particular issues.
We can both do the convening ourselves and provide funds to facilitate these meetings. Meyer has funded State Voices to provide leadership and advocacy training for Oregon Voice’s 29 member groups.
We can help with technical assistance grants for important public and media relations or to hire government affairs consultants. For example, we have awarded grants to OPAL and Beyond Toxics to work with state government to build relationships across several rural Oregon communities to identify their environmental justice priorities.
As we unify our efforts, we create a powerful network that yields an even greater impact.
We can collaborate
Just as we want nonprofits to work together to common purpose, Meyer and other foundations must do the same. We have a louder voice together.
With the Chalkboard Project, we joined forces with the Collins Foundation, the Ford Family Foundation, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation, and the Wendt Family Foundation working toward elevating student achievement and eradicating achievement inequities. Although Oregon has a long way to go in these respects, the alliance has been a strong nonpartisan voice behind research and programs to improve the quality of teacher and school leaders, in part, because we have all moved forward together.
Along with Oregon Community Foundation and several other funders, we helped launch and fund the Oral Health Funders Collaborative, which addresses the serious and widespread impact of lack of access to oral health care among low-income children. We also joined an innovative, multi-funder cross-section collaboration with the Northwest Health Foundation, the OCF, Kaiser, and Care Oregon to explore the intersection of health and education and how best to address systemic barriers to improved school-age outcomes.
We can award grants
As a private foundation, Meyer is not allowed to lobby for or against specific legislation, ballot matters or candidates, nor can we earmark grants for the purposes of lobbying, but we can support nonprofits that lobby. We can make two types of grants to those organizations: general support and specific project grants. Done correctly, these grants are one of our most powerful mechanisms for advocacy.
We recently awarded a $40,000 grant to organizers for the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, a diverse alliance of community groups concerned about the social and environmental justice issues related to the federal effort to decontaminate the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in the Willamette River. We support their efforts to lobby for a strong, fair plan that entitles those most harmed by the river’s polluted history to an equally outsized benefit from the cleanup.
Over the past year alone, we have provided significant grant dollars to support the capacity and operations of advocacy organizations across all Meyer’s portfolios: Basic Rights, Partnership for Safety and Justice, Stand for Children, the Welcome Home Coalition, the Oregon Housing Alliance, and Children's Institute, to name just a few. Our Housing Opportunities portfolio’s Affordable Housing Initiative is currently calling for proposals specifically for housing advocacy work. Click here for more details.
We can also use funds to send a more direct message. In early February, we issued rapid response grants to the Oregon ACLU, Unite Oregon and other prominent organizations advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees in this country. The timing was significant, and our message was clear.
We can support the demand for legal services, as many organizations and individuals come under legal challenges from the government. By providing operating support, nonprofits can offer legal research and services, just as ACLU lawyers stand ready to help provide a check on runaway executive and legislative powers. This month, we are awarding $50,000 to the Metropolitan Public Defender Services to protect the legal rights of immigrants and $15,000 to Crag Law Center to provide legal services to help maintain environmental protections.
We can do direct advocacy
We can also — within legal limits and our internal capacity constraints — take more direct action where we determine it will advance our mission and program portfolio priorities. For example, this month, I and staff of Meyer’s Affordable Housing Initiative were invited by the Legislature to come to Salem to testify in front of a committee about the need to prioritize the preservation and expansion of affordable housing.
In the past we have met with individual legislators to talk about those goals and to give them perspective on the work of Meyer grantees Network for Oregon Affordable Housing and the Oregon Housing Alliance to advance these goals. We presented research about the presence, need for and importance of affordable housing in their individual districts. By showing up, we gave our allies’ voices a powerful boost.
We must embrace risk and strive to break down barriers
Of course, Meyer is and must remain nonpartisan. When we take on an advocacy role about a policy, program or issue, we strive to unite parties and include varying perspectives and interests. Ideally, these issues or policies would demonstrate strong public support or offer a “mission critical” opportunity for Meyer to assume a leadership role.
When we act on behalf of a particular issue that might be controversial, we are guided only by our core mission and values. We know that some might have different perspectives about what we collectively have to say about a topic, and we look forward to engaging folks in the conversation. The challenges Oregon faces require bold action, and so we must act together to amplify our impact on behalf of all Oregonians. We encourage other foundations and individual donors to join by effectively channelling more contributions and their voices into the vital work of advocacy.