April 9, 2019

Building Community’s new approach

Building Community program associate Erin Dysart conversing with community members at Meyer's 2018 Annual Funding Opportunity information session at Immigrant and Refugee Organization (IRCO).

Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Meyer’s director of communications, recently sat down with Building Community portfolio director Dahnesh Medora and program associate Erin Dysart to talk about changes in the portfolio this year, including accepting applications by invitation.


Kimberly Wilson:

Before we talk about the shifts within the Building Community portfolio, let’s spend some time capturing the evolution of the portfolio. Since Meyer redesigned its programs, there are often questions about the purpose or vision for this portfolio. Can you share some of that background?

Dahnesh Medora:

As I understand it, the vision was always broad. As Meyer moved away from a responsive grantmaking model, the Building Community portofolio was meant to serve as a space where a range of groups could see their work and access support generally. The initial outline for the portfolio had an emphasis on capacity building, with an added focus on civic engagement and the arts. Those were the three buckets that were most distinctly carved out.

What Building Community didn’t have, in contrast to the other portfolios, was a more topical focus that tied these things together. The closest thing we had was a focus on equity, which essentially meant that the Building Community portfolio mirrored the overarching focus of Meyer as a whole. In practice that meant Building Community was the “widest door” to apply for Meyer funding, and so we’ve consistently seen a high level of interest from the field.

Kimberly Wilson:

This has been Meyer’s largest portfolio in regard to the range of topic areas covered and when it comes to application volume through the Annual Funding Opportunity. Can you say a bit more about what that has looked like?

Erin Dysart:

Sure, over the three annual funding cycles, Building Community received about 1,000 applications, well over half of what Meyer received across all four portfolios. We funded just over 200. So about 80 percent of applications were declined each year. In terms of dollars, upward of $127 million was requested and about $22 million was granted. It has been a very competitive process.

Dahnesh Medora:

Yes, the door has been wide, but the funding hasn’t been quite as much. Let’s come back to that 80 percent in a minute. I do want to touch on the breadth of topics you asked about. When we reviewed a pool of applications, we found folks who were working on recidivism, arts organizations that were focused on youth development and groups that were in the traditional public policy and advocacy space, including collaboratives. We’d see organizations offering direct services for basic needs and family supports for early childhood ...

Erin Dysart:

… organizations working in or on health care, media, legal services, cultural preservation, out-of-school programming, community facilities, food systems, employment support … the list goes on.

Kimberly Wilson:

So it sounds like this portfolio, at least in its earliest days, carried forward some remnants of Meyer’s previous responsive grantmaking model.

Dahnesh Medora:

I think there’s some truth to that. We put this broad container out into the world, so although we did adjust and tighten a bit each year, we continued to receive a high volume of applications covering a vast range of issues.

For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it’s ideal that we turn down 80 percent of applicants. That means a lot of people put time and energy into an application, they base their planning around this work and our process can take between six to nine months before they even find out if they’ve been accepted as a grantee. I don’t know that there is an ideal acceptance rate necessarily — I think Meyer’s other portfolios tend to be closer to 50 percent — but I’d like to get to a place where Building Community can provide clearer guidance in advance that supports folks in making self selections and ultimately leads to a smaller number of declinations.

Funding will likely always be competitive to some degree, but we know we can make some improvements. That’s one of our goals in reformulating what we’re doing, to make the process less arduous for applicants generally. This also means that our staff will be able to focus and be more strategic with their use of time. If we’re not culling through those large numbers, we’re able to devote more time and attention to individual applications and make the case for why they should be funded to our trustees. That’s exciting to me, being more strategic.

Erin Dysart:

Me, too. And that relates to something I hear consistently from our portfolio colleagues as well, that we’d all like to be out in the field more and be able to work in more relational and less transactional ways.

Kimberly Wilson:

You mentioned adjusting and tightening each year, I think referring to the Annual Funding Opportunity. How has that played out?

Erin Dysart:

We have been working incrementally on narrowing the portfolio. We’ve made adjustments to our funding goals and intended outcomes each year, in collaboration with our trustees, for example naming systems change as a goal. So we’ve experimented with some of those sorts of modifications.

Of course, some narrowing has also happened as we’ve made hard choices about what gets funded and what doesn’t. Again, the door to apply has been wide, but the funding has always been more narrow. Part of what has emerged and guided us and grown stronger in doing so over the course of these three years are what we’re now calling our anchor criteria, three qualities that we look for in partner organizations.

Those are, one, an active commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion both in external programming or services and, importantly, in internal operations and leadership. We’re looking for indications that go beyond some initial training. Two: centering, listening to and remaining accountable to the service community. We sometimes call this raising up constituent voice. Finally, three, and this is a big one for us, we’re looking for organizations that ensure that their work fits within broader efforts to address systems that perpetuate economic, political and other disparities.

Dahnesh Medora:

You might notice that these are “issue agnostic” characteristics or rather that these are about how an organization works rather than what issue they might be focusing on. In some ways the “how” has always been a bit easier for us to pin down.

One other thing to mention, and this is connected to our anchor criteria to some degree, is that we’ve grown more clear about the need to prioritize racial equity. That’s not at the exclusion of thinking about other issues of oppression, of course.

Erin Dysart:

Moving forward, we’re going to be more clear that we are looking first and foremost at work that is designed to support communities of color and Indigenous people and Tribes, and then particularly where they may experience overlapping oppressions related to gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status ...

Dahnesh Medora:

… or other oppressions that might be specific to a community.

Kimberly Wilson:

Can you share what’s ahead for the Building Community portfolio in the 2019-20 funding cycle?

Dahnesh Medora:

Some things are different, but I want to be clear that the foundational pieces remain the same. Our vision, for example. We want to create a just, complex, multicultural society where everyone can thrive. That’s been a consistent aim, and that will remain the same.

In support of that, we’re going to provide funding in the amount of roughly $2.5 million for groups that have a strong track record of work around systems change. These are organizations that will be invited to apply, so we won’t have a broad open funding call. That is the biggest difference that folks in the field are going to notice.

Erin Dysart:

Again, our anchor criteria are key: The organizations invited to apply for this funding are working explicitly on systems change, as Dahnesh said, and are also strong on our other two anchor criteria, constituent voice and DEI.

Dahnesh Medora:

We will also put out a dedicated request for proposals this spring that will focus about a million dollars of funding on organizations that are primarily in the direct service space that have an interest in focusing on systems change. Grantees of this RFP will also participate in a cohort or a community learning process that will be supported by subject matter experts in the field.

Kimberly Wilson:

So this is for direct service providers who are really thinking about root causes?

Erin Dysart:

Exactly, organizations that want to create a condition where their service isn’t needed. We work with some organizations who have figured this out beautifully. They have a vision of what it would take to ultimately work themselves out of a job. And they’re working on it! The cohort programming isn’t fully worked out yet, but we may end up reaching out to some of the groups we know that are already strong on this to see if there is an appropriate (resourced) way for them to share some of their experience with other organizations looking to build this muscle.

Dahnesh Medora:

So this is an area — direct services to systems change — where we’re going deeper, in a sense, both for the purpose of supporting the field but also to support our own learning. Our own learning is a piece of what we’re hoping to do this next year through engagement with organizations that are in the field.

Kimberly Wilson:

Are there other ways you’re pursuing that learning during this interim year, other elements of work not tied specifically to the two funding streams you’ve talked about? Are you in fact thinking of this as an interim year?

Dahnesh Medora:

We are thinking of this year as unique, yes. And I’d say that all of the learning we are pursuing is in some way tied to systems change, that’s the big theme. The idea of systems change has become more and more central to Meyer’s work, but it has been defined somewhat loosely. In Building Community, we’re thinking about how we can make that more tangible. What does systems change really look like? How can we best support it? Where are the levers and opportunities in Oregon that we might be well suited to move?

Erin Dysart:

We’re also talking more about how policy change and systems change overlap but aren’t the same. Policy change is part of systems change but isn’t the entirety of it by any stretch.

Dahnesh Medora:

That’s a good way of putting it. And in that sense, the policy and advocacy component of our work has been there all the way through, and I think we’re now making more of a distinction between the two, between policy and advocacy and broader systems change efforts.

In the future, we’ll make an effort to try to convene our grantees a little more than we have in the past. You might think of it as formal convenings or meetings, but there’s also a great benefit in just deepening relationships with individual organizations and those are one-on-one conversations. Our hope is that we create enough space for our staff this year to actually go out and engage with groups one on one.

Erin Dysart:

And that could go beyond grantees, too. We know there may be groups doing great work in Oregon that connects well with what we’re trying to achieve but that we haven’t partnered with or even met yet for one reason or another.

Dahnesh Medora:

We also have Building Community staff members who represent Meyer on some important funder collaboratives — Sally Yee on the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funders Collaborative and Erin on the Census Equity Funders Committee of Oregon — so that is work that is also ongoing on a parallel track that can inform how the portfolio evolves.

We’ll also try to keep our tools sharp by attending conferences, working with other funders, intermediaries and peer organizations that dig in on a particular issue or have an approach that we think might lend itself well to the other efforts we see in the sector. That’s definitely a piece of the field engagement. We’re going to focus some exploration on issues related to immigration, democracy and wealth creation, themes that have emerged from our first three years that feel like they might have potential to help us sharpen our approach. We are open and ready.

Erin Dysart:

This all really ties back to when Meyer’s trustees chose to shift to strategic rather than responsive grantmaking. That’s about naming the impact you want to see in the world and focusing resources on the strongest opportunities to make it happen. So when we talk about narrowing, reformulating or possibly identifying topical focus areas, these are all essentially different ways of saying that we’re trying to get more specific about the highest impact strategies that are going to help us actually shift power and achieve the transformational change we want to see in the world––and that communities have been working toward for decades!

Dahnesh Medora:

And I think Meyer is at an inflection point more generally. As a whole organization, we are trying to understand: Where can we have the greatest impact? Our board and staff are constantly asking that question, and I think a healthy organization has to do so on an ongoing basis. To not just ask it once.

Kimberly Wilson:

So what comes next after this year? And how can people in the field connect with you or stay tuned into what you’re working on this year?

Dahnesh Medora:

We don’t know exactly what the year after next will look like. I know that’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but that is the genuine truth of where we are. Again, we do have core elements of the portfolio that won’t change, but the pieces that may feel most urgent to folks in the field, such as specifics of what funding opportunities will look like, we just can’t say yet. But we will stay in communication with the field about this as we have more information available. We’ll share updates online via our portfolio-specific newsletter and Meyer’s website. If folks want to know more or have specific questions, we encourage them to reach out to us directly.

Erin Dysart:

Right now, as we’re announcing these changes, we’re also encouraging folks to reach out via questions [at] mmt.org so we can compile questions and share a FAQ with the field if we find themes that would be helpful to share out. Additionally, we’ll host an online Q&A session with the field at 10 a.m., Wednesday, April 24. (Register here)


Dahnesh Medora, Building Community portfolio director, joined Meyer in November 2015 in the late stages of planning for a major programming restructure. The portfolio was still taking shape at the time and was then referred to as the Resilient Social Sector portfolio. (Its name was later changed to Building Community based on field feedback.)

Erin Dysart, Building Community program associate, joined the team in March 2016 when Meyer’s strategic grantmaking structure publicly launched and its first Annual Funding Opportunity opened.