Building a foundation for the future: On 16 years at Meyer

Tamolitch Falls is a unique Oregon feature west of Eugene, where the McKenzie River surfaces from underground lava fields to create this extraordinary “Blue Pool.”

As I approach my final days as Meyer's CEO, I have been reflecting on my tenure at Oregon's second-largest private foundation. I have been considering the work we accomplished together, the staff and trustees I've had the privilege to work alongside, the community and philanthropic partners whose vital work I have seen up close and the lessons I've learned. It's true: For 16 years I have had, as The Oregonian noted in 2002, "the best job in Oregon."

Closing out my final week at Meyer, three ideas keep surfacing in my thoughts: how much we have changed beyond our traditional roots; what I have learned as a leader through the successes, challenges and failures; and what gives me hope looking forward.

Moving beyond eleemosynary

There was a time when philanthropy centered on a concept on which a spelling bee championship might hang: eleemosynary. Meaning relating to or supported by charity, eleemosynary was at the root of the foundation I joined in 2002. Although there was no specific overarching mission statement or focused grantmaking program at the time, the common objective behind Meyer's work was "to contribute to the betterment of the place we call home."

When I first arrived, our foundation remained a bit of an enigma. When a grantee asked us, "Why did you give us a grant?" we would answer: "You asked. You made it through our rigorous due diligence process. You're trying to do something good." Without shareholders, we had little accountability and our commitment to transparency was just emerging. We were of the breed of philanthropy that was generally slow to change, operating from a position of power and privilege.

John Emrick, a longtime trustee who retired last year, was fond of saying early in my tenure that Meyer should strive to be a national model of a regional foundation. I think he was onto something. It inspired us to keep pushing beyond, to go deeper. The changes were incremental at first, but we knew we were on the right track.

Fast forward for a sec: It's so interesting to me that Meyer is better known nationally than in Oregon for our leadership and innovation around program-related investments (PRIs), launching the More for Mission campaign, our impact investing in and co-founding Mission Investors Exchange and for making our long-term investment focus around the Willamette River and affordable housing. These have been held up as national models. So have our efforts to act transparently: We were the first foundation to meet all The Foundation Center's "Glass Pockets" criteria for online transparency and accountability. And through our work with the D5 Coalition, we have prodded philanthropy to reflect the diverse country we share.

I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished at Meyer. Guided by the risk-taking spirit of our entrepreneurial founder, Fred Meyer, we have explored innovations that helped us do more than merely pay out 5 percent of our assets through grantmaking each year. We tore down the firewall between investments and program to bring the two functions into sync, to ensure that our investment values are in line with our overarching programmatic goals. We brought greater diversity and inclusion to our staff, governance, leadership and decision-making. And when we weathered two major recessions, in 2004 and 2008, we increased funding even as our corpus dropped significantly, to organizations that help our communities flourish.

The thinking at Meyer about our role in the state has shifted quite a bit since 2002. The change has truly been driven from within.

A hallmark of our work is the notion of "disruption." In technology, disruption is viewed as essential to success, problem-solving and breakthroughs. Often, it suggests seismic or systemic change. We have brought the idea to our work in a way that has upended many of our traditional notions of philanthropy. Disruption also explains why this equity work can be such a struggle at times — people tend to prefer certainty.

Our disruption began with a new mission statement: "Working toward a flourishing and equitable Oregon." It led us to look closely at the factors that force communities into the oppressive circumstances that charity aims to alleviate. Foundational charity takes the position that misfortune is the reason some people have and others do not. It presumes that having and not having occupy a space without a history of decisions, systems and institutions that create haves and have-nots.

Charity, or generosity, might feel good, but it doesn't dismantle the root causes that bring about oppression and resulting disparities. the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said it better: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

Charity is no longer the framework that grounds Meyer. That's not the organization I'll be handing off to our incoming president and CEO, Michelle J. DePass.

Now when we talk about education in Oregon, we talk about focusing on strategies for closing the achievement gaps, the graduation gaps and the opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect underserved students of color, English Language Learners (ELL), LGBTQ2+ students, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, first-generation post-secondary students and students in foster care.

When we talk about building community in Oregon, we talk about making transformational change though an honest reckoning with the historical and current causes of disparity — and our shared responsibility to dismantle those obstacles for Oregonians, including communities of color, indigenous people and tribes, immigrants and refugees, people living in poverty, LGBTQ2+ communities, people with disabilities, the elderly, women and girls, and crime and abuse survivors.

When we talk about what it means to have a healthy environment in Oregon, we talk about the harm environmental problems wreck on communities already affected by bias and oppression, communities of color and low-wage earners who already experience less access to the benefits of nature and environmental protection.

And when we talk about housing in Oregon, we begin by acknowledging that a long history of discrimination and policies that favored white Oregonians continue to create barriers to safe, affordable housing for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and immigrants and refugees. And we recognize the particular challenges people face around affordable housing in rural parts of the state.

In so many ways, we have moved beyond tradition. Although the journey has not been easy, it's the only route I can imagine us taking, even though there have been times the route felt like a sheer vertical wall no one could scale.

Equity is hard/heart work

When I look back at news clippings about Meyer from the past few years, the topics of equity and inclusion have garnered the most attention. Meyer gets credit for taking bold steps to learn about equity and being intentional in its efforts to dismantle inequities. I have gotten more than my share of attention for being an older cisgender white man and ally making a personal journey into the study of equity. What you don't see in those clippings are my mistakes and what I've learned from the stumbles.

Trust me: It is possible, even when considering the most gratifying achievements, to recall the missteps that preceded, parallelled or followed the successes. There have been moments when I was nearly undone by doubt — when I worried we were pushing too hard for change or not hard enough, when I led the organization down an uncharted or rocky path where the horizon was nowhere in sight.

Six years ago, our staff began thinking deliberately about equity. It started modestly, as a search into what it meant to be a foundation with a mission to make this a "flourishing and equitable" place. About a year later, we attempted a three-day, all-staff racial equity training. It went so wrong that we shut it down early. The experience broke something open at Meyer: deep, historical pains, bewilderment and even anger. I was at a loss as to how to respond to the pain being experienced by our staff, each of whom was embarking on their own individual equity journey. My lack of familiarity with the work held me down; I did not know how to intercede.

We've come many miles since that initial training, but our organization continues to wrestle with its aftermath.

Before that weekend, Meyer's trustees had seen me as an effective, steady leader for more than a decade. But a few weeks afterward, the toll of our first steps toward equity was palpable inside Meyer. We had been sundered by the experience.

I contemplated stepping down and shared these feelings with the trustees. I was an experienced, proven leader and change agent but a novice when it came to issues of race and inclusion. I wasn't sure I could guide our organization forward. Then I read an article by George Penick, founding president of the Foundation for the Mid South, who wrote about the need for leaders like myself to make room for women and people of color in leadership roles. Right then, I was ready to do just that.

The Meyer trustees asked me to stay. I am grateful, especially to the late trustee Orcilia Zuñiga Forbes, who reminded me that leaving could have unintended consequences. The board might instead opt for a different, more conservative path and not continue to delve into the difficult and highly emotional work that needed to be done. The pain that inequity gives voice to is real and a burden some of us have had the privilege of not even being aware of. If I wanted to change that dynamic, if I wanted to help foster a community engaged in important work, I needed to stick around.

Here's the thing: People think a foundation president runs the organization and in many ways, you do. It's your name at the bottom of everyone's checks; it's your reputation on the line when something major goes off the rails. But equity can turn hierarchy on its head. Within an organization driven to act on issues of equity, every person has a stake, every employee is a co-leader in the work. A commitment to equity can't be forced or faked. It is a delicate balance, thrown easily into disarray.

That said, it is not difficult to feel like you are making mistakes. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself that although we call it an equity journey, it functions more like a slow unending race. Equity doesn't follow a single, straight path — you must take care to pull over for pit stops. To get it right, sometimes you need to pause and reflect, or pause and heal, or pause and reconnect, or pause and reposition the route. Those pit stops are a vital part of the journey.

Equity is not so much an end goal as it is a process, one that demands time, introspection and challenging conversations. I may have encouraged us to spend more time on honest, emotional conversation about what was right or wrong in the organization — to help us practice what we had begun to preach — and less time on training sessions. The deep impromptu staff meetings we organized following the divisive 2016 election and the subsequent rise of hate speech and hate crimes across the country gave us the time and space needed to connect and build trust. I thought it was important for us to document our journey, but I've come to realize now that healing and reconciliatory conversations are as much a part of advancing the work as keeping track of it. At the root of racism and repression is a lack of understanding and empathy. It takes a long time to gain trust and have those conversations. A lot of outside and internal pressures can keep those conversations at bay. Such discussions might have helped us carry out our program redesign in a way that didn't cause further pain to many longtime staffers. I regret that.

It surely would have been easier to remain the CEO of a traditional foundation that reflected and focused on dominant culture. Equity work comes with strain. It can push you well beyond your comfort zone, which comes at a personal cost. And it is daunting.

I am blown away by the strength and dedication of Meyer's staff; they have been my inspiration and guiding light. They have never turned away from this vitally important work. Each one owns a piece of it, and when they show up, when they help lead the effort, we move further along the journey. They have shown a willingness to lean into discomfort and uncertainty that inspires me. I've learned something profound about growth: Persisting, knowing that your strengths can also be your challenges, staying open to possibilities, using humor, compassion, kindness and love — all of these have propelled us forward. If ever we waste that opportunity, it will be a huge loss.

Without reservation, I know that I am a better, more thoughtful person because I stayed. I have no doubt that the deep commitment of our staff and trustees to equity and inclusion is embedded in the fabric of our organization. Meyer is ready for Michelle and its staff to continue to deepen and hone that work.

Tagging Michelle in

Before I even stepped foot inside Meyer, I wrote in the 2002 annual report that we were in the early stages of an evolutionary process. I promised absolute commitment in the pursuit of a better Oregon for all, and I have made good on that pledge. Now, given our transformation over the past six years, Meyer is clearly poised for a new leader who will bring a fresh perspective. Michelle is that leader.

Today, Meyer talks about advancing justice and ending inequity. We know Oregon can do better, and today's Meyer is committed to help.

We're a Portland-based, Oregon-serving foundation with more than $800 million in assets. I'm a third-generation Oregonian who has struggled to level the barriers between rural and urban Oregon. Michelle, born and raised in Queens, with family ties to Oregon, brings a record of connecting and building relationships that will serve Oregonians regardless of where they live.

Michelle's professional narrative, rooted in social justice and civil rights, reflects her deep commitment to directing change. Shifting the dynamics to benefit people of color, low-income and other marginalized communities by lifting their voices, challenging the status quo and redistributing power — that is what she is about.

And it's important to acknowledge something else Michelle brings to Meyer and to Oregon: her experiences as a woman of color and as a child of immigrants. Through the lens of her life, she has developed an uncanny ability to traverse the very course Meyer is on.

I am excited that Michelle is poised to take this amazing staff, our trustees, stakeholders and partners further along the road to equity. Under her guidance, Meyer will have an even greater impact in Oregon, breaking down longstanding institutional policies and structures that promote disparities.

I have tried to do good, but with Michelle's leadership, Meyer can and will do better. And that gives me great hope.

Doug 🎤🎤


Doug Stamm has served as president and chief executive officer at Meyer Memorial Trust since April 1, 2002. He steps down on April 27, 2018 after leading the organization for 16 years.