April 10, 2017

Change in leadership, continuity of mission

2017 is a milestone year at Meyer Memorial Trust: We are celebrating 35 years of working to make Oregon a better place, and the anniversary also marks my 15th year at the helm. So it seems timely to reflect a little on our history and to share my plans for the future.

Much at Meyer has changed: how we think about what we do, the types of work we focus on and fund, the range of strategies and tools we employ, and the way we look at our role in making Oregon more equitable for all its residents. But the fundamental values of our humble founder still shape our decision-making and our place in Northwest philanthropy. Fred G. Meyer is our North Star, a reminder to be responsive, innovative, transparent and customer service-oriented.

Today, we’re in a very good place. Three years after Meyer launched a major strategic redesign based on equity, with a renewed mission and refocused grant processes, we’ve narrowed our focus to have greater impact and become a better, more collaborative partner to our grantees and peer funders. We’ve rebuilt the foundation’s corpus after it fell by hundreds of millions of dollars during the Great Recession. Our staff has grown, and I work alongside a group of remarkably talented individuals and for a board of trustees filled with dedicated, thoughtful leaders.

This feels like the right moment to announce my decision to step aside in 2018. Next year a new leader will bring fresh momentum to Meyer’s enduring mission, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.

This isn’t about re-engineering Meyer. We’re not looking for a change agent. We’re looking for a proactive innovator to shepherd us further into equity, someone who leads from a position of strength and understands why stewardship trumps ownership every time. It’s about a planned and thoughtful transition that will best serve Meyer and Oregon.

A national search for a new CEO will begin this summer, with preference given to candidates rooted in the Pacific Northwest. We plan to retain a search firm with a solid record of identifying diverse pools of exceptional candidates. And Meyer pledges to pick its next leader from a diverse finalist pool — or start fresh.

Meyer staff will be invited to share their opinions with trustees, comment on desired CEO attributes, and take part in focus groups and interviews of finalists. The community will also play a part. Nonprofit leaders and stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide input on key attributes and characteristics for Meyer’s next CEO.

When he died at age 92 in 1978, after building a simple coffee delivery business into a regional full-service grocery and restaurant chain, Fred Meyer set aside stock valued at $63 million to establish this trust.

The value of those stocks had nearly doubled by the time the Fred Meyer Charitable Trust launched in Portland in 1982 as the largest private foundation in the Pacific Northwest. Our doors opened at a calamitous moment: A deep recession had toppled Oregon’s timber industry. Unemployment hovered at 12 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. Rural Oregon, especially, withered.

With money in the bank and no need to fundraise, private foundations are well-suited to weather bleak financial times. But their purpose isn’t merely to exist in perpetuity. When community needs grow, the way foundations respond matters. Over the years our board has worked to balance Mr. Meyer’s mandate to operate in perpetuity while stepping up funding during Oregon’s most challenging periods.

During our first 20 years, led by Executive Director Charles Rooks, most of Meyer’s grantmaking was responsive and for general purposes. Charles showed exemplary stewardship in so many ways, including one practical way: He was an early adopter and champion of capacity-building grants, which strengthen the stability and growth of organizations so they can better serve their communities and, in turn, strengthen the entire nonprofit sector.  

During his tenure, Meyer awarded 3,817 grants, totalling $294.5 million, to 1,883 organizations across every county in Oregon, and in Clark County, Wash. Small and large, those early Meyer grants made a lasting impact.

When Charles retired in 2002, our assets were just over $475 million, you could count the number of staff on two hands, and Meyer was viewed as a well-established, somewhat traditional, regional foundation in a state struggling through yet another economic recession.

Meyer’s second generation trustees wanted a patient change agent, someone who, like them, would keep one eye on the present and the other on how we might adapt in real time to best serve a state in crisis.

I am proud of how Meyer has explored ways to make a greater impact in our community. We’ve constantly wrestled with how best to bridge the gulf between what Meyer paid out each year and the scale of the challenges we sought to address. What we were looking for was a better way to leverage our substantial human and capital assets to tackle deep-seated societal problems, including a more focused effort to align our investment portfolio with our mission.

The shifts began in earnest in 2004, when we began making program-related investments, eventually paying out roughly $40 million in low interest loans and guarantees and along the way validating the belief that we had tools at our disposal to augment our grantmaking for greater impact. Next, along with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Heron Foundation, we helped to launch the 2% for Mission campaign to encourage more mission-related investing by foundations. Our efforts led to the formation of Mission Investors Exchange and mission-related investing is now a standard in philanthropy. Meyer uses mission-related investing to tap our institutional assets to further both our mission and our financial goals.

The long bull stock market that had helped our corpus grow over 25 years to about $700 million crashed after the housing bubble popped in 2007. Requests for funding increased. Locally and nationwide, calls grew louder for foundations to step in and backfill government cutbacks. On the grant side of the house, we made it a practice to engage stakeholders in deeper conversations about how Meyer could be more responsive to their needs and our mutual desire for greater collective impact.

Beyond the immediate crisis, we looked past the symptoms to the conditions that made it hard for vulnerable communities to thrive and hedge against future downturns, determined to focus more directly on root causes. The housing market collapse highlighted the problem of affordable housing. So Meyer added strategic focus to our grantmaking through an initiative to preserve and increase access to affordable housing. In 2008, we launched the Willamette River Initiative to make measurable improvements along a river basin that is home to two-thirds of the state's population and three-quarters of its economic output.

Impact, it’s really been all about impact.

More recently, we studied the findings of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Project. For two decades, the project has polled Oregonians about important issues affecting our social and political lives. Turns out Oregonians care about the funding and quality of K-12 education more than any other issue, affirming the importance of the Chalkboard Project, which Meyer co-founded with five other Oregon foundations in a collaborative effort to lift K-12 student achievement.

In considering education, the Willamette River, housing and poverty, we found ourselves investigating gaps in the funding that underpins our state. Where those gaps are greatest, you’ll find the worst oppression and inequities.

Our staff and board began exploring the idea of equity and what it meant to be driven to make Oregon a “flourishing and equitable” place. Trainers help us learn together how deeply racial bias and systemic oppression are embedded in our institutions, our culture and our own subconscious and the effect they have on the world in which we live and work. We didn't invent equity; our passion is built atop the learnings, partnerships and efforts of others in the field doing the hard, often unrecognized work.

We’ve learned to recognize the legacy of racial inequity in this country’s institutions and how its cumulative impacts create the conditions funders traditionally work to overcome. We believe our mission of achieving a flourishing Oregon depends on achieving equity. That means breaking down barriers and leveling disparities. Some examples: dismantling conditions that leave kids of color to expect one outcome in Oregon’s education system while well-to-do white kids expect another, or increasing access to affordable housing for farmworkers and the formerly incarcerated so they, too, can achieve stability at home. Only change at the systemic level can surmount inequities.

You know the feeling of nudging a final puzzle piece into place, that sense of completion and rightness that comes with seeing the whole picture? That’s what delving into equity felt like for me. We are committed to addressing bias and inequity across Oregon. It is not an overstatement to say that delving into equity profoundly changed me and Meyer’s direction. It’s why we’ve become what we’ve become, no doubt about it.

Now we use our heft to back advocacy efforts that increase equity and inclusion of Oregonians who experience disparities because of race, ethnicity, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, location or other oppressions. Now we don’t just say we prioritize that work and nonprofit partners who share our interest; it’s woven into the fabric of Meyer.

We’ve built a national reputation as a regional foundation that has gone all-in for equity and inclusion and against inequality. We still have much to learn and are certainly far from getting it all right, but we are transparent about our commitment to equity and inclusion. We know that it defines who we are at Meyer and how we approach our work. We will continue to be vocal about our beliefs and aspirations to encourage others in the independent sector.

Our trustees agree. We are staying the course on our commitment to equity at Meyer. For the organizations and people we’ve met and engaged in our listening tours and surveys over the past few years, you can be sure there are no plans for significant changes in program directions or funding.

Meyer’s work on equity, diversity and inclusion has transformed the makeup of our staff and board. Today, Meyer is a foundation with 37 employees, three Momentum Fellows, a corpus of about $750 million and total grant awards topping $717 million. Half of my colleagues identify as people of color; more than two-thirds identify as women. Our board is similar: Two-thirds identify as people of color, and two-thirds identify as women. We are working on ways to deepen the diversity of our staff, beyond race and gender identity.

The Meyer team — trustees and staff alike — share a commitment to and application of equity principles in our work.

It has been said that successful servant leaders know when they have done all they can for the good of an organization. I feel confident that stepping away in 2018 will make room for a new leader who can guide Meyer further down its path.

I plan on staying onboard through a good part of 2018 to help Meyer’s next leader settle in smoothly. Then I’ll take a short break before pursuing opportunities to advance equity and inclusion in the independent sector.

I’m tremendously excited about the future at Meyer — and I hope you are, too.

— Doug