Final reflections: Departing Fellow Marcelo Bonta reports out

After juggling the work — and the occasional jar of spice — Marcelo Bonta reflects on his two year environment fellowship at Meyer

I began my Philanthropy Northwest Momentum Fellowship with Meyer Memorial Trust in September 2015 when the Healthy Environment portfolio was newly formed. Two years later, I am at the end of my fellowship. In work experience terms, this was a short time. In grant period terms, this was a long time. As I transition, I have been asked to provide my outgoing thoughts. In homage to my work at a foundation, I am providing my reflections in a very philanthropic final report format.

Marcelo Bonta


Final Fellowship Report

File #HE 914152111617

  1. Were your goals achieved?

When I started my fellowship, I was really excited about achieving the following personal goals:

  1. Contributing to the creation of an effective environmental giving program with equity at its core, and

  2. Gaining a deeper understanding and awareness of the obstacles that are preventing environmental programs/foundations from effectively advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and to discover solutions.

Yes, my goals were achieved.

To the first goal, I believe Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio is advancing DEI effectively and, in fact, has emerged as a leading foundation program at the nexus of equity and environmental protection. The program still has much room to grow, but it has many elements that other private foundation programs across the country should replicate. For example, Meyer’s program supports environmental justice, DEI capacity building, general operating support, multi-year grants and diverse collaborations. It pays organizations for their advice and time and requires a commitment to DEI, equity outcome(s) and growth over time. It also has non-grantmaking activities to support in partnership with the movement of Healthy Environment grantees, such as a DEI capacity building workshop.

Regarding the second goal, I discovered that white privilege, trustees that “don’t get it,” and foundations (and philanthropy as a whole) steeped (and stuck) in dominant culture norms and systems are the top issues preventing environmental philanthropic institutions from advancing on DEI. Some solutions to address these challenges that I experienced at Meyer are to add diverse staff and trustees who have equity skills and experience. Also, including ongoing equity training to support personal growth and transformation helps enormously. At Meyer, we started with racial and LGBTQ equity training. Meyer has also been committed to improving and changing internal and programmatic systems.

  1. Describe the most important way you contributed toward Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio’s vision of “nurturing a resilient natural environment, while supporting the well-being of Oregon’s diverse cultures and communities.”

Helping develop the Healthy Environment portfolio and its broader programmatic work has been one of the most fun and stimulating parts of the fellowship. With a small team, I co-created Meyer’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Spectrum Tool to help organizations assess the state of their DEI efforts. I also helped to influence creation of the Willamette River Initiative’s DEI goal to guide the program and its grantees toward DEI efficacy. Drawing from my experience at the Center for Diversity and the Environment, I supported and recommended the allocation of funds toward DEI capacity building, especially staff and board training and organizational strategy development. Meyer sees these investments as ways to deliver “more bang” for its bucks.

Although I really enjoyed the co-creation of and contribution to these achievements, the most invigorating experience has been as one of three team members discussing, analyzing and making important decisions and funding recommendations, while grounding our process in equity. I felt our small team had a healthy, inclusive approach to listening to understand, learning from each other, truly seeing each other, and making decisions on consensus. This is the work, the essence of DEI — often beautifully messy and especially uncomfortable. We created an inclusive environment where I could bring my full self.

  1. Did you encounter any opportunities or challenges with your experience that impacted your ability to achieve your goals? If yes, briefly describe the opportunities or challenges you experienced and how you responded to them.

As the first cohort (aka the guinea pigs!) of a new fellowship coinciding with implementing a new strategy at Meyer, inconsistencies and missteps were expected. More important is the response and commitment to ironing out the kinks, listening to understand and improving, which Philanthropy Northwest and Meyer have been doing.

It’s been my experience that these organizations are committed to listening to groups and communities they serve and to do their best to respond accordingly. This approach is a key skill in DEI work. The first step is the commitment to respond (i.e., authentic intent). The next step and ongoing work is how you respond effectively so that the community you serve continues to benefit and receive higher value over time (i.e., tending to impact). Equity work is never a perfect process, but your commitment can be perfected.

Additionally, two aspects of my experience made all the difference: (1) working at a foundation that is walking its talk on equity and (2) having a cohort of fellows to lean on for support. To be honest, I don’t believe I would have stayed the full two years if I was not placed at Meyer and not part of the Momentum Fellowship. I am in a time and place in my career where I yearn to bring my authentic self to everything I do. A core piece of who I am and what I bring to the table is my equity lens. I need to work at a place that is not only open to my lens and deep passion for equity but can respond accordingly. Meyer has provided that space for me, for which I am extremely grateful. In addition, we are at a time and place in society where communities facing disparities suffer the consequences from every delay or excuse we give ourselves to not do DEI work. There are deep, impactful negative consequences when we do not act. These communities do not have the luxury of time. Over the past two decades, I have been fortunate to gain an incredible amount of experience and wisdom in the equity realm. I need an atmosphere where I can push myself and make a difference on a daily basis. Meyer has been the right organization at the right time for me.

As for the fellowship, participating with a cohort of people who have similar life experiences and entering the foundation world as newbies together has been life-giving for me in so many ways. The relationships have provided me the support and courage to stand on my two feet when there were times that I just wanted to curl up in the corner in the fetal position. I have made friendships that will last throughout my career.

  1. Have there been any significant changes in your organization that impacted you during your fellowship?

I joined Meyer as the foundation was experiencing significant changes. Meyer was transparent with me regarding the unpredictability and growing pains that are inherent with change work. This is the type of atmosphere I prefer and in which I thrive. In the past two years, Meyer has hired more than a dozen new staff and added four of six trustees. Currently, we are experiencing a CEO transition, and three new fellows have joined.

The impact of these changes has all been positive and is part of the transformation process for groups that are truly committed to DEI. These changes were expected and have impacted me in a good way.

  1. How will this experience affect you and your work moving forward? What are your next steps?

This experience has helped me hone my equity lens in relation to foundations. Experiencing first-hand the challenges and opportunities of change work has been invaluable as I transition to consulting with and coaching other foundations in this process.

As for my next steps, I will be joining The Raben Group as a principal, building out their DEI consulting arm. I will continue to focus on the environmental movement, including supporting environmental foundations in their overall DEI capacity building and as a program officer consultant. Also, I am starting a blog in the new year to support groups and change agents that seek guidance on the “how to”of DEI work.

My career mission remains the same: to create a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive environmental movement. Meyer Memorial Trust’s Healthy Environment portfolio and Philanthropy Northwest’s Momentum Fellowship are two such programs that our advancing that mission, and I feel honored to participate in the launch and growth of both. I especially feel privileged to work at a foundation at the beginning stages of creating an environmental program with equity at its foundation, which I foresee as becoming more commonplace as our society and the environmental movement shifts, adapts and evolves to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse society, which will ultimately lead to the successful protection of our planet.

Maraming Salamat Po (“thank you very much”),  Philanthropy Northwest!

Maraming Salamat Po, Meyer Memorial Trust!

— Marcelo