Looking back, looking ahead: how we’re responding to COVID-19

A foggy, winding road.

Oregon passes a grim milestone this month: the anniversary of the state’s first recorded case of COVID-19. A year later, we find ourselves still in the throes of a global pandemic that is devastating our communities and deepening long-seeded racial, economic and health inequities. Though we’re looking forward to a science-based response in 2021 and widespread vaccine access, we know there is much work to do to ensure a just and equitable recovery for all. Meyer is committed to deepening support within our existing focus areas to meet this moment while continuing to align with longer-term strategies.

In March 2020, Meyer’s board of trustees swiftly approved the transfer of $1.3 million to relief efforts, including contributions to MRG Foundation’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund and the Oregon Community Recovery Fund at Oregon Community Foundation. Those awards were followed soon after by contributions totalling $600,000 to other pooled funds at Women’s Foundation of Oregon, Pride Foundation and the Oregon Worker Relief Fund.

After this initial round of emergency funds, members of our program team paused to listen and reflect on the most strategic and flexible use of COVID-specific funding. As a two-week stay-home order stretched over months, other crises emerged. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May and the protests that followed in Oregon and across the nation brought the parallel pandemic of systemic racism, particularly anti-Black racism, into sharp focus. Black, Native and other communities of color shouldered disproportionate health and economic impacts from COVID-19. The worst wildfires in Oregon’s history began to devastate communities throughout our state in August.

We knew our approach had to shift to meet immediate needs while also sustaining our shared long-term vision for Oregon’s future.

Meyer awarded $500,000 of COVID-specific funding in September — including dedicated support for Native and Asian communities and a farmworker survey project — while simultaneously making emergency grants and committing longer-term funding for wildfire recovery. We also launched the foundation's largest initiative to date, Justice Oregon for Black Lives, in July with a $25 million commitment to make strategic investments in the lives of Black Oregonians. We heard from communities and partners who saw opportunities not just to build back, but to build back better.

We continued to center those most impacted by the pandemic and to support community-driven solutions with grants in December and January, including robust support for the Oregon Worker Relief Fund. This public/private partnership is a community-designed, community-led effort to support undocumented Oregonians who are ineligible for federal relief programs. In all, Meyer’s COVID-specific funding for the year totaled more than $3.6 million.

Field learning

Throughout this time, Meyer staff listened to grantees and community partners, talked with peer funders and tuned into conversations across the country in an effort to better understand how private foundations like Meyer were best suited to contribute. A number of themes emerged.

Relief, recovery and rebuilding are not fully distinct from each other. Communities do not experience these as linear phases; rather the work can overlap, cycle and iterate as circumstances evolve. We see this in the ways that advocacy organizations like Basic Rights Oregon, PCUN and Rural Organizing Project among others have flexed to provide direct service for constituents this year. Organizers know that ensuring people are safe and well maintains trust. Creating systems of care to meet immediate needs involves adaptation, resourcefulness and creative problem solving. Mutual aid efforts that have organically sprouted across Oregon this year are, as adrienne maree brown would tell us, “fractals” of an emerging future, one characterized by interdependence and belonging. Offering robust support that is oriented toward relief does not mean taking our eyes off the long game.

The crises we are experiencing — a global pandemic, systemic racism and devastating wildfires, alongside alarming threats to our democracy — are interwoven and compound long-standing inequities. Although each presents unique challenges, a truly transformative recovery cannot untangle these from each other.

It is almost too obvious to name, but we know that people are tired! Organizations are doing impressive work under incredible strain, but the stretch and stress are not sustainable. This is particularly true for nonprofits led by people of color, many of which have been historically under resourced.

Although emergency funding has been helpful for filling gaps and keeping organizations afloat, accessing funds from multiple sources with different restrictions can be labor intensive, favoring higher capacity organizations. Additionally, the long-term funding picture remains highly uncertain. Many organizations received federal funding for the first time thanks to CARES Act relief but were underprepared for the program’s onerous tracking requirements. Tracking also deters some organizations from pursuing federal aid at all, wary of the potential security risks for clients who are undocumented.

Looking ahead

The interwoven nature of the conditions Meyer is trying to impact points us to an integrated funding approach over the long term. We will maintain grantmaking through our portfolios to deepen work in those core areas of ongoing investment — each intimately tied to a just recovery — while also remaining flexible to add targeted support for other COVID-related needs or opportunities that emerge as conditions evolve.

We know, for example, that the importance of stable housing as a foundational element of healthy, resilient communities has only been amplified in a time of stay-home orders, but across the housing sector, organizations have struggled with reduced government contracts, slower and more expensive capital development, and strained fundraising capacity. Similar patterns continue across the education, environment and building community program areas for our grantee and community partners.

Meyer continues to listen and to integrate these lessons learned and emerging practices as we close out last year’s grantmaking and look ahead to our Annual Funding Opportunity in March. This pandemic is not the last storm that we will weather together with our grantee and community partners. We promise to keep leaning into community-led solutions for the revisioning and rebuilding to come.

— Erin