April 14, 2019

Merging ahead

In the road of Meyer’s housing work, we are seeing a “Merge Ahead” sign. Our Affordable Housing Initiative, a five-year plan to explore innovation, support systems change and leverage resources to meet the housing needs of Oregonians is coming to its official end. That isn’t to say that our work will stop. Rather, it will be blended in with the Housing Opportunities portfolio and not labelled as a separate initiative.

In the foundation world, an initiative is a focused effort to support change. It implies that the foundation is taking the initiative to set aside specific goals and strategies for a particular effort. At the time the Meyer’s Affordable Housing Initiative was established, the foundation was a traditional responsive grantmaker. Applicants could submit proposals on the topic of their choice, which allowed grantseekers to have maximum flexibility but made it difficult to move a body of work toward a specific end.

The Affordable Housing Initiative was one of Meyer’s first two initiative experiments, the other being the Willamette River Initiative. From the time they launched in 2008, both became incubators for new ways of working as a foundation. Through the Affordable Housing Initiative we:

  • Engaged with our partners in deeper collaborative work, starting with an advisory committee that helped identify the eight targeted strategies of the Affordable Housing Initiative;
  • Sought grant proposals that advanced our specific strategies, using new funding mechanisms like Requests for Proposals (we’ve completed 15 RFPs, awarding more than 125 grants) and Meyer-directed grants;
  • Launched an early prototype of an equity lens, specifically prioritizing under-resourced communities, including communities of color, culturally specific organizations and underserved rural communities. For the first time, our applications asked for disaggregated data on who was being served by a project, as well as the board and staff makeup of an organization;
  • Hired program officers Elisa Harrigan and Michael Parkhurst for their specific experience and leadership in the affordable housing sector;
  • Began to regularly incorporate new tools beyond grantmaking: convening to foster sharing and peer-learning, research, assessments and third-party evaluations, advocacy and education, along with strategic communications;
  • Used smaller grants to support the technical assistance needs of our partners, along with field-building grants to support broad conferences and other learning opportunities;
  • Established collaborative funding efforts with other funders, including Oregon Housing and Community Services; and
  • Developed stronger ties with the investments side of the house at Meyer. This has allowed us to better connect our work and support some innovative work by the investment team.

In these ways, the Affordable Housing Initiative ran as a parallel path to Meyer’s core grantmaking work. Successes and stumbles learned from this incubator helped inform the restructure of Meyer’s programs in 2015, when we created four portfolios to help move us toward a flourishing and equitable Oregon. Forming the Housing Opportunities portfolio provided us the space to add more dedicated housing staff and roll out a more responsive funding opportunity to complement the targeted strategies we had been doing through the AHI.

When the parallel roads merge this month, you are not likely to see much difference. We’ll have the same staff, the same use of RFPs to advance specific strategies as well as an annual funding opportunity and the same attention to policy- and systems-level change. We’ll have a clear focus to center people experiencing housing discrimination and work to reduce the disproportionate impacts of racist and discriminatory housing policy on Indigenous communities, people of color, people with disabilities and other priority populations.

Through five intense years of the Affordable Housing Initiative, Meyer’s housing staff have reflected on our work and corrected our course based on market fluctuations, policy changes and a sharpened equity mission. Later this year, we’ll complete a more holistic assessment of the impact of the AHI on our partners and the larger housing landscape in Oregon. If you are interested in participating in a focus group for the evaluation, let us know on this form.

The Affordable Housing Initiative helped Meyer deepen and transform its work, and we are confident its lessons will continue to influence our work and the wider housing field in Oregon.

The road ahead is full of promise.

— Theresa