February 9, 2015

Meyer Memorial Trust is evolving

For the past year, we’ve been taking a very close look at our role in our community, examining what we do, how we do it, what we focus on, how we assess results and our impact on issues we believe are key to Oregon’s future.

Meyer Memorial Trust has a 33-year history in Oregon. As the largest private general funder in the state, we have watched needs here swell through economic shifts, downturns in key industries and changes in how government cares for the people. We’ve made 8,407 grants totaling nearly $658 million since Meyer was founded in 1982, or roughly 255 awards each year. That’s a great way to build connections to communities. We feel a deep commitment to the legacy of our founder, Fred G. Meyer, to take the foundation where it needs to go to be relevant in the moment. Eight years ago, we wondered: Could we focus more directly on the root causes of problems that burden communities? Meyer began incorporating focused initiative work into our grantmaking to do just that.

A few years ago, Meyer began exploring equity in earnest. We paid attention to what polling said Oregonians need and want. We investigated gaps in the funding that underpins our state. We believe, as our mission states, that a flourishing Oregon is an Oregon that respects the lives, cultures, histories and aspirations of the people who call it home. When we considered how Meyer Memorial Trust could have the greatest impact on the state of Oregon, we kept coming back to the idea of trying to close gaps that have been created because of inequities. In terms of critical areas where there are the greatest gaps across our entire state, they're around education, they're around affordable housing, they're around the environment and they're around maintaining a vibrant nonprofit sector.

It was the pursuit of equity that prompted us to ask ourselves more pointed questions: What if we make a priority of identifying and addressing systemic problems that are barriers to the outcomes we seek to achieve in those areas? How might we refocus what we do to make a greater impact?

The questions led us to some surprising answers, some tough decisions and even more questions. They reminded us of some central truths about Meyer. We are committed to keeping communities and our nonprofit partners front and center. We rely on them to help shape our grantmaking. And we are ever determined to be more responsive, more nimble and more deliberate.

Our recent reflection has us poised to bring our historic approaches together in a fresh way, to highlight the best of responsive grantmaking and initiative-based funding.

To that end, on March 15, we will take four specific steps:

— We will take a hiatus from some of our grantmaking activities through the spring and summer and into the fall of this year while we engage with our partners.

— We will suspend our Responsive Grants and Grassroots Grants programs, to reorganize our grantmaking into priority funding areas. During the program shift, we will be guided by the responsive ethos and grassroots values that have always guided our giving.

— We will end grantmaking for work done in Clark County, Wash.

— As we end our funding of work in Clark County, we will dedicate $1.5 million to the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington in support of its community grantmaking.

Continuity and change

Truth is, Meyer has been evolving for a long time. This recent process has been revealing and rewarding. It has reaffirmed to us how important it is to continually adapt to new opportunities and changing circumstances while partnering with the nonprofit community.

On reflection, we discovered elements about our current approaches, partnerships and structures that are working really well and that we want to do more of. So while additional strategic changes may follow, much that we do will remain the same: We’ve always had a thing about listening and learning from the field — that won’t change. Our continuing commitment to the values Fred Meyer instilled, and to his beloved state, won’t change. We’re based in Portland, but we remain Oregon-wide and sector-wide. We are as passionate about supporting community leadership on Portland’s Eastside as we are about supporting rural nonprofit groups in Eastern Oregon.

The majority of our funding already supports four fields — education, affordable housing, the environment and a vibrant nonprofit sector and the communities it serves. That will continue. We’ve come to think of those as our four priority funding areas. Those are areas where we leverage our strengths, our experience and our relationships in the field. We believe education, affordable housing, the environment and a vibrant nonprofit sector are critical to fostering a place where all people can reach their full potential.

We will continue to:

make grants in areas we’ve long supported: arts, culture and the humanities; conservation and the environment; health; human services; and public affairs and social benefit;

  • work to improve affordable housing, the Willamette River and the continuum of public education;
  • use our financial assets, staff knowledge and other tools to fortify the capacity of organizations and networks;
  • leverage outside resources — financial and human — to solve problems through co-funding and partnerships among nonprofits, philanthropy, the private sector and government;
  • participate in collaborations that advance our vision;
  • focus on leadership development;
  • take risks in support of adaptive and entrepreneurial approaches to problem solving;
  • explore what our role can and should be to support economic development;
  • support grantees in their policy advocacy work — and intentionally elevate the strategic use of Meyer's influence beyond funding in each of the priority areas;
  • and we will continue to engage with nonprofit organizations, those they serve, and other key partners and stakeholders to ensure a diversity of perspectives inform and are reflected in our work.
     

Refining what we do

Over the past year, we also came to believe that we could organize what we do better, that we could be even more deeply involved with and responsive to the field. We identified some important places internally where we can create stronger connections between our work and our community partners. There’s work to be done to build on what we learn and do well. And we can be more accountable for the systems improvements and changes that are important to our mission.

And that brings us back to equity. Equity has become a core value at Meyer.

We have said it before, and we’ll keep saying it: we believe our mission of achieving a flourishing Oregon depends on achieving equity. It’s an important, central idea at Meyer. We have become acutely aware of the forces that cause disparities in our society. Together, we have studied the history of how race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, disability, geography, age and other forms of bias and oppression are embedded within the institutions and systems in our community. We see them within the Meyer Memorial Trust and within ourselves. We remain a work in progress. While we will still fund organizations, investments and projects that may not have equity as a primary focus, we will expect our grantees to explore equity within the context of their organizations and we will challenge them to make progress on integrating equity in their work, partnerships, outreach, policies, staff and boards.

To advance equity in our everyday operations, we’ll take it into consideration at every layer of our operation: from internal decision-making to vendor selection, and from grantee consideration to peer discussions. We will apply an equity lens on the grants we make and on the nonprofits we partner with. And we will work to influence other organizations to advance equity through their own structures and activities.

Turning the equity lens on ourselves, we realized we could achieve greater impact and clarity by intentionally bundling community grants, initiatives, program related investments and other Trust assets within each of the existing funding fields. Going forward, our grantmaking will follow a framework that packages our funding into the four priority funding areas.

At present, 70 percent of the funds Meyer awards annually are made through our broad Responsive Grants and Grassroots Grants programs. Often, even grants made within the same field are isolated and hard to track. In the future, a majority of our funding will be deeply connected within the priority funding areas. Three immediate benefits: Meyer and our nonprofit partners will be more effective at making systems level change. Together, we will better understand what is working and what is not. And it will help us maximize what our funds can do.

Looking ahead

That’s where we are so far.

After we suspend our current grantmaking programs on March 15, we will pay out grants and consider grant requests that are already in our pipeline, and we will continue our work through the Affordable Housing and Willamette River initiatives and the Chalkboard Project.

We will work with stakeholders during our hiatus to redesign Meyer's grantmaking within the four priority funding areas. We anticipate launching new grant programs in the fall of 2015.

A final note on Clark County: our reach historically included Clark County because the Trust came to view it, in effect, as part of Portland. Over more than 30 years, Meyer awarded roughly $250,000 a year in grants and loans for programs there. As the county developed its own independent and robust philanthropic identity, Clark County’s place within the context of our vision of a flourishing and equitable Oregon was no longer clear.

When Meyer stops accepting grant applications from Clark County organizations for their work in Washington on March 15, we will be returning to Fred Meyer’s original vision and mission of enriching the lives of Oregonians. Going forward, we will consider grant applications from out-of-state organizations, including Clark County, for work directly benefiting Oregon and in collaboration with Oregon partners.

That’s it for now. The process is ongoing. We know that this is a next step in our evolution, and we are committed to listening, learning and honing what we do in the years to come.

To stay abreast of what is happening at Meyer, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter for updates.

— Doug