Building Community reopens with a narrowed focus on priority populations
Today, Meyer’s Building Community portfolio is pleased to open our 2020 Annual Funding Opportunity (AFO) for applications. Our approach is both new and familiar, carrying forward important elements of our work from previous years and refining them based on our learning over the past year.
Last spring, our portfolio announced that it would have a year-long invitation-only funding call rather than an open funding opportunity while we explored ways to make this portfolio more effective. Over its first three annual funding cycles, Building Community received about 1,000 applications, well over half of what Meyer received across all four portfolios, funding just over a fifth of them. We asked key direct-service nonprofits focused on systemic-level change to complete requests for proposals while we considered how to make this competitive process more clear and more clearly focused on equity. These activities as well as others gave us an opportunity to both support key organizations while also learning how to advance community based on connection and belonging.
Leading with race
We’re back for the 2020 AFO with the clarity we were searching for: the best way to achieve the broad goal of creating and sustaining justice for everyone is to focus work and resources where injustice is most concentrated. This is why the Building Community portfolio’s priority populations are people of color, Indigenous communities and Tribes and immigrants and refugees. We will only consider funding requests from organizations that have implemented strategies designed specifically to benefit at least one of these populations.
We recognize that injustice is complicated and that other aspects of a person’s identity have impact as well. We are interested in supporting work that recognizes such complexity and is designed to support members of our priority populations who experience intersecting oppressions related to gender, race, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or economic status.
Overarching criteria remain
For several years, the Building Community portfolio has shared key factors that guide our review of funding requests. Those overarching criteria remain firmly in place. We continue to look for track records of:
Operationalized DEI — understanding of structural oppressions and at least initial investments toward embedding equity in the organization’s operations
Connection to systems-level change — working to address root causes or underlying issues that create the need for a service or program
Community engagement — meaningful guidance or leadership of clients and communities shaping an organization’s work, with accountability to the people engaged
These criteria, along with strategies to support priority populations, are all deeply interwoven. An organization cannot effectively work to shift systems toward justice without centering impacted communities, particularly the priority populations noted above. Likewise, an organization that aims to effectively work with and for priority populations without causing unintended harm needs to have solid grounding in principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. When that grounding comes first, community engagement follows.
Continuing focus on systems change
While a connection to systems change is listed alongside our other criteria, it may rightfully be considered the foundation of all that Building Community does. The concept of systems change has always been present in this portfolio’s work and has become ever more important over the past four years of grantmaking. But systems change is a big idea, one we have found challenging to pin down and describe well.
This was a key part of our work in 2019 — to get clearer about what systems change is and how it’s done. With the help of grantee partners who do the work, we have come to understand that “systems change is about advancing equity by shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.” Our funding goals for 2020 are designed to address conditions at different levels.
Our first goal, Civic Engagement, Policy and Leadership is designed to address explicit and semi-explicit conditions of systems change, while our second goal, Connection and Belonging, is focused at the implicit level.
We know that changing deeply rooted systems is long-game, non-linear, complicated work. It’s not a one year grant project, though small efforts can be part of a great whole. We’re continuing to learn from grantees and others about how to gauge the effectiveness of systems change strategies, how to collaboratively set long term goals while remaining responsive to changing conditions and how to think differently about what success looks like.
Ongoing learning with service providers
Another area of continued exploration is how direct service providers can be an essential part of systems change efforts.
In July, we opened a request for proposals from service providers who were early in this work but eager to go deeper. We selected twelve organizations to participate in a Learning Circle before submitting plans for projects to advance their capacity for systems change work. Funding for those plans has just been awarded, and we will continue to learn alongside these organizations through 2020 as we consider how Building Community can better support this type of work going forward.
Thanks for your interest in what the Building Community portfolio does — and is trying to do. We look forward to hearing from you, applicants, current grantees and the merely curious.
ICYMI: Three Governors on How They’re Fighting Census Manipulation
Years of uncertainty about whether the 2020 U.S. Census would include a question about citizenship ended in June when the Supreme Court blocked its inclusion.
Three Western governors — Gov. Kate Brown (OR), Gov. Gavin Newsom (CA) and Gov. Jay Inslee (WA) — applauded the court’s decision in a New York Times op-ed about the importance of the Census and the devastating impact of undercounting the nation’s population.
“... just because the citizenship question will not be included doesn’t mean an end to the confusion or anxiety. We will not sit idly by, and we are committed to reassuring our communities that they can feel secure in taking part in the census and that their participation matters.
A miscount would have huge consequences. It would significantly erode the political power of communities of color and reduce funding to vulnerable communities for things like health care services, education programs and bridges and roads.
Our economies could also suffer. Businesses use census data to make $4 trillion in annual private investment decisions. And the information helps them decide where to build, invest in other businesses and what to sell to whom. Utility companies use it to influence where they add infrastructure and invest in new technology.
Everyone must be counted.”
Many challenges remain to achieving an accurate count in 2020 — budget cuts, minimal advance testing, rollout of the nation’s first digital census, continuing fear and mistrust in communities. The 2020 count will require stronger statewide efforts than ever before.
Meyer seeks to change systems that protect the status quo and create barriers to equity.
We recognize that change does not happen in isolation and that we cannot expect long-term transformative change if we focus only on narrowly defined issues. Earlier this year, I spoke during an interview and Q&A discussion about changes in Meyer’s Building Community portfolio — an interim year of focused grantmaking without an open funding call — to refine our focus, approach and support for nonprofits and organizations working toward “systems-level change” while serving communities throughout Oregon.
For Building Community, systems-level change focuses on meaningful shifts in policies, processes, relationships and power structures as well as deeply held values and norms. Our particular interest is in systems change that alleviates current and historical barriers impacting marginalized and underserved communities, specifically communities of color and Indigenous communities.
Today, our portfolio’s commitment to supporting diverse organizations and leaders serving Oregon communities has never felt stronger. Building Community is now accepting applications for the Services to Systems RFP, a new funding opportunity for nonprofit organizations that provide direct services and are interested in strengthening their connection to systems-level change work in Oregon.
The Services to Systems RFP will provide up to $80,000 in new grant funding, disbursed in two phases. Phase I funding will support involvement in a peer-focused Services to Systems learning circle, comprised of 10-12 organizations. A participation stipend of $5,000 will be provided for each organization, with a maximum of two staff members per organization. Phase II funding will be available only for participating organizations and range between $25,000 and $75,000 to implement work that deepens an organization’s connection to systems-level change. Meyer anticipates that all organizations that choose to submit plans will receive Phase II funding and will offer individualized coaching as organizations approach the plan development stage.
To be clear: The Services to Systems RFP is designed for direct service providers that have already started considering or may be taking early steps toward supporting systems change but are not yet deeply engaged in that work. Organizations that have not yet started this work or are already deeply engaged in systems change will be less competitive. We recommend reviewing Meyer’s Direct Services to Systems Change Continuum to get a better sense of what early or advanced systems change work might look like.
Organizations that have an active grant with Meyer are still eligible to apply for the Services to Systems RFP and this RFP does not stop organizations from submitting proposals for other Meyer funding opportunities. Those awarded grants under this RFP will be invited to participate in one or more convenings and will have a chance to network with and learn from other grantees in the learning circle.
An information session took place on Tuesday, July 16 to explain the learning circle style RFP in detail and answer questions. A recap of the questions and answers that arose during that info session can be found on the Services to Systems RFP Q&A page.
The Services to Systems RFP supports organizations that are primarily focused on providing direct services and not deeply engaged in systems change work but want to deepen their connection to the work. Up to $80,000 in new grant funding will be available.
Applicants will be notified of their award status in late September, with Phase I funding available in early to mid-October.
This RFP will provide up to $80,000 in grant funding, disbursed in two phases:
Phase I funding will support involvement in a peer-focused Services to Systems learning circle, comprised of 10-12 organizations. (A participation stipend of $5,000 will be provided for each organization, with a maximum of two staff members per organization).
Phase II funding will only be available for participating organizations and ranges between $25,000-$75,000 to implement work that deepens an organization’s connection to systems-level change.
Meyer staff will present an overview of the RFP and answer questions during an online information session on Tuesday, July 16, from 11 a.m. to noon.
Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Meyer’s director of communications, recently sat down with Building Community portfolio director Dahnesh Medora and program associate Erin Dysart to talk about changes in the portfolio this year, including accepting applications by invitation.
Before we talk about the shifts within the Building Community portfolio, let’s spend some time capturing the evolution of the portfolio. Since Meyer redesigned its programs, there are often questions about the purpose or vision for this portfolio. Can you share some of that background?
As I understand it, the vision was always broad. As Meyer moved away from a responsive grantmaking model, the Building Community portofolio was meant to serve as a space where a range of groups could see their work and access support generally. The initial outline for the portfolio had an emphasis on capacity building, with an added focus on civic engagement and the arts. Those were the three buckets that were most distinctly carved out.
What Building Community didn’t have, in contrast to the other portfolios, was a more topical focus that tied these things together. The closest thing we had was a focus on equity, which essentially meant that the Building Community portfolio mirrored the overarching focus of Meyer as a whole. In practice that meant Building Community was the “widest door” to apply for Meyer funding, and so we’ve consistently seen a high level of interest from the field.
This has been Meyer’s largest portfolio in regard to the range of topic areas covered and when it comes to application volume through the Annual Funding Opportunity. Can you say a bit more about what that has looked like?
Sure, over the three annual funding cycles, Building Community received about 1,000 applications, well over half of what Meyer received across all four portfolios. We funded just over 200. So about 80 percent of applications were declined each year. In terms of dollars, upward of $127 million was requested and about $22 million was granted. It has been a very competitive process.
Yes, the door has been wide, but the funding hasn’t been quite as much. Let’s come back to that 80 percent in a minute. I do want to touch on the breadth of topics you asked about. When we reviewed a pool of applications, we found folks who were working on recidivism, arts organizations that were focused on youth development and groups that were in the traditional public policy and advocacy space, including collaboratives. We’d see organizations offering direct services for basic needs and family supports for early childhood ...
… organizations working in or on health care, media, legal services, cultural preservation, out-of-school programming, community facilities, food systems, employment support … the list goes on.
So it sounds like this portfolio, at least in its earliest days, carried forward some remnants of Meyer’s previous responsive grantmaking model.
I think there’s some truth to that. We put this broad container out into the world, so although we did adjust and tighten a bit each year, we continued to receive a high volume of applications covering a vast range of issues.
For a variety of reasons, I don’t think it’s ideal that we turn down 80 percent of applicants. That means a lot of people put time and energy into an application, they base their planning around this work and our process can take between six to nine months before they even find out if they’ve been accepted as a grantee. I don’t know that there is an ideal acceptance rate necessarily — I think Meyer’s other portfolios tend to be closer to 50 percent — but I’d like to get to a place where Building Community can provide clearer guidance in advance that supports folks in making self selections and ultimately leads to a smaller number of declinations.
Funding will likely always be competitive to some degree, but we know we can make some improvements. That’s one of our goals in reformulating what we’re doing, to make the process less arduous for applicants generally. This also means that our staff will be able to focus and be more strategic with their use of time. If we’re not culling through those large numbers, we’re able to devote more time and attention to individual applications and make the case for why they should be funded to our trustees. That’s exciting to me, being more strategic.
Me, too. And that relates to something I hear consistently from our portfolio colleagues as well, that we’d all like to be out in the field more and be able to work in more relational and less transactional ways.
You mentioned adjusting and tightening each year, I think referring to the Annual Funding Opportunity. How has that played out?
We have been working incrementally on narrowing the portfolio. We’ve made adjustments to our funding goals and intended outcomes each year, in collaboration with our trustees, for example naming systems change as a goal. So we’ve experimented with some of those sorts of modifications.
Of course, some narrowing has also happened as we’ve made hard choices about what gets funded and what doesn’t. Again, the door to apply has been wide, but the funding has always been more narrow. Part of what has emerged and guided us and grown stronger in doing so over the course of these three years are what we’re now calling our anchor criteria, three qualities that we look for in partner organizations.
Those are, one, an active commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion both in external programming or services and, importantly, in internal operations and leadership. We’re looking for indications that go beyond some initial training. Two: centering, listening to and remaining accountable to the service community. We sometimes call this raising up constituent voice. Finally, three, and this is a big one for us, we’re looking for organizations that ensure that their work fits within broader efforts to address systems that perpetuate economic, political and other disparities.
You might notice that these are “issue agnostic” characteristics or rather that these are about how an organization works rather than what issue they might be focusing on. In some ways the “how” has always been a bit easier for us to pin down.
One other thing to mention, and this is connected to our anchor criteria to some degree, is that we’ve grown more clear about the need to prioritize racial equity. That’s not at the exclusion of thinking about other issues of oppression, of course.
Moving forward, we’re going to be more clear that we are looking first and foremost at work that is designed to support communities of color and Indigenous people and Tribes, and then particularly where they may experience overlapping oppressions related to gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status ...
… or other oppressions that might be specific to a community.
Can you share what’s ahead for the Building Community portfolio in the 2019-20 funding cycle?
Some things are different, but I want to be clear that the foundational pieces remain the same. Our vision, for example. We want to create a just, complex, multicultural society where everyone can thrive. That’s been a consistent aim, and that will remain the same.
In support of that, we’re going to provide funding in the amount of roughly $2.5 million for groups that have a strong track record of work around systems change. These are organizations that will be invited to apply, so we won’t have a broad open funding call. That is the biggest difference that folks in the field are going to notice.
Again, our anchor criteria are key: The organizations invited to apply for this funding are working explicitly on systems change, as Dahnesh said, and are also strong on our other two anchor criteria, constituent voice and DEI.
We will also put out a dedicated request for proposals this spring that will focus about a million dollars of funding on organizations that are primarily in the direct service space that have an interest in focusing on systems change. Grantees of this RFP will also participate in a cohort or a community learning process that will be supported by subject matter experts in the field.
So this is for direct service providers who are really thinking about root causes?
Exactly, organizations that want to create a condition where their service isn’t needed. We work with some organizations who have figured this out beautifully. They have a vision of what it would take to ultimately work themselves out of a job. And they’re working on it! The cohort programming isn’t fully worked out yet, but we may end up reaching out to some of the groups we know that are already strong on this to see if there is an appropriate (resourced) way for them to share some of their experience with other organizations looking to build this muscle.
So this is an area — direct services to systems change — where we’re going deeper, in a sense, both for the purpose of supporting the field but also to support our own learning. Our own learning is a piece of what we’re hoping to do this next year through engagement with organizations that are in the field.
Are there other ways you’re pursuing that learning during this interim year, other elements of work not tied specifically to the two funding streams you’ve talked about? Are you in fact thinking of this as an interim year?
We are thinking of this year as unique, yes. And I’d say that all of the learning we are pursuing is in some way tied to systems change, that’s the big theme. The idea of systems change has become more and more central to Meyer’s work, but it has been defined somewhat loosely. In Building Community, we’re thinking about how we can make that more tangible. What does systems change really look like? How can we best support it? Where are the levers and opportunities in Oregon that we might be well suited to move?
We’re also talking more about how policy change and systems change overlap but aren’t the same. Policy change is part of systems change but isn’t the entirety of it by any stretch.
That’s a good way of putting it. And in that sense, the policy and advocacy component of our work has been there all the way through, and I think we’re now making more of a distinction between the two, between policy and advocacy and broader systems change efforts.
In the future, we’ll make an effort to try to convene our grantees a little more than we have in the past. You might think of it as formal convenings or meetings, but there’s also a great benefit in just deepening relationships with individual organizations and those are one-on-one conversations. Our hope is that we create enough space for our staff this year to actually go out and engage with groups one on one.
And that could go beyond grantees, too. We know there may be groups doing great work in Oregon that connects well with what we’re trying to achieve but that we haven’t partnered with or even met yet for one reason or another.
We also have Building Community staff members who represent Meyer on some important funder collaboratives — Sally Yee on the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funders Collaborative and Erin on the Census Equity Funders Committee of Oregon — so that is work that is also ongoing on a parallel track that can inform how the portfolio evolves.
We’ll also try to keep our tools sharp by attending conferences, working with other funders, intermediaries and peer organizations that dig in on a particular issue or have an approach that we think might lend itself well to the other efforts we see in the sector. That’s definitely a piece of the field engagement. We’re going to focus some exploration on issues related to immigration, democracy and wealth creation, themes that have emerged from our first three years that feel like they might have potential to help us sharpen our approach. We are open and ready.
This all really ties back to when Meyer’s trustees chose to shift to strategic rather than responsive grantmaking. That’s about naming the impact you want to see in the world and focusing resources on the strongest opportunities to make it happen. So when we talk about narrowing, reformulating or possibly identifying topical focus areas, these are all essentially different ways of saying that we’re trying to get more specific about the highest impact strategies that are going to help us actually shift power and achieve the transformational change we want to see in the world––and that communities have been working toward for decades!
And I think Meyer is at an inflection point more generally. As a whole organization, we are trying to understand: Where can we have the greatest impact? Our board and staff are constantly asking that question, and I think a healthy organization has to do so on an ongoing basis. To not just ask it once.
So what comes next after this year? And how can people in the field connect with you or stay tuned into what you’re working on this year?
We don’t know exactly what the year after next will look like. I know that’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but that is the genuine truth of where we are. Again, we do have core elements of the portfolio that won’t change, but the pieces that may feel most urgent to folks in the field, such as specifics of what funding opportunities will look like, we just can’t say yet. But we will stay in communication with the field about this as we have more information available. We’ll share updates online via our portfolio-specific newsletter and Meyer’s website. If folks want to know more or have specific questions, we encourage them to reach out to us directly.
Right now, as we’re announcing these changes, we’re also encouraging folks to reach out via questions [at] mmt.org so we can compile questions and share a FAQ with the field if we find themes that would be helpful to share out. Additionally, we’ll host an online Q&A session with the field at 10 a.m., Wednesday, April 24. (Register here)
Dahnesh Medora, Building Community portfolio director, joined Meyer in November 2015 in the late stages of planning for a major programming restructure. The portfolio was still taking shape at the time and was then referred to as the Resilient Social Sector portfolio. (Its name was later changed to Building Community based on field feedback.)
Erin Dysart, Building Community program associate, joined the team in March 2016 when Meyer’s strategic grantmaking structure publicly launched and its first Annual Funding Opportunity opened.
Moving towards systems-level change: Building Community portfolio awards $7.78 million in grant
When I think about the Building Community portfolio, I think of the many and complex ways nonprofits support our communities. Taken together, their work is much like a large tree with dozens of roots reaching out in every direction under the earth. Some of those roots run long and deep, some less so. But each one supports something greater and bigger than itself.
This year, the Building Community portfolio received 351 initial applications — more than half of the total number of applications received across all portfolios — requesting $38 million in funding. With $7.78 million in available funding, we were able to make awards to 61 organizations, or about 17 percent of all applicants to the portfolio.
As we dive into the figures, we find that most grants support specific projects that will exist for a discrete period of time. Capacity building, operating and capital support grants follow. People of color are the largest population served, with people living on low-incomes, along with immigrants and refugees, not far behind.
Geographically, these organizations are based in both rural and urban areas and operate throughout the state. Our portfolio also awarded grants to two first-time applicants; five organizations that had previously applied received grants from Meyer for the first time. A little over half of grantees have annual budgets that range between $200,000 and $1 million.
Grantees also tackle critical and timely issues in Oregon: recidivism, youth and leadership development, and community wealth. This doesn't include the myriad social, economic and political issues addressed by other organizations in that pool of 351 applicants.
These numbers provide insights into how the Building Community portfolio makes decisions.
Digging further into the information, we found that the most competitive applicants were committed to tearing down inequities or creating equitable opportunities, particularly for historically and currently marginalized populations such as people of color, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ communities and our elders.
In fact, that commitment to marshalling equity holds true for most applicants, including those whose proposals did not advance this year. Reviewing the applications, three critical elements that are pertinent to Meyer and our mission stand out.
The first is commitment to or experience advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. The second is a willingness to seek advice from and be held accountable to the ultimate beneficiaries: the constituent group.
Finally, we're looking for projects that propel systemic change in tangible ways. You may have heard similar words from other portfolio staff because this philosophy and belief in systems-level change is fundamental to what we do at Meyer: support solutions that counteract and fix the underlying issues of inequities and not just the symptoms that create the need for a given program or service.
Another notable characteristic: Many applicants referenced the current national political climate, putting forward analysis and plans that would move policy or advocate to make tectonic change.
Although there are many impressive grantees, I'd like to highlight three recipients as a way to illustrate what I mean.
The Innovation Law Lab received about $184,000 to hire an operations/finance director and partially fund its development director position. Both hires will fortify this four year-old organization's infrastructure so it can continue to train attorneys that provide representation for immigrants in detention centers as well as asylum seekers in immigration court. The Innovation Law Lab provides crucial, life-changing legal defense services for vulnerable communities that may one day alter the way all immigrants and refugees are treated in Oregon.
A $156,000 grant to CAPACES Leadership Institute recognizes the unique and powerful way this Woodburn-based nonprofit trains and prepares Latinxs from diverse backgrounds — low-income, farmworking and immigrant families — for jobs in public service and politics. CAPACES realizes that Latinxs now comprise about 25 percent of the total population in Marion and Polk counties.
At the same time, Latinxs are underrepresented in public service and political job sectors. CAPACES collaborates frequently with other organizations to close this gap in a way that only a precious few, if any, organizations are doing. The Meyer grant will support staff, fees and expenses related to CAPACES' leadership development program.
Western States Center needed $125,000 over three years to help fund a comprehensive strategic plan for important operational infrastructure. This will enable the organization to strengthen its groundbreaking role in advancing equity and democracy in Oregon, particularly championing the rights of communities of color, immigrants, refugees, women, LGBTQ individuals and more. Western States provides everything from rapid response support in the wake of reported hate crimes to complex investigative polling on issues of racial and social injustice. The work conducted by Western States Center is expansive and attempts to transform the way all of Oregon approaches democracy.
From these three examples, equity as experienced through this portfolio is clear: There must be a recognition of the many racial, social and cultural identities holding space together in our world.
All of these characteristics form Meyer's filter and our understanding for creating a better, more equitable society. After we peel away layers of numbers, statistics and interpretations, what's uncovered is a concise and powerful truth: Our grantee partners are working to bring down barriers that have kept inequity alive and thriving.
Now in our third year as a portfolio, we continue to appreciate how nonprofits in all corners of the state remain persistent in their efforts to rise to the challenges facing their communities and constituents. We are grateful for the time and thoughtfulness put forward in the applications and look forward to learning more about how we can serve the field in the coming year.
Exploring different ways to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a core interest to the Building Community portfolio and Meyer.
Over the past two years, we have pursued two topics in depth with a select group of grantees through a learning process called "Nonprofit Sector Support" (NSS). With one group of 11 grantees, we had the opportunity to think about how leadership development-related programming can advance equity. In a second related cohort, we had a chance to work with 22 groups interested in advancing equity through work as capacity builders or providers of technical assistance to others.
Grantees gave us great insights and real time examples of this work in action. We have also been learning how this work takes shape in different parts of the country (more on this below). With this knowledge, we have started to synthesize our findings, and our program officer, Carol Cheney, will be sharing them in the coming months. A few headlines from what we have gathered through our NSS effort about how to advance DEI through leadership development and support for capacity building:
Strategies that are working well:
Lifting up multiple ways of knowing
Focusing on healing and the intersections between issues
Challenging and reframing dominant culture narratives
Sharing stories as a capacity-building strategy
Creating intensive experiences for peers to learn together and from each other
Creating multiple opportunities for the end-users or ultimate beneficiaries to help shape programs, provide feedback and define success
Cross-sector relationship building (e.g., across public, private and nonprofit sectors)
Building advocacy skills and providing opportunities for participants to take part in public policy
Areas of persistent challenge:
Taking time to build relationships and trust
Connecting across distances
Inadequate resources to meet needs
Entrenched systems of white supremacy
Challenges in accessing influential networks and building power together
Fear and mistrust based on the political environment
Racial Equity to Accelerate Change Fund
This past year, Meyer joined with nine funders from around the country to establish a new initiative called the Racial Equity to Accelerate Change (REACH) Fund. At the heart of REACH is an interest in advancing promising practices for supporting nonprofits interested in addressing issues of racial equity and inclusion.
Being part of REACH is tied to the reality that Meyer's grantees and applicants are paying heightened attention to DEI in formulating and achieving solutions to entrenched problems. In recent years, we have experienced a significant increase in requests from leaders for capacity building support to advance DEI both within their organizations and in their program work.
For many of our grantees, creating a more inclusive and equitable society is at the heart of their missions and the reason they do their work. For other organizations, a renewed commitment to DEI flows from an increasing awareness that fulfilling their missions requires that they understand and embrace these issues. Wherever grantees may be along this continuum, they increasingly are seeking help with these issues.
Although this growing attention to DEI is promising, a steady stream of events in recent years has made it clear to many Americans how far we still have to go. A surge in white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes has startled a nation that had come to think of these attitudes as relics of a more distant past. Rolling back laws and policies that represent hard-won civil rights, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, is also increasing. The extent to which racism is still deeply entrenched in America has been thrust into view, and increasing numbers of people believe that achieving racial equity is one of the most important challenges of our times.
Against this backdrop, the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is also confronting troubling data that, even in our own sectors, we need more traction. Several studies reveal that the diversity of nonprofit boards and executive leadership has hardly budged for decades even as the diversity of the country has grown significantly. The underrepresentation of people of color on boards and in executive leadership is stark when viewed alongside the racial composition of the communities we serve, and it means that the work of these organizations is not benefitting from all available talent, perspectives and experiences.
In a values-based sector that largely argues for fairness and equal opportunity, we need to do better. This means not only working harder but also trying new approaches.
Toward that end, REACH Fund is seeking participants for its first cohort of racial equity practitioners. Participants will receive grants of $50,000 - $150,000, which will be applicable to both general operations and on-the-ground racial equity support to nonprofits (either new or existing clients). More information about this opportunity can be found here.
Take action to support an accurate 2020 U.S. Census count
The 2020 U.S. Census is coming, and by now you may have heard that it's slated to include a question about U.S. citizenship status. That question has implications for the accuracy of the count, and the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the count has implications for all of us.
Indeed, census data have a tremendous effect on distribution of resources. In 2015, more than $10 billion of federal funding was allocated to Oregon based on census data. Census data are also used to determine sites of schools and other infrastructure; businesses regularly use the data when deciding where to locate and invest. The shape of our voting districts and allocation of representative seats in government draw upon census data. Perhaps your organization refers to census data, too. Meyer does.
Data collected in 2020 will have far-reaching impact, so anything that gets in the way of a full and accurate count is concerning. It is widely believed that asking about citizenship status will suppress U.S. Census participation. Immigrant communities, who already experience real consequences of harsh public discourse and policy, are very likely to be undercounted as mistrust of the government keeps many folks from answering Census questions, regardless of their own citizenship status. We're hearing this directly from community leaders we've spoken to.
Oregon's attorney general has joined a lawsuit with 17 other states seeking to bar inclusion of the question. And you can take action, too.
Meyer remains a strong supporter of the arts in Oregon, so why are the arts not specifically called out as a goal this year?
Over the past two years, thanks to applicants' feedback and our analysis of the number of grants awarded in relation to the total number of applications received, we learned we needed to be more specific about what we believe will help create a flourishing and equitable Oregon. The information we are sharing through our Annual Funding Opportunity about the Building Community portfolio is our attempt to provide more clarity and specificity about how we are looking to partner with organizations.
In this year's Annual Funding Opportunity, you'll notice a shift in how we are communicating about the portfolio but not in our focus on equity. We will continue to invest in people, organizations and systemic approaches to create lasting, transformational change. Arts and cultural initiatives and the organizations that host them play a crucial role in that change and are an integral part of the larger ecosystem that will guide Oregon toward social, political and economic change.
Meyer values all cultures and all forms of art and recognizes philanthropy has disproportionately funded some over others. For this reason, and in an effort to increase access to funding opportunities for all, Meyer does not restrict the type of organizations that can apply for funding for arts and cultural initiatives. Instead, we hope that arts organizations identify with Meyer's vision and mission and see themselves at the intersection of social justice, arts and culture — that is to say, at the place where creativity, community, history, present struggles, beauty, healing and innovation come together to transform all of us and our relation to each other.
Arts and cultural initiatives can help us imagine and live into new realities. They can illustrate a multi-perspective recollection of history, help create or maintain a sense of belonging, preserve cultural practices, convey social justice messages in ways that provoke action, communicate a desired state and help document change. By expanding and shifting narratives, arts and cultural initiatives can influence and change our collective culture — the beliefs and behaviors that uphold our social structure. As the arts become reflective of the cultural realities of all Oregonians and continue to provide space for learning, healing and celebration, they can help build inclusive communities that are equipped to challenge deeply rooted social inequities and work toward a just society.
Given their potential, organizations seeking to implement arts and cultural initiatives are encouraged to apply under any one of the Building Community portfolio goals. As with all other applicants, we will be looking to partner with organizations that: (1) demonstrate commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; (2) integrate constituent voice in their planning and (3) connect their work to broader change and anchor solutions in an understanding of why inequities exist. More information on these three baseline criteria can be found here and information on what doesn't fit is also available.
Here are some examples of arts and cultural initiatives that Meyer has funded in the past two years and how they would have fit under the redesigned Building Community goals and outcomes.
Goal 1: Community connection and belonging
Community Connection — Native Arts and Cultures Foundation will fund Oregon-based, artist-led projects on tribal reservations that magnify and address pressing social issues and engage Native and non-Native communities in learning about and addressing issues of contemporary relevance for all. Nationally funded projects of NACF have had significant impact on large systems, including conversations among municipal authorities for binational cooperation along the U.S./Mexico border.
Raised Voices — Oregon Black Pioneers Corporation developed Racing to Change, Oregon's Civil Rights Years, a traveling exhibit to increase understanding of the courage and struggle of black Oregonians during the civil rights movement and today. For Oregon Black Pioneers, community-based planning processes and engaging multi-generational advisory committees are common practices for the creation of projects' visions and goals.
Changed Conditions — With support from a selection committee representative of the area's diversity, Bag and Baggage Productions is commissioning three new adaptations of Shakespeare's "problem plays" by Oregon-based playwrights of color. This is Bag and Baggage's next step to address representation gaps on stage, backstage and in audiences. Some of their previous equity work includes efforts to address gender parity within the company and their programming.
Goal 2: Strong nonprofit leaders and organizations
Organizational Capacity — Phame Academy increased their capacity to implement PHAME Forward, a multi-year project to support adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in achieving their fullest potential. Their approach also supports the arts community in becoming more inclusive of people with IDD in order to build more equitable economic outcomes and arts opportunities.
Operationalized Equity — As part of their efforts to develop responsive exhibits and programs, the High Desert Museum will institutionalize community-informed practices; its Diversity Committee will have leadership representation from all departments, board members and a volunteer representative; and they will put in place a policy outlining guidelines and expectations for continued growth in diversity, equity and inclusion for every department.
Goal 3: Civic engagement and systems change
Policy and Systems Change — Advance Gender Equity in the Arts plays an active advocacy role within the arts community to advance intersectional equity and women's safety. Their incentivizing approach encourages theatre companies to engage in equity work to institutionalize safety policies and equitable practices to address age and gender disparities in the arts. AGE seeks to create sector-wide impact.
Innovation — Graham Street Productions developed The Architecture of Internment: The Build Up to Wartime Incarceration, a traveling exhibit exploring how ordinary Oregonians pushed for internment of Japanese Americans. Using art as a tool and a collaborative grass-roots distribution model, Graham Street engaged communities across Oregon in conversations not only about the state's history of inequality but also about current issues and sentiments that can influence and have spurred damaging policies.
There are multiple arts and cultural initiatives that can help advance equity. We are excited to hear from organizations about the impact you think arts and cultures can have on building thriving and just communities in Oregon.
Graham Street Productions developed The Architecture of Internment: The Build Up to Wartime Incarceration, a traveling exhibit exploring how ordinary Oregonians pushed for internment of Japanese Americans. Visitors shared their reactions on this banner.
When thinking about how to advance equity, Meyer believes that the voices of people most impacted by a given program or service should be heard and understood. Responses to complex social, economic and political issues created and carried out without meaningful participation run the risk of being irrelevant, inappropriate or even counterproductive.
Although the idea of raising up community voices is not new, we have been learning that putting it into practice requires commitment and a willingness to experiment. Many of Meyer's grantees take this idea to heart and are intentional about learning from those they serve and then acting on this information. Some create formal mechanisms, like surveys, for regularly collecting feedback. Others try to create an organizational culture that places a high value on learning from those they serve and integrating this knowledge at all levels of the organization.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two of our grantees, Verde and the Oregon Community Health Worker Association (ORCHWA), that are raising up community voices. Although they describe this work as an ongoing process, what they shared gave me an appreciation for the importance of raising up community voices and how this happens.
Verde was created out of a desire to build environmental wealth through social enterprise, community engagement and advocacy. From its start in 2005, Verde was intentional about designing programs that were responsive to people of color and people living on low incomes. As Deputy Director Tony DeFalco described it, they did this to ensure that "programs were relevant and that benefits of environmental sustainability could be realized by those traditionally left out."
Verde's first paid employee was a community outreach worker, which highlighted the importance of investing in relationships and building trust. Before installing its first bioswale (a drainage system that handles stormwater naturally) in the neighborhood, DeFalco explained that "the outreach worker engaged the community in a dialogue about the environmental and economic benefits of bioswales, including potential jobs for community members." Through direct community engagement and in related ways (e.g., conducting surveys of community needs), Verde prioritizes regular and ongoing communication and relationship building.
Verde has also made long-term investments in the community, like the Living Cully project, which started eight years ago. A neighborhood representing the most diverse census tract in Oregon, Cully has long lacked basic infrastructure, facilities and services. A collaborative, Living Cully strives to create a thriving neighborhood where investments in areas like housing and employment are designed to benefit the people who call Cully home.
Another way Verde focuses on long-term benefits is an annual training program called "Lideres Verdes" (Green Leaders). Lideres Verdes aims to build the capacity of community members to become advocates and offers participants 100 hours of paid training, transportation and childcare. Of the 25 participants who have gone through the program during the past five years, 18 still live in the neighborhood and are involved in community activities, including serving on Verde's board.
With investments in projects like Living Cully and Lideres Verdes, community members increasingly take ownership of issues and know that their insights can create change. DeFalco notes that as a result, "The work can take us to places we didn't always anticipate. With the election of Donald Trump, for example, Verde pivoted and addressed the immigration and racial hatred issues facing our community directly." Although it needs to be responsive to community-identified priorities, Verde also has to figure out how these might connect back to its mission. As part of its commitment to raising up community voice, Verde has had to be adaptable and open to being influenced by those it serves.
The Oregon Community Health Worker Association
The Oregon Community Health Worker Association (ORCHWA) is a statewide professional association that seeks to support and advocate for community health workers in Oregon.
Community health workers are frontline public health workers who have the trust and deep understanding of the communities they serve. This trusting relationship enables community health workers to serve as a liaison between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.
ORCHWA provides training and networking opportunities for community health workers, educates public health and health system professionals about the value they provide and addresses relevant policy issues.
The association has created a culture that values the "lived experience" of its members. Some of this has been done through the creation of policies and procedures. ORCHWA's bylaws, for example, specify that at least 80 percent of its board must be community health workers. As part of its hiring process, ORCHWA does not have formal education requirements (e.g., a bachelor's degree) and an emphasis is placed on candidates who have significant experience in community-based work. In addition and similar to Verde, ORCHWA tries to remove barriers to participation by providing food, transportation support or childcare for key meetings or events.
More than policies, the association is conscious of the ways in which community health workers feel power and ownership of the organization and the work. This consciousness is a constant. As Executive Director Alise Marie Sanchez explained, "How we talk about our work and how we make it relatable is ongoing. You can't be effective if you can't relate to those you serve."
This consciousness is not without challenges. Compared with traditional, dominant-culture organizations, Sanchez notes that process at ORCHWA might be perceived as requiring more time. As so many board and staff are shaped by the realities of doing this work on the ground, stepping back and taking in a broader, "30,000-foot view can also sometimes be hard," she said.
Another dimension to ORCHWA's work and often a challenge, is helping health systems and institutions see the value of community health workers. Sanchez pointed out that in an area like medicine, "People have been told for a long time what an 'expert' looks like and what experience they should have." ORCHWA has been working to expand the understanding of community health workers expertise and also to expand their influence in the system. A collaborative project called "Warriors of Wellness" (WOW) moves in this direction by creating a model for health-systems providers to contract with community-based community health workers services to improve health in communities of color and decrease health disparities. Service providers in the WOW Collaborative will receive funding for a full-time community health worker supervision and associated program costs. Working with the community health workers, the providers will be better able to bridge the gap between these key communities and their services.
In both Verde and ORCHWA, community voice is a value that has been integrated into a combination of specific policies and programs and in other ways that influence the culture of the organization. On one side, this relates to helping community members be powerful self advocates who feel recognized for their skills and experiences. On the other side, this involves helping dominant-culture systems and institutions shift toward hearing from the community and ensuring that they have a meaningful role in the decisions that impact them. As Meyer begins this new year of funding focused on, among other things, creating equitable outcomes for traditionally marginalized communities, we look forward to learning how other groups place a value on community voice. Let us know what this looks like in your work!
Systems change. If you work in the social sector, you probably hear this term all the time — including from Meyer. Indeed, you'll see it mentioned throughout information about our Annual Funding Opportunity. In the Building Community portfolio, we are often asked some version of this question: "With all this focus on systems change, will you still fund direct services?" The short answer is "Yes, some." But that doesn't make for much of a blog, so let's dive deeper.
Yes, the Building Community portfolio does fund some direct services that help priority populations meet their social, nutritional, legal, health, employment and other basic needs. We don't see direct services as opposite of systems change; they can absolutely contribute! On the other hand, well-intended services that are designed in isolation could end up perpetuating the very conditions they're meant to address. Context is key. Systemic context. And that's why you'll hear us say that we're interested in direct services that are grounded by a systems analysis and tied to systems change.
We've seen this take shape in many ways among grantees that we work with, from small organizations to large ones. Rest assured, it doesn't always mean policy advocacy in Salem. (But that's great, too.)
Before getting into examples, let me pause to note that the "systems" we're referring to here, in the broadest sense, are complex networks of social, economic, legal and institutional forces that reinforce each other to sustain the concentration of power and resources for some groups over others. Upending these systems is multi-layered, long-game, collective work; no one organization has the full solution. But many organizations have part of the solution, and that's what we're looking for when we review applications.
For direct service providers, our first question is: How do you understand the problem or need that you seek to address? Why does the need exist and why is it unaddressed (or insufficiently so) for a particular population? If you're treating urgent symptoms, what conditions are creating them? What are the root causes? How are racism, classism or other types of oppression operating through policies or practices that result in inequitable outcomes? Importantly, how has the service population been directly involved in shaping your understanding? All of this understanding — the organization's analysis — should be evident in its approach.
Here are just a few examples of how we've seen this show up.
North by Northeast Community Health Center is a culturally specific organization that focuses exclusively on improving health outcomes for Portland's African American community by providing care and services that address chronic conditions disproportionately impacting this population.
Red Lodge Transition Services is a Native-led organization that provides housing in Clackamas County for Native women (from around the state) who are releasing from jail, prison or treatment — the only culturally specific service of this kind in Oregon. By securing public funding (to complement grassroots fundraising), Red Lodge has influenced the allocation of resources to Native communities that are disproportionately negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.
The Next Door provides a range of social services to families living on low incomes in the mid Columbia River Gorge, and it offers culturally specific services through Nuestra Comunidad Sana to support the Latino community. NCS programming evolves in response to community and includes support for civic engagement so that Latino/Latina community members can strengthen their ability to navigate and influence local systems that impact their lives (e.g., transportation board).
The Farmworker Service Center in Woodburn is part of the CAPACES network of organizations that share a unified theory of change and each work on different aspects of building a collaborative movement for change. For example, clients who come to the service center for help with immigration paperwork may also be referred to CAPACES Leadership Institute to build civic engagement skills.
Volunteers in Medicine Clinic of the Cascades provides care for the medically uninsured in and around Bend, Oregon, with an approach that includes differentiated, culturally responsive techniques. The clinic's executive director serves on the Central Oregon Health Council, where some regional resource allocation decisions are made.
In addition to providing food and other services, the Oregon Food Bank works on addressing underlying causes of food insecurity by engaging in policy advocacy related to housing and living wages.
The Northwest Workers' Justice Project provides direct legal services to immigrant, temporary and low-wage workers. Through its work with the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, NWJP also engages in statewide policy advocacy related to worker rights and protections.
What all these groups share, in addition to understanding systems driving the need for their work, is that they are connected with other organizations and institutions around them. None of them works in isolation; they know how their services fit into the local or regional ecosystem. Understanding community-level context is another aspect of being tied into systems change — i.e., if you are working on one part of the solution, who else around you is working on other parts?
The examples shared here are by no means exhaustive, but they demonstrate that, yes, the Building Community portfolio does fund some direct services. We look for providers who envision a world in which their services are no longer necessary, grounding their approach to get there and taking reasonable steps in that direction.
We're excited to partner with organizations that are occupying this important space.