Here's the Latest Foundation Putting Equity at the Center of Everything

A homeless woman in Portland, Oregon

A homeless woman in Portland, Oregon

The Ford Foundation, led by Darren Walker, made quite an impact last year when it pivoted to focus on battling inequality. That move, by one of the most famous foundations around, elevated the equity issue and legitimized more ambitious, edgy grantmaking in this area. Since then, a number of other foundations—including the Chicago Community Trust, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation—have announced shifts in strategy to place a higher priority on equity. 

Still, it's important not to overplay the idea of smaller funders falling in step behind Ford. After all, you don't need to listen to Darren Walker to know that inequality has become a much more pressing concern in recent years. It's been a subject of hot national debate since the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in 2011, with the events in Ferguson a few years later broadening the discussion to include a major focus on racial inequity. These problems can be seen and felt in every part of the country, sparking new thinking among various funders. 

That includes the Pacific Northwest, a region that has seen explosive growth of affluence for the top 1 percent, even as most households have struggled or fallen behind. Now, the Meyer Memorial Trust, one of the largest private foundations in Oregon, is rolling out a new strategy to create a more "equitable Oregon."

This change comes after a two-year journey of rethinking how it gave grants. Meyer went about this in the same way that other funders around the country have: embarking on listening tours and talking with nearly 2,000 nonprofit leaders. After all that input, Meyer emerged with four new priorities: solving inequities in community building, the environment, affordable housing, and education. (The best way to understand Meyer’s new approach is by reading the latest blog by Candy Solovjov, its director of programs.)

As with the shift by Ford and other foundations that have zeroed in on equity, Meyer's new strategy hardly amounts to a dramatic dethroning of its past approach—since this progressive funder has long worried about equity issues in Oregon. 

Recently, the foundation announced 151 grants totaling $17.3 million to nonprofits, a round it described as “an important milestone in Meyer’s transformative, organizational evolution,” and a “first step in a long but crucial journey.” 

As it places equity at the center of the foundation's decision making, Meyer seems determined to stay rigorously focused, avoiding the temptation to deviate from the newly established mission. It's also indicated, by the way, that it's looking for grantees that it hasn’t worked with before on policy and systems change work.

Highlighted grantees in the latest round include Causa of Oregon, Community Cycling Center, Multnomah County, On-the-Move Community Integration, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, Caritas Community Housing Corporation, Basic Rights Education Fund, Bridge Meadow, and the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center.

A total of 65 grants were awarded to improve conditions for communities of color, Oregonians living on low incomes, and other marginalized populations, while 47 grants were given to support healthy ecosystems with clean water and air. Then 39 grants went towards giving Oregonian a decent, safe, and affordable place to call home. Many recent grants ranged from $100,000 to $250,000.

On November 18, the foundation hosted an equity speaker series event featuring Meyer's director of equitable education Matt Morton and John A. Powell, a professor at UC Berkeley. Powell is a longtime thought leader on issues of equity and race, directing the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley. Our hunch is that he's been a getting a lot more calls from foundations that he did a few years ago. 

Once MMT gets feedback on its new process from recent applicants, it’ll be fine-tuning things for the 2017 funding opportunities, which will be announced in the spring.