A Focus on Equity is Changing One Northwest Funder’s Environmental Giving

rural oregon. photo:   Dan Lewis /shutterstock

rural oregon. photo:  Dan Lewis/shutterstock

Strategic redesigns are fairly commonplace in philanthropy, and known mostly for making grantees nervous. One funder that’s caused a good deal of buzz for making some serious changes is the Meyer Memorial Trust, a foundation giving in Oregon with assets of more than $700 million. 

Since it embarked on a reboot in 2012, the funder originally took an interest in how it could increase impact, but ended up making equity a more central focus throughout the foundation. Aside from rebuilding its grantmaking programs, it made organizational changes down to investing, personnel policies and vendor selection. 

It also based these changes largely on inputs from stakeholders, with more than 1,000 local nonprofit leaders taking part in surveys and interviews that informed the overhaul. The foundation landed one of NCRP’s 2017 Impact Awards for the way it incorporated feedback from its community during the revamp. 

As we recently reported, about 40 of the organizations funded in its latest round are new to the foundation, suggesting some openness to funding outside of the usual suspects. Half of grantees received capacity-building or operating support, also crucial when it comes to supporting work in marginalized communities.

While the foundation also gives to areas like education and housing, the shift to making equity the primary lens of its work is of particular interest in terms of its environmental funding. It’s indicative of a rising focus on racial and economic justice in the environmental movement, even with a stubborn status quo that certainly includes institutional philanthropy. 


The foundation recently announced its second round of grants since launching a new Healthy Environment portfolio, which places emphasis on “underresourced and historically marginalized populations in rural and urban communities” in its funding for the state’s environment. 

The funding portfolio isn't totally changed. Before the new program was unveiled, the foundation was giving a lot to rivers and watersheds, and that’s still a priority. A lot of key Northwest green groups are still on the docket. But Meyer points out that in the 2017 round of green grants—totaling $3.9 million—every grantee has a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, with a half-dozen asking the foundation for training and support in developing them. 

That means in the first couple of years of the new environment program, we're seeing a lot of funding going toward somewhat traditional environmental groups such as “Friends of” groups, Mount Hood protection group BARK, the Freshwater Trust, and more, to support equity strategies, training, and efforts to become more inclusive. A $100,000 grant to the Center for Diversity and the Environment will also support leadership development and assistance to improve state’s overall movement. 

A number of grants this year also support building partnerships with tribal communities, including $150,000 to the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Eastern Oregon to work with tribes and integrate traditional knowledge into conservation practices. Ecotrust landed some interesting grants, one to develop and implement a tribal land repatriation plan. Another will fund a pilot workforce development program to recruit and train Black and Native American residents for careers in Portland’s green economy. 

Looking back to 2016, we also saw some compelling grants supporting environmental work based in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods in cities. For example, a $35,000 grant to the Coalition of Communities of Color backed the group to build out its environmental and climate justice capacity. And $330,000 went to a cool group called Verde, which combines advocacy, community economic development, and environmental improvement projects like parks and landscaping in low-income parts of the city. 

Meyer is definitely one to watch because of its ongoing and transparent overhaul (read more about the program design here), but also because its efforts are indicative of a lot of challenges facing environmentalism today. It’s still backing many established green groups, which are largely white, but trying to help them better reflect impacted communities and therefore be stronger. It’s funding work happening in communities of color as they take on environmental issues. The trust is also trying to support both sides of a rural-urban divide in the state. Finally, it's aiming to bridge these players, and form a stronger movement in the end.