Foundations are taking a more active role in solving the root causes of social and economic disparities.
When Doug Stamm joined the Meyer Memorial Trust 14 years ago, the foundation had only a handful of employees, an all-white leadership and a mostly white board of trustees.
Today the chief executive of one of the largest private foundations in Oregon leads a very different organization: It has grown to 40 employees; half its staff members are from historically marginalized populations, most trustees identify as non-white and more than half of the leadership team are people of color and women.
The transformation is part of a recent overhaul of the way the foundation does its work. At the forefront of its new mission is a commitment to equity — a buzzword in the philanthropy sector that is reshaping its approach to grantmaking. Foundations across the state, including the Oregon Community Foundation and the Collins Foundation, are committing to equity in their organizational structures and also in how they give grants.
Equity is an abstract term, but in essence it is an effort to eliminate barriers to equal opportunities that have perpetuated privilege and power and resulted in oppressed and marginalized populations. It has come about through the recognition among philanthropists that social and economic disparities persist despite all the work foundations have done to eliminate those inequities, says Stamm.
“At some point that causes you to ask how can you have greater impact, how can we go deeper? When you start to understand the roots of inequity, you can address those problems more effectively.”
At the organizational level having equity at the forefront of your strategy doesn’t just mean having a diverse workforce; it means having that diverse workforce at the table when making decisions. The aim is for foundations to have more impact on the communities they serve, helping them get to the root causes of economic and social disparities that persist in the state.
“We want to ask who we are consulting with when we make decisions because we are trying to move away from being a dominant culture organization to being multicultural,” Stamm says “You still have hierarchy in a multicultural organization, but typically people at the top would make decisions. What we are trying to do instead is ask who will this impact and are they at the table. Do we have their input?” It is a big leap forward for philanthropy in the U.S., which historically is born out of wealth that is predominantly white and male, and is “certainly at odds with equity and social justice,” says Stamm. “If we are going to have greater impact, we have to understand the root causes [of disparities], which are based in these inequities. That is a fairly recent concept. Some foundations got it earlier. But it has become a powerful movement both nationally and here in Oregon.”
In November 2014, the Oregon Community Foundation, the largest in the state, approved a policy statement on equity, diversity and inclusion that guides the organization’s work. The foundation formed an equity committee and hired a consultant to recommend changes to its organizational structure to make sure it was living up to its commitment.
The foundation is still going through the process of making its organization more diverse and equitable, says Kirsten Kilchenstein, senior donor relations officer. Its hiring practices have changed as a result of the new focus. When it has an opening it makes sure that the position is posted in non-traditional channels so that it is seen by a more diverse set of people than in the past. It also places more value on candidates’ work experience rather than their educational background. “We are having an open mind. Over the past year, we are doing that very intentionally,” says Kilchenstein.
And it appears to be a myth that in a white state like Oregon organizations can’t find people of color to hire. Most of the diverse staff the Meyer Memorial Trust has hired in the past couple of years live locally.
Kilchenstein acknowledges that it is not enough just to hire a diverse workforce; it is also critical to create a workplace that is welcoming and inclusive. “As our staff diversifies, we are asking whether we as a foundation have a culture where people feel they belong. It is one thing to pull people in, but can we keep them?”
The Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington, an association representing foundations, also hired a consultant to make sure it has an equitable organizational structure. Joyce White, executive director, says equity is getting far more focus in the sector than 15 to 20 years ago when diversity was given more focus.
“Foundations are responding to the conversation that is happening across sectors. The conversation has moved from diversity to equity. We are hearing that in the political conversation, the environmental community, in healthcare and affordable housing. Foundations are hearing more conversations about equity than ever before.”
A lot of work on equity at the Meyer Memorial Trust has been around eliminating racial disparities. But the foundation is also focusing on other marginalized populations, such as the LGBT population and the poor rural white population. “Class and geography are also the other aspects of equity that we are looking at,” says Stamm.
For the first time in April, the Meyer Memorial Trust is taking applications from nonprofits under its new program focus. It is prioritizing grants to nonprofit work that increases equity for Oregonians who experience disparities because of race, ethnicity, income, gender, sexual orientation and ability. The foundation is now issuing calls for proposals for grants rather than providing money on a responsive basis.
The result will be a more competitive grantmaking, says Stamm. The foundation will also consider applications from nonprofits have not done equity work before, but are interested in it and are willing to learn about it. Part of the reason the trust has increased its staff is to be more involved in the social equity work at nonprofits. This includes helping to train nonprofit boards, building capacity at these organizations, and networking with nonprofits that often work in isolation.
As a result of the revamp, there will be some nonprofits the trust has funded in the past that will not receive grants, Stamm says.
The Oregon Community Foundation is also paying more attention to the makeup of the staff and board at the nonprofits they give grants to. “We are asking a lot of different questions — what does their board look like, are their boards representative of the communities they serve,” says Kilchenstein. Nonprofits will come under increased scrutiny over their equity work as more foundations make this a priority of their grantmaking. “We need to be selective,” says Stamm of the $38-40 million the foundation will distribute this year. “It sounds like a lot of money but it is not nearly as much as you’d like to have when you are trying to solve the significance of social problems in the state.