You’d think that nonprofits would lead the way when it comes to diversity. After all, many serve the downtrodden, including people of color, immigrants and the poor.
A new survey of more than 1,500 nonprofits found that 90 percent of their chief executives, 90 percent of their board chairs, and 84 percent of their board members identify as white. Some 27 percent of boards identify as all white. The survey, published in a report called Leading with Intent by a group called BoardSource, found that boards are less diverse than they were in 2015, when the research group conducted a similar survey.
These is nonprofits, mind you, not foundations. But foundations, it appears, do little better. A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis of the 20 wealthiest national foundations found that 72 percent of trustees are white. Non-Hispanic whites account for about 61 percent of the US population.
Does this matter? Absolutely, says Doug Stamm, the chief executive of the Meyer Memorial Trust, which lately has been engaged in what it calls an equity journey. It has put the issues of diversity and inclusion front and center for the Meyer trust and, increasingly, for the nonprofits that it supports.
“It is not an overstatement to say that delving into equity profoundly changed me and Meyer’s direction,” Stamm says.
I spoke with Doug Stamm by phone the other day to learn more about Meyer and how its focus on equity has changed the foundation and its work. Meyer came to my attention because it is one of four foundations to be recognized with a 2017 Impact Award from the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group that wants foundations to “do more for those who are marginalized, underserved and disenfranchised.”
Meyer is one of a number of foundations that are seeking to grapple with America’s legacy of racism, and seek remedies. President Trump’s election, his cruel and foolish actions against immigrants, and the hatred on display last month in Charlottesville have put race on the philanthropy agenda. This week, in a letter headlined A call for moral courage in America, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation wrote that Americans have been trying and failing to have a conversation about race and justice for all of our history:
It bears repeating that at the same instant that 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, swearing that “all men are created equal,” they founded a nation in which all people were not. And because we have never sufficiently acknowledged this fact, America’s original sin has never left us. Indeed, it has fueled inequalities that persist to this day—whether in the form of mass incarceration or wealth inequality, housing discrimination or education and health disparities.
All of these very current crises stem from our complicated, difficult, unaddressed history. The time has come for our nation to reckon with its past.
For many years, the 35-year-old Meyer Memorial Trust, which was created with a bequest worth $63m from grocery story mogul Fred G. Meyer, operated as a traditional, regional foundation, making grants in response to requests from a wide array of nonprofits in Oregon and Clark County, WA. “Often times getting a grant from Meyer depended on you knew,” says Stamm. That said, Meyer has been innovative in some respects: It was the first foundation to meet all of the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets criteria for transparency and it was among the pioneers of mission-based investing.
Stamm, who has led the trust since 2002, began to focus on issues of equity about five years ago, after being prodded by people of color on the trust’s mostly-white staff, by social-justice nonprofits and by statewide surveys indicating that the foundation’s grant-making didn’t line up with needs and desires of Oregonians.
Meyer hired consultants to do what Stamm describes as intensive, even gut-wrenching, training on equity, diversity and inclusion. They included Tema Okun, formerly of dRWorks, which stands for dismantling racism, Hanif Fazal of the Portland-based Center for Equity and Inclusion and Glenn Harris of Race Forward.
Stamm, who has degrees from Stanford and Lewis and Clark law school and always considered himself a well-educated and socially-aware person, nevertheless found the workshops to be eye-opening.
“It’s been an incredibly powerful learning experience, more than anything else in my life,” he told me. “What I was blind to was what our education system and our history doesn’t like to talk about. Racism is an incredibly uncomfortable topic.”
On its website, Meyer says:
To understand the forces that cause disparities in our society, there is history to unravel and a need for us to take a thoughtful look at how race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, disability status, geography, age and other forms of bias and oppression are embedded within the institutions and systems in our community, within Meyer Trust, and within ourselves.
Meyer underwent a complete reorganization. Program officers were asked to resign, and reapply for their jobs. “We went through a painful period,” Stamm says. Today, he says, the team is “very diverse and they have tremendous, lived equity experience that we didn’t have before.” Half of the staff identify as people of color. Of Meyers’ six trustees, four are women, two are African-American, one is Latino and one is Asian-American. It should go without saying that changing the people who are in the room when decisions are made changes outcomes.
With about $800m in assets, Meyer is one of the two biggest foundations in Oregon–the Ford Family Foundation is the other–thus has clout well beyond its own walls. It now focuses on four programs — community, education, environment and housing — that are all seen through the lens of equity, according to Stamm.
Meyers asks all its grantees to show how they are promoting equity, and frequently funds the kind of training its staff and board went through. “If there’s no level of commitment to the equity work, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get funded by Meyer,” Stamm says. That didn’t used to be the case.
Arts organizations, for example, are urged to reach beyond elite audiences. “How is our symphony orchestra serving populations other than upper and middle class white people?” asks Stamm.
Many grants are explicitly about remedying the effects of discrimination. Meyer supports a group called the Coalition of Communities of Color that trains leaders who are drawn from the African-American, Hispanic, indigenous and Slavic communities. “The leaders who have gone through those programs are changing the landscape of Oregon,” Stamm says. This year, Meyer joined with several other Oregon foundations to make rapid-response grants to nonprofits that serve immigrants.
None of this came easily, Stamm says, and he is quick to say there’s more work to be done. It’ll be led by someone else; he’s stepping down early next year.
But Meyer, he believes, has become a better place to work and a better funder because of what its people have learned about racism, oppression and its legacy. “It’s not an exaggeration,” he has said, “to say that we are an entirely different organization.”