At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.
The Meyer Memorial Trust works to dismantle barriers to equity in education, housing, and the environment and to improve community conditions so that all Oregonians can reach their full potential. We spoke with Elisa Harrigan, Affordable Housing Initiative Program Officer, about Meyer’s focus on homelessness and dedication to equity.
1. We appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Could you explain a little bit about what Meyer Memorial Trust does and in what capacity it is involved in homelessness issues? How did Meyer go about making this a priority?
Meyer Memorial Trust is a private foundation established in 1982 by profits from the sale of Fred G. Meyer’s eponymous chain of retail stores. We are currently the third largest foundation in Oregon, with over $700 million in grants and program investments.
Meyer was founded as a generalist foundation, where an organization could request funds based on what was needed and when they were ready to submit a request. Then, a few years ago, we went through a strategic redesign that was informed by our equity journey. We decided that, in order to have impact in Oregon and to see that all Oregonians have equitable access to needs being met, we had to rethink our grantmaking strategy.
From this journey, we established four portfolio areas:
While we had already focused shifted funding towards these areas, our strategic planning officially named these and allowed us to concentrate our grantmaking where it was needed most, communities impacted by inequities.
Our homelessness grants primarily fall under our Housing Opportunities portfolio. About a dozen years ago, our trustees noticed an increase in applications related to housing and homelessness. While this was an issue Meyer has always funded, it was decided that Meyer needed to take a deeper dive into housing and study best practices in the field to understand how to address this effectively and efficiently.
Even though many public and private funders were supporting a variety of efforts, as a community, we were just holding the line - homelessness was still increasing.
We created the Affordable Housing Initiative to create a deeper impact by exploring innovation, systems change, and leveraging resources to meet housing needs across the state. The first five years went well: we discovered that we could be more effective with dedicated staff with significant affordable housing experience to build better relationships within the field to truly move the needle on affordable housing. We talked with key community partners to inform us on how to move forward. These implementations allowed us to examine what it was going to take for each project to drive innovation, come up with emerging best practices, and evaluate strategies that will allow us to keep up with the market and current environment.
We are currently finishing up our second round of the initiative which included $15 million, dedicated over five years. The current funding strategies for the initiative include demonstration and pilot projects working on: preservation of at-risk, project-based Section 8 properties; rent-restricted portfolio strengthening; manufactured housing park coops and repair programs; development cost containment; leveraging private market units; and systems alignment, advocacy, and investments using our corpus.
We plan to continue to forge ahead with this work, as our trustees are extremely passionate about this issue. They are deeply involved and aware of what is going on in their own communities and are incredibly supportive of staff taking the lead to look at how we can make an impact to address housing needs, eviction prevention, homelessness reduction, and how to provide support through the housing continuum from the rental sphere to transitioning out of homelessness.
2. On your website, you call out Capacity as a grantmaking area under the Housing Opportunities priority. Can you expand on why this is important and some ways you’ve supported capacity building for your grantees?
In philanthropy, it is considered a best practice to provide funds for capacity. This is something we believe in and want to provide support towards. We believe organizations needs to be able to grow and strengthen their internal capacity and systems in order to effectively carry out the programs. If the opportunity is there to support in this way, it makes sense for us to provide that opportunity.
Our capacity building grants range from smaller grants ($5,000 to 10,000) or they can be around $150,000 over two to three years. Focusing in this space can be tricky, but it is important work! We are hands on in working with organizations on what they really need and our program staff are very engaged to help structure a plan around actually building capacity. We ask our grantees to have a sustainability plan; often we structure our funds in a way that they are scaled down in order to emphasize the importance of creating sustainable programs.
We also find capacity building extremely important in diversity, equity, and inclusion work. For organizations that want to include this work internally, we encourage them to come to us for funding towards training and creating policy, manuals, and/or guidelines around it. It is particularly important for organizations focused on housing stability, as they need to provide and plan for changing demographics among their communities, and being responsive to that gives the best opportunity to reach populations who are most vulnerable. Using this equity lens provides better services, furthering reach of populations, and restructuring of organizations to accommodate for changing communities.
One example of a recent grantee included an organization focused on supporting seniors to transition from homelessness into stable, safe, and affordable housing or to prevent homelessness due to fast-rising rents. This organization came to us for capacity building to expand their successful program to be culturally competent and accessible to communities of color. They were finding that, although they were successful, their open-door approach to just serve who comes in the door was not serving as many Latinx, African American, and Native American people whose needs in this space were not being adequately addressed given the statistics of poverty and homelessness. Funds toward capacity building will allow the organization to serve these populations better by expanding the program and staff to make sure needs are being met with targeted approaches and cultural competency training. The program will need to grow, and then the organization will need to work to sustain the growth.
3. Meyer has also prioritized addressing equity in its grantmaking (which we applaud!). Let’s talk about the journey to making this a priority and how it is weaved into your homelessness grantmaking.
Around 2000, several local culturally-specific organizations put together a report that found that philanthropy wasn’t funding equitably. The percentage of dollars that were being awarded to culturally-responsive organizations were far less than where it should it. It was our job as a funder to first acknowledge this truth and then confront it.
We had always been a generalist funder with an “open door policy”, where any organization could come to us with a need and we would evaluate it, then provide the funds. But this report caused us to think about how we are doing our grantmaking and its alignment with promoting our mission, which actually has “equitable” in it. It was (and is) important for us to be living our mission, so it was time to be more active in addressing equity.
We knew we needed to start by asking organizations to tell us more about the demographic makeup of their internal structures and what policies were in place to address equity. But we also acknowledged that we needed to do this at Meyer first as part of our commitment to actively live our mission.
We went through a series of internal equity training sessions and retreats to learn about history and how it applies to our work. We also created an equity committee, as well as sub-committees that each address certain topics that allow staff to focus on different areas within the equity space. Today, our annual evaluations include a component where we evaluate ourselves on a variety of activities we engage in that are equity based.
We also get together as a group to watch short films around equity and inclusion, then talk about the topic and how we can bring it into our work. In addition, guest speakers are a large part of our learning journey as it gives us a different perspective. All of this is part of a process of making our environment as inclusive as possible.
It is important to stress that these learning opportunities are not an “add on” to our day-to-day work, it is our day-to-day work.
We are still on our equity journey and have a long way to go. But we are committed to moving forward. We are currently updating our equity statement and looking at our makeup as a foundation through a demographic survey. In fact, our staffing looks very different than it did even a few years ago. Before, it was predominately white, middle aged, and middle to upper class with higher educations. Now, we have a mix of both ethnicity and race, a broader range of ages, people from different walks of life, some staff with families with children and some without, etc. We’ve created new positions at the leadership level and hired excellent people of color, which has had a profound result as more people of color have wanted to apply for other positions at Meyer. There are multiple layers to the hiring process that are now addressed and the foundation looks different because of that, which allows us to have a different perspective in our grantmaking.
As for our grantmaking, it made sense that all four portfolio areas needed to have an equity lens. We had to ask ourselves if we were hitting the geographical spread we wanted. What about demographics or communities? What are the organizations we are funding that have a commitment to equity already? How are we spread across the area such as rural versus urban?
We are in our second year of this new funding strategy, and it can be tough because there are some organizations that we have funded for years that are no longer a proper fit because of this lens, but we are also seeing the opportunity to fund other organizations increase, including organizations led by marginalized communities and people impacted by the issues they are working to change.
Within our Affordable Housing Initiative, we were encouraged to apply and explore an equity lens outside of our regular grantmaking. We took some risks and experimented – some have gone well, some have not. We found there to be confusion among grantees around what it meant to actually address equity. The first couple of years, we asked about equity policies and/or practices and almost all of the applications came back saying that they followed fair housing laws, which isn’t equity, but these organizations considered it to be just that.
We knew we had work to do to. We did a lot of work within the field to explain what we were looking for and provided examples of organizations that were applying equity to their practices. While we are flexible about where organizations can be with their equity work, we need them to be on the spectrum, and that meant we needed to educate them about what that meant and provide funding for them to work on creating and applying an equity lens.
4. Are there any specific steps you took that you would recommend to other foundations looking to get into this work?
If your foundation is looking to address equity and inclusion, the best thing to do is just to get started! I know that is easier said than done, but you have to have the hard conversation about where your funding is going. Philanthropy needs to look at the geographical scope of the communities we fund.
It isn’t just about diversity. You need to figure out what makes the most sense for your foundation and just because you increase your diversity internally, it doesn’t mean that it is inclusive or there is true equity. But, you have to start somewhere and these hard conversations help us think about different ways to do our work better. There are a lot of mistakes that are made, but it is important to keep moving forward and take risks. We feel that we can already see the impact we have had on Meyer, as well as the nonprofit field and foundations in Oregon.
We are always more than happy to talk to other foundations about this work, so please reach out! Part of our work is to talk openly and candidly about this in order to help others on their journey. In fact, we’ve recently received a NCRP Igniting Change award for this very topic.
5. At our 2017 Funders Institute, Meyer spoke about its role in advocacy. What are some unique ways you’ve focused on advocacy? What advice do you have for a foundation who is new to this space and looking to become more engaged in advocacy efforts?
Advocacy is a relatively new area for Meyer. But for us, it isn’t just about funding it – it’s about being actively engaged, which is something we’ve been more focused on in the past handful of years. It can be a hard area to get into, but being open minded and creative makes the process more effective.
I think it is important to note that advocacy is not just lobbying! Sometimes in philanthropy, it seems we get stuck on the fact that we “can’t do advocacy,” when in reality what foundations mean is that they cannot participate in direct lobbying. But advocacy is far more than that and, if you really analyze it, most foundations are already funding elements of advocacy in the form of research, data collection, grassroots base building, etc.
Meyer has a specific funding strategy for housing advocacy. We accept RFPs specifically for this and leave the door open on what type of advocacy organizations want to take on – campaign work, community organizing, policy research, messaging, local or statewide issues, etc. Flexibility is key!
One example of this flexibility was funding towards the creation of a video about how employers in a community support affordable housing because they were having issues with staffing their businesses due to lack of housing for their employees. That voice had a big pull within a conservative community and, in the process, it helped stress the need for affordable housing and who it was impacting – which was the community as a whole.
Through our RFP process, we gather grantees as a cohort to participate in shared learning opportunities. This allows them to learn from peers in different communities to hear about various projects and how to get connected at the local, state, and federal levels. Some are new to advocacy work while others are more experienced, so this variety creates a really dynamic environment that is ripe for learning and then, in turn, acting.
We fund organizations and groups that work with specific populations – think seniors who want to learn about housing and aging in place. By providing them with a grant to learn and build up skills and knowledge around housing, they are now able to sit on committees and bring in that expertise around housing.
As a foundation, we also go beyond grantmaking by allowing our program staff to sit on advisory boards and committees because people tend to listen to philanthropy. This tactic has proven to be very impactful. We can share with the committees what areas we have been funding based on what the needs are. It is a great way to engage in advocacy through education because we are sharing our expertise and the bird’s eye view of what is happening in the state or in specific communities based on the applications we are receiving. Aside from being influential, it helps us learn by asking questions and gain a better understanding of where various groups and communities are at in terms of housing issues.
One of the great things about advocacy is the concept of leveraging resources. We are always interested in collaborating and finding ways to make our investments go further in the community. By funding organizations to campaign for more public resources towards affordable housing, we are able to leverage those public dollars, which is something we are always looking to do. By providing a small grant between $10,000 to 25,000, we can see a windfall of $10 million based on the work those organizations did through the campaigns.
6. How can groups like Funders Together support the work of foundations like yours?
The connection to other funders that are in this space is crucial to our work. Meyer is the only foundation in Oregon that has a funding strategy specific to housing. Others fund it, but it isn’t an identified priority or a strategy. The funders we’ve met through Funders Together have given us insight on emerging practices and what they are seeing in their communities, and we’ve also identified some projects that we might want to experiment with here in Oregon. These types of conversations are extremely helpful because, as expensive as housing is, we could spend all the money we have and not move the needle forward without the collaboration and insight from other foundations.
I think having more data or research on emerging topics and best practices would be helpful in the future. We can do research and play the convening role in our own area, but having a national lens on it would benefit our work as well. The continuation of highlighting effective ways for funders to play a role in addressing homelessness and housing is appreciated and we look forward to the programming focused on this.
Interested in past featured member profiles? Check out our archive here.