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A Conversation With Nicky Goren, President and CEO, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation

March 06, 2018

Founded in 1944 by investment banker and Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer — who later served as head of the War Finance Corporation, chair of the Federal Reserve, and founding president of the World Bank — and his wife, Agnes, a journalist, author, literary translator, and activist (President Lyndon Johnson credited her for helping build public support for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., has supported efforts over the years to address racial inequity, urban poverty, and government funding (or lack thereof) for critical needs.

Nicky Goren was appointed president and CEO of the foundation in 2014, succeeding Julie L. Rogers, who had served in that position for twenty-eight years. Before joining the foundation, Goren had served as president of the Washington Area Women's Foundation and acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. In 2015 the foundation unveiled a new strategic plan focused on achieving greater racial equity in housing, education, employment, and asset building.

PND recently spoke with Goren about the process the Meyer Foundation initiated in 2014 to develop and implement a racial equity agenda, the importance of doing that work "authentically," and some things foundations new to the space should keep in mind.

Headshot_nicky_gorenPhilanthropy News Digest: While the Meyer Foundation has long supported efforts to advance equality and break the cycle of poverty for individuals and families, the foundation's 2015 strategic plan zeroes in on the "structural and causal" link between poverty and race. How did the focus on poverty and race come about? Were those discussions already happening at the foundation when you were appointed president and CEO in 2014?

Nicky Goren: At the organizational level, the conversations about race, about racism and its connection to poverty, were not yet happening when I got here. I think individual program officers from time to time had incorporated that connection into their portfolios, but it was not an organizational priority at the leadership level.

I came to the foundation with the point of view that those of us who work in philanthropy really needed to move out of our silos, move beyond thinking about grantmaking as a largely transactional activity, and think differently about how we do our work. And in my initial listening sessions as the new CEO, I was trying to understand where the opportunities were for us to deepen our impact and partnerships in the community and what the big issues were. It became clear to me pretty quickly that the big issue at the meta level was wealth inequality, and that the drivers of inequality in the region were disparities in housing, education, workforce skills, and asset building, and that the through line in all those areas was the history and legacy of systemic racism. From those community conversations it was clear that people were eager to move beyond incremental change to real transformation, which meant looking at things at the population level, which meant looking at root causes, which meant embracing systems change — and confronting racism and its role in creating and perpetuating these disparities. There was no way around it: to do our work authentically, we would have to address systemic racism.

PND: You came to Meyer from the Washington Area Women's Foundation, which focuses on improving the economic security of women and girls in the D.C. region. Did your work there inform the things you are doing at Meyer to advance racial equity?

NG: Definitely. That was the first time I was part of an organization that was using any kind of an equity lens, in that case a gender equity lens. And I was energized by what I learned in terms of the barriers to equality that women face. But in this region, low-income women are most often women of color, and the question started coming up more and more, from both funders and the communities we were working in: "Do you look at the work of the Women's Foundation through an intersectional gender and racial equity lens?" Well, it got me thinking and really helped me ask the right questions when I got to Meyer.

As for the intersectionality of economic and racial equity, at Meyer we've come to understand that the main reason for the persistent economic disparities in our region — and in other urban areas across the country — is racism. And if we don't name it and tackle the systems that perpetuate it — the institutions, policies, practices, and norms around race that lead to these economic disparities — we'll never be able to really address the challenges that low-income communities of color are facing. Naming it and looking at those challenges through a racial lens forces you to ask different questions and come up with different solutions, solutions that are more focused on the long-term and persistent barriers faced by people of color. It's about understanding the role race has played in our region's history and in our country's history so that the solutions you put in place really do make a difference in terms of addressing those disparities.

PND: In a blog post last December, you noted two significant developments in the foundation's efforts to integrate a racial equity lens into its work: the decision to focus on eliminating racial disparities in housing, employment, education, and asset building; and a decision to tackle the root causes of racial inequity and work toward systems change. In concrete terms, how has moving to a systems-change approach affected the way you work?

NG: We're still very much at the beginning of this — we just released the revised guidelines and newly restated goals with equity embedded in them at the beginning of the year, and our first grant cycle under the new framework just opened on February 15. So in terms of what we're seeing and how it will affect our work in the long term, I can't say. But the way we're thinking about it is that moving to a systems-change approach means we'll be supporting more community organizing, community-based and -led organizations, and community-driven advocacy and problem solving. We'll be promoting more collaborative approaches. And we'll be looking across a spectrum of systems-change efforts that, under our old framework, community-based organizations in the region might not have known about or might not have been eligible for.

For organizations that are already deeply embedded in the community and working on systems change in communities of color, we'll continue to provide a range of capacity-building support, from strategic planning to communications development to HR. And for organizations that are not there yet but want to build their racial equity capacity, we'll invest in training, consultants, and so on.

PND: Earlier this month you welcomed Terri D. Wright as vice president for program and community. In that role, Ms. Wright will oversee all the foundation's programmatic activities. You're also looking to fill the newly created position of senior director of strategy and racial equity. How do you see the reorganization suggested by these personnel changes driving your racial equity work?

NG: We're so excited that Terri has joined our team; she brings exactly what we were looking for in terms of experience and background in advancing racial and social equity through policy, practice, and management across multiple sectors. She's led and developed programs; she's tackled the social determinants of health, which are interrelated and are things we'll be working on; and she was at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with Dr. Gail Christopher as Kellogg was going through its own racial equity journey.

My vision for the senior director position is to have someone who can drive the focus on equity in our own institution and systems and practices as we continue to evolve. That person will also help the board build its capacity around racial equity and systems change, will link those things with team building and training and organizational development more broadly, and will be available to nonprofits that are going down the racial equity path and need guidance or technical assistance.

In terms of program staff, when we approved the strategic plan back in 2015, even before we fully understood what our racial equity work would look like, we acknowledged that all the work we're doing is very local and contextual. So we reorganized ourselves in early 2016 around geography, moving away from the more traditional model of having a program officer for health and a program officer for employment to having program directors based on geography — one for Maryland, one for northern Virginia, and one for the District. That's because all the issues we're working on are interconnected — you can't tackle one and hope to succeed without addressing the others. And they're contextual in terms of policy, the players, where the opportunities are to bring people to the table, and who those people are. The new structure allows our directors to be much more immersed in and connected with their respective communities, in that they're meeting people where they live, literally, and learning firsthand who's doing what and identifying ways to leverage our resources at a much more grassroots level.

PND: What other organizational changes are you implementing as part of your focus on racial equity?

NG: When we included tackling systemic racism as a goal in our strategic plan at the end of 2015, we saw it as a way to initiate conversations both internally and externally about what that would mean. And for the next year and half, we spent time on internal education, building a shared language and understanding, and deepening our ability to have these conversations about race. The board did the same; we did some staff trainings; we spent time looking at other foundations to see what they had done. We started figuring out how to incorporate racial equity into culture-building work. We also had a number of staff retreats that surfaced issues we weren't aware of that have changed the way we think about the way we work. One thing we heard in those retreats was a desire for the foundation to be less hierarchical, and as a result my leadership team has gone from three people to five people, which has broadened the perspectives available to all of us and made it easier for us to work in cross-organizational teams.

We also took a hard look at and changed the way we hire — in fact, I have a post on the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers' blog about the four things we did to ensure that our practices lead to more staff diversity. At the same time, the board has changed the way it recruits, increased the number of board members, and changed the term limits of board members so as to bring on new members more quickly. We've also looked at how we select our vendors and at our personnel policy — some of this work is ongoing, of course, but we've been at it since the end of 2015.

PND: You've written that "[r]ace-neutral efforts, to date, have not been effective. It's time to confront racism head-on as we identify solutions." Do you think the philanthropic sector, broadly speaking, is coming to the same conclusion?

NG: There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. We're seeing a lot of exciting developments locally and nationally in the philanthropic sector around racial equity; there isn't a single national convening I've been to in the last year where racial equity hasn't been the focus of at least one session, if not one of the major themes. Clearly, there's a growing demand for and interest in this conversation. As we went through our own process, we looked to other foundations for models — foundations that were much farther down the road on their own journeys like the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and the Weingart Foundation and the Hyams Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust — all of which have been engaged in this work and understand why it's imperative. Locally, WRAG took this on two years ago when it put together a series for philanthropic leaders in the region called "Putting Racism on the Table" and, over a period of six months, walked participants through the process of creating a shared understanding of systemic racism, implicit bias, and white privilege, culminating with Dr. Gail Christopher talking about how a foundation can incorporate racial equity into its work. I believe that effort has had a ripple effect across the sector, across other sectors as well, so that racial equity is becoming more openly discussed and broadly accepted and increasingly adopted. I just had a meeting with a local elected official who is putting together a cross-sectoral group to figure out how to incorporate a racial equity lens into government.

Given the history of philanthropy in this country, we need to understand the role it has played in helping to perpetuate some of the challenges we face and rethink how we go about our work. I don't know that philanthropy has fully acknowledged where the wealth came from that created so many of our endowments; in many cases we see the private sector investing in things that keep communities of color at an economic disadvantage, and then philanthropy is called on to "fix" it by funding direct services. But if we really want to make a difference, we need to talk about systems change, and that inevitably leads you into a conversation about race. That's okay. The more we have those conversations, the more our eyes will be opened to the privilege that so many of us have, the systems we've put in place to preserve that privilege, and how we might think differently about our work. And because many of our boards are made up of people from outside the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, taking those boards through this journey has a ripple effect, I think, on other sectors. 

I'm proud as someone who works in philanthropy to say that, increasingly, we're seeing philanthropic institutions use their voice in ways that they might not have in the past. The most recent example involved the heads of the Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh Foundation co-authoring an op-ed in response to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a way that tackles systemic racism head on and that some might see as political, though I didn't read it that way. It's one of many signs that the philanthropic sector is moving in the right direction.

PND: How have the Trump administration's policies affected the foundation's work?

NG: We started down this path eighteen months before the last presidential election, and we'd decided on the goals and focus areas before that, but the current political climate merely reaffirms for us that we made the right decision. It's as important, if not more so, today to focus on racial inequities and disparities in society and rise to the challenge that doing something, once and for all, to address the plight of economically disadvantaged Americans, who are disproportionately people of color.

One thing that did happen post-election is that we partnered with the Greater Washington Community Foundation and other funders to create the Resilience Fund, which we put in place specifically to fund the critical needs of nonprofits working to support the communities in our region most vulnerable to changes in federal policy. We've far exceeded our original goal of raising $500,000, and we're going to extend the effort through at least the end of the year and possibly through 2020. The first round of funding awarded through the fund supported a number of organizations working with immigrant communities on immigration issues and DACA and responding to the Muslim travel ban. We also made a series of grant to address the increase in hate and intolerance and the climate of bullying that has emerged in a huge way since the election, as well as digital news literacy in schools. More things will be funded as issues emerge — we're paying attention to the impact of changes in tax law and health care, for example, and will be looking for opportunities where an infusion of philanthropic dollars could make a difference.

PND: The Meyer Foundation mostly awards annual general operating support grants and, on a case-by-case basis, program support as well as multiyear and capital grants. Why are general operating support grants the right tool for advancing racial equity?

NG: I would say that general operating support grants are the right tool for philanthropy in general. They give our grantee partners maximum flexibility, and in the case of racial equity that's often what's needed to advance solutions. Dictating how grant funds can or can't be used ties the hands of nonprofits, and part of equity, of course, is sharing power. General operating support puts the power of deciding how best to use grant funds in the hands of grantees, where it belongs. Even if we had decided not to go down the racial equity path, we'd have remained a predominantly general operating support funder, but especially when we're talking about equity, it's the way to go.

PND: What recommendations or lessons learned can you share with other grantmakers that are thinking about adopting a racial equity lens in their work?

NG: We could literally write a book about it. But we're still in the early innings, so I might have a different answer for you a year from now. The first thing I would say is that it's important to understand where your organization is in terms of its evolution, what its history is, who your staff are, and what its capacities are. As I said earlier, I don't think we could've authentically started this work at the Meyer Foundation without first doing the kind of serious internal examination that we did. Maybe other organizations can: WRAG stepped out with its "Putting Racism on the Table" series and made it a core part of its programming, but now, two years later, it is taking a step back and saying, "If we're really serious about this, we need to look at ourselves." I think that's a good decision. They saw an opportunity, and it was the right opportunity at the time, and they took advantage of it in a positive way, and now they're realizing they have more work to do. I don't think there's a right or wrong approach to this; you just need to understand who you are and, at some point, do the internal work — whether it's at the beginning, the middle, or the end will depend on the organization. But to do racial equity work authentically, that's what needs to happen.

I totally get that people may be scared. We've taught ourselves that it's not "polite" to talk about racism and the wide disparities it has created in society. It's hard, no question about it. And real change is going to take longer than perhaps we'd like, and there will be bumps in the road. But if every individual and institution started to have these conversations today, if every individual and every institution started with themselves, it would change the way we work and ten years from now we would find ourselves in a very different place. You learn so much about things that have gone unspoken, taken for granted, or that we've never learned about once you start talking openly and sharing and learning together. Yes, there will be hard moments — a lot of them — but you have to keep pushing through. The next conversation will be a little easier, and so will the one after that; it's like building a muscle.

It's imperative that we do this work. Yes, it's hard, and it may take a lifetime, but I've seen and learned enough over the last few years to know that we don't have a choice. We must do this work, and we must do it now.

— Kyoko Uchida

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