The second in our Member Q&A series, we are highlighting long-time member and leader within the EOF network, Nicky Goren, President and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.


 

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

“At Meyer, we believe that philanthropic institutions have a responsibility to understand the history of society—why we are where we are, the role that our institutions have played in that, and how they’ve contributed to the issues that we’re trying to solve.”

 

 

What’s the mission of the foundation and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?

The Meyer Foundation pursues and invests in solutions that build an equitable Greater Washington community in which economically disadvantaged people thrive.

This year, the Meyer Foundation will be 75 years old. And, in those 75 years, it has always funded non-profits and has always focused on overcoming barriers and investing in solutions that help disadvantaged people thrive. Of course, this has looked different over the years, but investing in solutions to improve the lives of people and families in our region’s communities has always been central to our mission.

What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome?

Systemic racial inequity is at the root of disadvantage. And our goal areas—housing, education, employment, and asset-building—are where we see the manifestations of this inequity and racism. The connection is causal, not incidental.

A big challenge in philanthropy now is understanding how systemic racism works. It means moving beyond programs to do the work of addressing root causes—mapping outcomes, back-mapping, always asking “why?”. Why are groups of people disadvantaged by systems designed to advantage others?

In many ways, it’s the work of reframing the narrative of history—looking long and hard at how we ended up as a segregated society and how policies and systems have perpetuated racism, and then working to untangle those policies and systems.

As you think through your foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?

We are interested in funding collaborations and movements that come together to tackle systemic issues. For example: In many communities, and locally in Northern Virginia, the government has used driver’s license suspensions to enforce non-driving violations. This system disproportionately affects lower-income communities of color: people can’t get their children to childcare or school; they can’t get to the doctor’s office; they can’t get to work. Our program directors heard this over and over in the community and from advocacy groups. It was a bourgeoning movement in response to systemic racism. We made investments to support changing those policies.

Here’s another example. We’re supporting efforts to ensure that there’s an accurate count in the 2020 census. Terri D. Wright, our Vice President for Program and Community, has been working with trusted partners in philanthropy and local communities to explore where there is likely to be under-counting, the impact of the citizenship question, and to build cross-sector collaborations across the region, so there’s aligned and consistent messaging and resources for that.

What excites you about this work?

We began the shift to systems change in January 2018. It’s complex work and it’s iterative—we’re continuing to learn and grow. What excites me most is our growing staff capability, capacity and expertise. We’re ready to go deeper.

The work isn’t just external. There’s the internal realm too, of aligning the institution with equity. This has meant growing our knowledge, language, culture, systems, and processes. It’s a work in progress, walking the talk, and being consistent. It began with board and staff education. But over time, we’ve looked at how and where we recruit, how we select vendors, how we hire consultants, who we do business with, our personnel policies, how we connect equity to our investments and our spending policies. And, there’s cultural work too—defining what we want our culture to be—surfacing our white-dominant approaches, identifying what they are, so we can intentionally carry forward what’s aligned and let go of what isn’t.

It’s changed where we invest and also who we invest in: we look at the staff and board composition, whether you can see a commitment to equity through the organization’s public presence, how they engage and elevate the voices in the communities affected by the issue. There’s immense power in communities that have been systematically removed from the process of creating solutions – we want to change that.

How does being a member of Economic Opportunity Funders help you achieve your goals?

I have been a long-time participant in EOF, since I was with the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. The convenings have always been very high quality and extremely helpful. I’ve always left having learned something new, and we know this isn’t always the case.

Ponderings for your funder colleagues?

At Meyer we believe that philanthropic institutions have a responsibility to understand the history of society—why we are where we are, the role that our institutions have played in that, and how they’ve contributed to the issues that we’re trying to solve. It’s not a nice to do; it’s a have to do. Philanthropy has to own it. It’s central to everything we’re trying to accomplish.

I also believe many foundations are stuck in the diversity and inclusion world. They haven’t yet made the jump to equity. Looking through the lens of equity forces a deeper dive.

What’s something we didn’t think to ask, but you’d really like to share?

I’d love some opportunities to think about how to leverage philanthropic resources around shared goals. Also, to think about how national funders can better partner with local funders—ways of leveraging each other’s strengths and getting out of silos. It’s a missing link.

Any useful resources to share with your colleagues? 

  • The Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, Putting Racism on the Table. This helped us move the needle on getting the board and other institutions in the region engaged in the work. It’s a solid resource for creating a foundation for foundations: https://www.puttingracismonthetable.org/

Thank you so much Nicky for your time and support of our network! 

This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders, in June 2019.