The Power of the Purse

Jason E. Kaplan
Toya Fick, new CEO of Meyer Memorial Trust

Meyer Memorial Trust’s new CEO steps into her role as the philanthropy foundation plans a ‘sea change’ in the way it works with grantees.

Share this article!

Toya Fick took the reins at Meyer Memorial Trust in September — just as one of Oregon’s largest foundations plans a major shift in its approach to philanthropy.

Fick, a nonprofit veteran and former member of the foundation’s board of trustees, has been hired to shepherd the 40-year-old organization through a grantmaking sea change. Meyer Memorial Trust’s Annual Funding Opportunity, an open-call system for proposals set in place in 2015, is gone — to be replaced with what the organization is calling “a more integrated, community-centered process.”

The foundation is also changing its strategic framework to “use an antiracist, feminist lens to strengthen movements, change systems and support communities to build an Oregon that works for all,” according to its jargon-heavy website.

0123 MM 556A5978Meyer Memorial Trust’s new headquarters in North Portland.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Fick frames the change in more accessible terms: “We’re moving from an equity lens to a justice lens,” she says via a Zoom interview. “It’s about racial, social and economic justice, and engaging with communities in a more robust, intentional way.” When pressed further, she offers a bit more: “Equity is like a level-101 college class. Justice is the doctorate level.”

But what does this mean for the day-to-day at Meyer Memorial Trust and the many organizations that rely on funds from its coffers?

After all, the trust — which opened in 1982 as the Fred Meyer Charitable Trust, with a purse of $120 million of the late retail magnate’s fortune — is one of the biggest in the state. It has awarded more than $814 million to more than 3,380 organizations around the Pacific Northwest since its doors opened. In 2022 Meyer’s endowment topped $1 billion, making it the fourth-wealthiest foundation in Oregon.

Fick can’t say precisely what these changes will look like yet; she’s not even willing to estimate a timeline for the change.

“We’re still in the listening phase. I’m taking a lot of meetings,” she says.

0123 MM 556A5956Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

She does, however, hint that the new direction will closely resemble Meyer Memorial Trust’s Justice Oregon for Black Lives initiative. This five-year, $25 million initiative — the Trust’s largest to date — takes a long view in its application and recording methods while engaging in participatory, trust-based grantmaking.

In plain terms, that means an easier-to-navigate application process and multi-year awards that ease the burden of filing yearly requests. It also means MMT staff engage in constant conversation with grantees, advisory committees and community roundtables. Small groups of community leaders can even make recommendations on funding allocations, though Fick and the Board of Trustees hold both the fiduciary responsibility and the final say.

Meyer is not making these changes in a vacuum. There’s a trend among foundations taking a hard look at the inherent power imbalance between themselves and the nonprofits they serve. The movement seems almost universal, reaching well past charitable foundations into all areas of modern society, according to a report by the Ford Foundation.

“During the past decade, all sectors of society have faced heightened demand for greater accountability and transparency,” the report reads. “People have become more distrustful of established institutions, they are demanding more information about issues and decisions affecting them and their families and communities, and they want more voice in decision-making processes.”

For Fick, the move feels like a natural progression. Before she helped launch Justice Oregon for Black Lives, Fick served as Oregon executive director for Stand for Children, helping pass Measure 98, which granted funding for dropout prevention and college readiness. Fick was also a classroom teacher through Teach for America, and has served as a legislative aide for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and a lobbyist for Oregon Health & Science University.

“We want to be more nimble and get out of the way of grantees,” Fick says about the approach. “As a former executive director [of a nonprofit], I understand how deeply EDs know their work. As a grantor, I want to walk alongside them, create more profound relationships.”

What do these changes, including that move of looking through a justice lens when awarding grants, potentially mean for the nonprofits that rely on these funds?

“I love it!” exclaims Mellani Calvin, executive director for ASSIST, when informed of the coming shift. ASSIST helps disabled and homeless people navigate the byzantine process of securing disability and insurance benefits from the Social Security Administration. “Our organization fits that lens. We seek economic justice for our clients who are the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick.”

0123 MM 556A6051Mellani Calvin, executive director and founder of ASSIST, a nonprofit that helps people apply for federal benefits.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Calvin is also enthusiastic about any steps grantors take to make the funding process easier for her to navigate. She estimates that in the last seven years, ASSIST has applied for 124 grants to cover half of their $500,000 annual operations budget — and has an overflowing, old-school file cabinet to prove it. “That averages to applying for about 17 grants a year. Phew! It’s discouraging really to think about the number of staff hours that have gone into these funding efforts for a service as valuable as ours to the most destitute out there,” she tells Oregon Business via email.

ASSIST has a long relationship with Meyer Memorial Trust, receiving its first-ever grant from the foundation in 2016. Calvin applied for the money because other executive directors told her about the doors a Meyer grant opens: “I heard that their grants were the hardest to get, but if you do win one, other money starts flowing in.”

Fick is well aware of the effects of an MMT “seal of approval” and the inherent power it holds.

“I’ve heard that many times before,” she says. “I want it to continue to be true as we shift to a social, racial and economic justice lens.”

Fick also understands that Meyer Memorial Trust’s shift comes during an unprecedented time of polarization and mistrust. A time when terms like “Critical Race Theory” are intentionally misused to create panic and resentment. A time when the U.S. Supreme Court looks to do away with affirmative action. A time when a little more than 44% of Oregonians voted no on Ballot Measure 112, which removes slavery as punishment for a crime in the state constitution.

“I don’t want anyone to shut down when we start talking about justice,” Fick says. “We need to build trust and get as many people as possible working toward that same end.”

So Fick starts her new job humbly and in deep-listening mode. She has been traveling throughout the state meeting with grantees, while paying special attention to organizations that serve rural and Indigenous needs. She is also meeting with other funders to learn how Meyer Memorial Trust can “show up differently and be more culturally responsive” for its grantees.

Fick also created a new position at the Trust: a director of learning. When hired, this person will process and synthesize the stories Fick and the rest of her team gathered and come up with a new way to quantify and measure success.

“We still don’t know what that will look like, but asking for statistics and reports may not be the answer,” she says, explaining why these collected stories are so important. “As I like to say, ‘Stories are data with soul.’”

Toward the end of her Zoom interview with OB, Fick’s 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter came home from their day at school. That was Fick’s signal to shift into “momming” mode, a place she finds extremely comfortable.

“My life revolves around being a mom,” she says. In practice, that means waking extra early to get a jump on work so she can be present and available for her kids.

0123 MM 556A5892Toya Fick took the helm of Meyer Memorial Trust in September, 2022.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

With her successful track record, Fick looks ready to shepherd Meyer Memorial Trust through its new mission and focus. She knows the process will require time, patience and collaboration with other funders. Fick also knows she’ll be doing this work without Rukaiyah Adams, Meyer’s former chief investment officer. Adams, who led the trust’s investment portfolio to record returns during her eight-year tenure, exited the trust on Aug. 31.

“We’re trying to figure out who Meyer Memorial Trust is,” says Fick. “We’re still examining the theory of change process.”

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here