Retiring Reflections, Part 3

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Note: Part 1 of Retiring Reflections can be found here, Part 2 here.

So where were we, before this nasty cold took me out for the last week? Oh, that’s right. I had just started working as a consultant for Meyer Memorial Trust, handling the Small Grants program.

Everybody in the Pacific Northwest knows about Fred Meyer because the stores that bear his name can be found in most of the region’s substantial cities.  When Fred Meyer died in 1978, his will directed that his fortune was to to be used to establish a charitable trust, or “private foundation” as they are also known. He named five trustees to oversee the foundation, who hired an executive director who hired a staff to administer the foundation and award grants to nonprofit organizations.

When word reached the ears of anyone connected with a nonprofit in Oregon that Fred Meyer’s fortune (about $120 million worth of Fred Meyer Inc stock) would be given away for the public good, there was much celebration across the land. In 1982, when the foundation opened for business, $120 million was a lot of money. It would create the largest foundation in the Pacific Northwest and one of the largest in the country. People doing good were salivating at the prospect of wonderful things to come from it.

So here I was, 10 years later, starting to work for the Meyer Memorial Trust. By this time I had formed a nonprofit organization with some other mothers of children with disabilities, but we had not managed to muster up the courage to ask Fred Meyer’s foundation for money. It was just too intimidating. [We did get a small sum from March of Dimes to publish our newsletter, but it didn’t go very far. But that’s another story for another time.]

Being intimidated by wealth was my last intimidation fence to clamber over. Here’s something I know for sure:  when your child is born with life-threatening and life-altering conditions and you stare down his potential death and it blinks first and looks away, it’s really hard to be intimidated by anything ever again. It gives you a perspective that can’t be taught. You just have an certain inner strength from then on. And it carries you through some pretty dicey situations.

Okay, permit me another digression please. They are just part of my package, I guess. When Blaine was still a wee lad, I landed a job being an advocate for parents of children with disabilities in the school system, ensuring the students were indeed being served as federal law required them to be. I was one of six women assigned to a cluster of counties across the state, my cluster being Multnomah, Washington, Columbia and Clatsop counties. As soon as I started, I heard tales of a particular special education director in a particular school district in my region who was really hard to work with because she was really mean and a total bully. Everybody was terrified of her. I was curious to see her for myself and it wasn’t long before a parent in her district asked me to attend an IEP meeting with them. The special ed director came to the meeting, but never once looked at me or in any way acknowledged my existence inside the known universe.

Well, that wasn’t working for me, so the next week I called her and asked her to give me a tour of special ed services in her district. She seemed stunned and quite possibly that’s why she agreed to do it. On the appointed day, I met her at her office and we took off in her car. When we arrived at the first stop of the day, the parking lot was full, the only open space was the one reserved for people with a disability. After circling the lot and determining it was the only space left, she said, “Well, I’m just going to have to park here.” You know that television show, the one where the producers set up a situation just to see how people will react? I think it’s called “What Would You Do?” Well, the moment she pulled into that parking space, I had a What-Would-You-Do moment. If you know me, you know I am not pleased when able bodied people – even if they’re “just going to be a minute”– take spaces intended for people who really need nearby parking. Things have vastly improved on that front, but back in the day, there seemed to be no end of violators.

So as she pulled in, I gulped hard and said, “I can’t let you park here.” Her head spun toward me and disbelief was scrawled all over her face. “I’m serious,” I said. “Someone may really need this. We’ll have to park on the street.” I may have closed my eyes in anticipation of the explosion that was sure to follow. But guess what? She said, “Okay, you’re right” and parked on the street. We got along great after that. I think it made her respect me. And explains why I am loathe to tolerate bullies to this day. Oh, believe me, I’m not perfect, but I’m way better than I was before Blaine was born.

Getting back to the subject at hand, when I started working for Meyer Memorial Trust, I still felt intimidated by rich people because I didn’t know how to act around them. I had attended college with quite a lot of rich kids, but for the most part I had no idea they were rich because everybody wore tie-dyed t-shirts and bellbottoms under their army jackets. So that didn’t count and I didn’t figure out the lesson there until much later.

Like I said earlier, every nonprofit in Oregon hoped their financial woes were over when Fred Meyer’s money started arriving, but it quickly became clear that there was a pretty high bar to jump over to get a grant. Another many-are-called-but-few-are-chosen kind of deal. It didn’t take long for nonprofits to see MMT as unattainable for all but the big, well-established charities. A wave of disappointment replaced the joy that had spread over the land as it seemed MMT was out of reach for most. I remember being in a meeting once where no less than Neil Goldschmidt said the only way to get grant from MMT was to play golf with one of the trustees.

It seems the foundation was aware of the issue because in 1988 it established the Small Grants Program so smaller nonprofits would be able to realistically compete for MMT funds. And that’s the program I operated beginning in 1992.

To tell you the truth, many of my rich foundation fears evaporated during my job interview with Executive Director Charles Rooks because of who he is. Working for him was such a privilege. It’s hard to explain, to put in to words really. He just quietly brings out the best in everyone. And he is personally very humble and gracious, and set the tone for how a foundation should treat people.

In 1996, Charles hired me as a staff member, adding creating the annual report and other communication products to my small grants portfolio. [Since then I did a several-year-long stint as a program officer and in 2002 officially became the Director of Communication. Director of  Learning came a bit later on.]

On my third day on staff, I walked into Charles’s office and marveled, “OMG, you really want to give money away. You really, really do. I had no idea!”I had already grasped that there really was no secret rich-people code and was shocked by how wrong my perceptions about foundations were. I quickly learned that most staff members came from anything but privileged backgrounds. Even more stunning, as I got to know the five trustees, I discovered their back stories were just about as humble as my own, in some case more so. Wow.

I was baffled. Why did things look so different on the inside and outside? It took me a while to realize that my mistaken imaginings had largely been created in a vacuum, and it was an absence that allowed them to flourish. Because I had never been presented with an opportunity to see inside a foundation for myself, it was all too easy to conjure up a worst case scenario. And if the only weapon against misperceptions on the outside is to get inside, one person at a time, it’s going to take a very long time to reach the tipping point. To put it another way, that’s one heck of a lot of golf games.

So when I became responsible for communication at MMT, I welcomed the opportunity to use what I understood about being outside to help make the inside of Meyer Memorial Trust visible and accessible to more than one person at a time.

Mind you, I’m not saying all foundations are like MMT. I still laugh at the memory of attending a national conference on philanthropy some 15 years ago. For three solid days, as thousands of people passed in the hallways and other conference spaces, not a single person made eye contact with me. Their eyes came to rest on my name tag and my foundation and location information therein did not merit raising their gaze above my bosom.

When the World Wide Web came along, the heavens opened for communication. My own mission became creating a website that shows we’re not a foundation where you have to play golf with a trustee. And it would remind us not to become like that. Ever.

I’m going to tell you something I want you to believe. By far, the single most important thing I learned about communicating on the web comes from The Cluetrain Manifesto  (the whole book, not just the summary list). It begins:

“People of the earth…

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.”

The manifesto was first written in 1999 and it still as relevant today. If you are in any kind of business or seek any kind of audience connection, you fail to read it at your peril.

I got very passionate about turning MMT’s website into a conversation. Being real. Talking like humans. Being social, not “doing social.” Mind you, not everybody on staff was thrilled about that. But my new boss – MMT’s second ever CEO Doug Stamm – embraces innovation and enthusiastically backed me, more or less turning me loose to go about putting into practice what I learned about this new frontier. (Granted, I had been around long enough to know where the boundaries are, and yes, they still exist, even at MMT.) It took a long time to get it all done, and I’m quite sure several on staff were really tired of me by then. In fact, some of them left, but I’m sure it was entirely for other reasons. :)

Because when it comes to meeting a mission, I would way rather be respected than liked. I think you really have to give up on everyone liking you to be an activist of any kind. I took very seriously contributing to turning MMT into a national model of a regional foundation. I pushed myself to figure out how we could excel in communications, how we could hold ourselves accountable, behave with impeccable integrity?

The answer seemed pretty clear: By being authentic and transparent. I guess I was vocal enough about it that later I was invited to write about foundation transparency for the Foundation Center’s website. If you want more about the utterly fascinating subject of foundation transparency, go here and here and here.

When I look back from here, I can say I feel like I helped move Meyer Memorial Trust forward on the path to transparency and revealing our humanity. That work will never be finished, of course, but my part in it is coming to an end.

Which brings me to the present moment, on the cusp of retirement. Which I promise I will actually write about in the next installment of my Retiring Reflections.

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2 responses

  1. Marie…what a great read and so true to your experience and the Meyer culture. Thanks for sharing your reflections. I’m looking forward to the next installment – not too many days before departure. jw

  2. You said, “I would way rather be respected than liked.” Well the good news is you are both, and always have been. I too look forward to the next installment.