Category Archives: The Retirement Reflections

A different feeling…

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I noticed that today I felt so much more relaxed than usual on a Saturday. I’ve been in some kind of adrenalin rush on weekends because there is so much I want to get done before Monday morning. When I started to feel that way this morning, I reminded myself I don’t have to do that anymore. It was so very nice.

I still have a lot of loose ends to wrap up for work, even had to bring my desktop computer home because I had nothing that could store 56 gigs of documents etc. that I need to sort through and delete or organize. But I can take my time. What a concept!

I am becoming aware that I’ve sorta been living in a state of emergency for at least two years. That. ends. now. And I mean it.

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.

Reflections on Retirement, Part 2

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The first installment in Reflections on Retirement is here.

Given that my childhood did not put me on a path that led directly to the place of wealth and philanthropy, how the heck did I end up there? I guess you could say I sort of fell into it. Come to think of it, when I look back I can see that my life was pretty much unplanned all the way along, I just availed myself of opportunities presented to me and fairly naively took it from there. I’ll show you what I mean.

Take college for example. One day, Miss Rice – my social studies teacher at Cottage Grove High School who also served a kind of career counseling role – handed me an application for a scholarship and said, “Your SAT scores are good, I think you should apply for this.” I looked at it, it was an application for the Grass Roots Talent Search program at the University of Chicago that – if you were accepted – guaranteed complete financial assistance for four years if you kept up your grades and contributed positively to the university community. Early in high school I had my heart set on going to Stanford, I don’t really remember why, probably because I had heard of it. But then in my junior year I read somewhere that 200 valedictorians flunk out of Stanford their first year, so my heart abandoned that plan and I figured I would go to the University of Oregon because it was close by. But I went ahead and filled out the U of Chicago paperwork because it didn’t have a submission fee, even rather enjoyed it because it included a writing assignment, and promptly forgot all about it. I continued to check out colleges in Oregon like Willamette and Pacific Universities.

Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of April 1967, I got a letter in the mail that said I had been accepted into the University of Chicago and had a four year scholarship that covered all expenses (tuition, room and board, books, etc.) I went into shock and had an out of body experience, like I was drifting through the air watching myself drive to the high school to show Miss Rice, then on to my after school job at the Cottage Grove Sentinel. I instantly knew I would say yes. My sister reported that my parents were against me going there, but in my head I was already packing. It was a way of escaping the boundaries that are so easy to get caught in around a small town where everybody knows your business, and you know theirs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just knew I needed more exposure to more differences: different experiences, different points of view, different places, different people, different everything…

Well, that was a rather long detour, was it not. I went there because it shows how I fall into things rather than devise a plan and follow it. My style is more one of discovering the possibility of a plan and giving myself over to it. Fallow, not follow. 🙂 If I had a plan upon leaving high school, it would be that I would become a journalist. I had really found my niche working at my hometown newspaper, over time doing pretty much all the steps required to publish a newspaper, even selling advertising. Once I got to Chicago, I discovered it didn’t have a journalism program. Oopsie! At the U of C, majors weren’t that big a deal, but they did exist. Even ones with names like Philosophical Psychology. My favorite classes in high school had been geography classes (CGHS had a very innovative geography program before the regular school day started). Chicago had some very distinguished geography professors, so I took several classes. Mind you, I took as many art and art history classes, but my declared major was Geography. Now geography as a major doesn’t get all that much respect, but take my word for it, it’s the most interesting thing ever, because it’s about everything. Anything and everything from a spatial perspective. It’s really that great.

So during fourth year of college, when I started thinking of what to do next, and my husband at the time wanted to go to law school, I figured since we will be at a campus, I might as well go to grad school in geography. By the end of the fourth year, Chicago’s physical environment was getting really hard for me to take (I swear the potted cactus on the window sill got cancer from the coal dust in the air) and Oregon was tugging on my heartstrings. And that’s how we ended up at the University of Oregon after college and I became a duck after all.

Beginning in grad school, I taught geography classes at the U of Oregon, and then continued doing so at Portland State University, Willamette University, Lewis and Clark College, etc. after we moved to Portland. Again, just kind of fell into it beginning when a professor at PSU was on sabbatical and they needed someone to teach his classes. I was still teaching and leading field trips through Portland right up until the month before Blaine was born.

And, of course, that day everything changed.

I tried to continue teaching after Blaine was born but my heart wasn’t in it. Child care was an issue, because most people didn’t feel comfortable watching someone with as many complications as Blaine. He went to an early intervention program beginning when he was 18 months old and I found myself spending a lot of time navigating though a tangle of medical systems and social bureaucracies that a family with a child with a disability encounters. And mind you, this was back in the day when families were not considered a very important part of the equation. Given my nature, and my excellent college and grad school education that prized inquiry, I was not one to lie back and be happy with whatever we were told or not told, shown or not shown. For example, in the beginning, it took weeks and weeks and much back and forth communication to even get copies of medical reports. I became a vocal part of the movement toward family-centered care. (And we really changed things. A new day has indeed dawned in medical systems for families of children with disabilities. The tales I could tell!) I began sharing what I learned by publishing a newsletter… well, it was more like a zine but zines hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe we invented them????

Well, advocacy and writing a newsletter didn’t produce income, and after Blaine started first grade, I found myself battling the public education bureaucracy I felt did not serve students with disabilities as well as the law required. I got a paying job as an advocate for families of children with disabilities. Well, the pay wasn’t great, but the job was pretty much right up my alley at the time. And the best part was meeting, working and becoming family with the other mothers from around the state doing the same job in their regions. OMG. I love those women so much. And when we get together it’s like only an hour has passed since we last hugged and talked and laughed for hours on end.

Returning to the actual subject of this post, I had to leave that job and take one that paid a little better when I was going through a divorce. It was with a consulting firm that worked on disability issues, purported to be in support of families of children with disabilities. I thought it would be a continuation of the kind of things I had been doing for the past several years, but I was wrong. They did evaluations of disability programs around the country and I got to see the sausage making that goes on inside consulting firms.

When Blaine was 12, he had the most complex surgeries of his life, which involved putting rods that attached to both the front and the back of his spine to arrest his ever worsening scoliosis (he had two curves in opposite directions that had to be addressed in serial surgeries.) He was in the hospital for more than two months, and encountered one complication after another, including sepsis from an infected Hickman central venous catheter. The very day the doctor had tears in his eyes as he told me how sorry he was about all the things that were going wrong, I got home to find a fed ex envelope in the door with a letter inside terminating me from the firm for my absences. It felt like such a cruel irony because I had been recruited for the job so they could say they had someone on staff with a child with a disability. When, during the interview, I told them they would be crazy to hire me because Blaine was facing the biggest surgeries of his life, and I would need to be with him during that time, they told me it was not a problem because they kept a sick leave pool I could draw from to cover my absence. So having the actual parent of an actual child with an actual disability on their actual staff was more than they could actually handle, I guess.

Blaine was in a full body jacket at home after leaving the hospital, and it was really hard. I remember the time Niki watched me carry Blaine in his body jacket up the stairs to his bedroom. Her eyes widened in horror and she promptly started taking Blaine’s bed apart so we could move it to the first floor and set it up in the dining room. Shit was getting real.

That’s when I faced the reality that I had to get a job I could do from home. One day Abby called to say her friend Sandy had called on behalf of the place she worked, they were looking for someone who could work from home who had a Macintosh. Well, that sure sounded a lot like me so I called and met with the executive director of the Meyer Memorial Trust. He hired me, and I began inputting, reading, analyzing and writing reports on the applications to the Small Grants Program.

That’s how I fell into philanthropy. I blame Blaine. And Abby and Sandy. And Steve Jobs. In that order. 🙂

Next time: What I found inside philanthropy once I got there.

 

Reflecting on Retiring, Part I

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So a while back I mentioned that I have set a retirement date. And then I didn’t say any more about it. But now it’s time. I have no idea how this will go, I’m just sitting here with my laptop, watching what happens when I write about why I’m retiring now.

First, it’s pretty weird that I ended up working in the field of philanthropy at all. And downright shocking that I’ve now been doing it for more than 20 years. When I was a little girl in Douglas County, I never met anybody who had much money. I grew up among families of loggers mostly. My own family was a logger family. My dad fell and bucked trees, set chokers, and for many years, rode a crummy into the woods. Sometimes a Great Notion’s vocabulary felt like home to me.

When I was 12, my father was smashed between two logs when one rolled down the hill while he was bucking the other one. He was in the hospital for a long time and his back was never the same, hurting him most every day for the rest of his life. Most of the other loggers we knew were injured in one way or another. Some were killed doing their jobs. They gave their bodies to the woods.

After his accident, he had to find a new way to support our family. That’s when we moved to the metropolis of Cottage Grove (seriously, that’s what it seemed to me), where he got a job as an auto electrician, drawing from his wartime training keeping the troop and supply planes flying over the Himalayas during WWII. Cottage Grove was a pretty prosperous mill town in those days, with a lot of family wage jobs. And even some of the mill and lucrative business owners’ kids went to the community’s public schools.

Many of the mill jobs were very physically demanding and I was around enough of those families to know that mill workers’ bodies, just like loggers, were punished by their jobs, with pain and disfigurement following them into their golden years.

Being part of Oregon philanthropy, I have noticed that many Oregon foundations grew from timber industry fortunes. Thinking back on my childhood, I wonder how so much money ended up in the owners’ accounts. Should they have paid the workers more? Was the pay fair? Did the workers get good enough medical care? What was their standard of living in retirement? Workers in the Cottage Grove mills were in unions, so had some protections. But the loggers I knew along the South Umpqua River in remote Douglas County were not.

Did the owners know how large the fortunes they were amassing were becoming? Did they plan it that way? What did they know and when did they know it?

What about Fred Meyer? Could he have paid his workers more? Was he fair to them? What was their standard of living?

I have the same questions about technology fortunes of a few in the Pacific Northwest, whose riches are still piling up. When will they have enough? Why that much? Are they paying workers enough? Using too many contract workers with no benefits? Could they charge less for their products? Why don’t they?

Working in philanthropy, in many ways I am still a curious child from a logger family in southern Oregon. And I can’t always find good answers to a lot of her questions.

And that’s why, after more than 20 years, in many ways I still feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Next Up: How I found my place in philanthropy…