Doug Stamm changed the rules of the charity game in Oregon.
As recently as five years ago, Meyer Memorial Trust, the state's second-largest foundation (behind the Oregon Community Foundation), could be counted on to support a predictable roster of orchestras and food banks.
But starting three years ago, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Catlin Gabel School could no longer be guaranteed they would get funding.
Instead, the $800 million Meyer Trust, led for the past 15 years by Stamm, is beginning to use the fortune created by grocery tycoon Fred Meyer to level the playing field for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities.
The kind of organization Meyer gives to now? Among others, a rapid response fund for immigrants and refugees, designed to counteract President Trump's border policies.
The typical profile of a philanthropic executive is the same as a slice of Franz bread: thin, white and dull.
At first glance, Stamm, 64, fits the mold. But he's done something radical, attracting the national attention of other foundations, not only for whom Meyer Trust gives money to but also for how it invests the foundation's assets.
Meyer has become a pioneer in mission-related investing, picking its portfolio not just for the best returns but for social results Stamm and his board want to encourage.
Stamm is retiring in 2018 after 16 years as CEO. His successor could be named as soon as next month.
WW talked to him about how he changed a big, slow-moving enterprise, and what he hopes to see Meyer Trust accomplish in the future.
WW: How did you apply Nike's corporate philosophy to charity work?
Doug Stamm: We were selling shirts and shoes. It generates a lot of revenue. [So] we developed the tagline, "There is no finish line." I lived in a fast-paced environment and felt a sense of urgency every day.
But social issues—the health and well-being of Oregonians—deserve a much higher sense of urgency. You feel it every day when you walk out these doors and you're stepping over somebody who's sleeping on the streets or you're seeing kids who dropped out of school.
What kinds of projects did the Meyer Trust give to when you got here?
About 55 percent of our funds went to building capital projects. It was very traditional philanthropy, very top-down, very much who you knew. Food banks. The large-budget arts organizations. We had libraries across the state.
Did the trustees know you wanted to change that approach?
We had a very frank conversation. I said, "If you want an administrator, this isn't going to work out. If you want a change agent, we can make that work."
I respected that change wasn't going to be like at Nike, where I could just flip the switch.
What was the biggest change?
We landed on making our mission "a flourishing and equitable Oregon."
What I began to realize, thanks to staffers of color, that their view of what was equitable and my view might not be the same.
I remember one gathering, I think it was after [the church shooting in] Charleston, when we had conversations among staff about the personal impact. It's devastating.
On another day, one of our trustees, who is African-American, shared their experience with police stops. I remember walking home that night, thinking how I had never worried about navigating the street freely, because I'm white.
Do you now give to any organizations that Fred Meyer himself wouldn't have?
Yes, with a dramatic yes.
Four years ago, we announced to Oregon that we were substantially changing our programs to increase social justice. We just announced $23 million in grants, and the bulk of those are to what I would call social justice organizations—culturally specific organizations, organizations working on the front lines for poor and marginalized folks.
You also had a notable failure: the Chalkboard Project. What went wrong?
Our goal was to lift student achievement to the top 10 percent in the country, and we are nowhere near that, 10-plus years later. We're ranked 48th in the country for graduation rates.
So is it a failure? Yeah, I'd say the results are disappointing. But I actually think Chalkboard Project is on the cusp of systemic change. In the districts where it's been working, there has been measurable improvement.
You've changed the way Meyer invests its money, not just how it distributes charitable grants. How?
Where it's an investment, we expect the market-rate return, but we think that you can invest in things that either further your mission directly or are consistent with the values of the philanthropy.
For example, there are no venture capital funds run by people of color for entrepreneurs who are women or people of color. So we started and seeded and worked with Elevate Oregon. It's a small fund, aspiring to get to $10 million.
Does that mean you're hoping your successor doesn't look like you?
I don't want to say it shouldn't be a white male. But, you know, actually, I'd say it's time for a change.
I made a concerted effort to significantly diversify this organization. We moved from being an all-white executive team to being six women and myself—three women of color.
Every one of those staff members were living in Oregon. We didn't move anybody here to diversify our ranks. The same with our trustees. If this search was not able to lift out qualified leaders from marginalized communities, we were going to start the search over again.
It's one of my greatest rewards, managing people who don't look like me, don't think like me, and make my life and their lives richer because of it.