Leadership, Equity and the World of Philanthropy: An Exit Interview with Doug Stamm

Back in April, XRAY in the Morning had the pleasure of sitting down with CEO of the Meyer Memorial Trust, Doug Stamm. Doug will be stepping down from his post in early 2018 after 15 years of service.

Jefferson: You’re listening to XRAY. I’m Jefferson Smith. The Meyer Memorial Trust, created by and named after Fred G. Meyer of–you know–the store Fred Meyer, now owned by Kroger. It has a corpus of I think just a little south of 800 million dollars. It’s led by its chief executive Doug Stamm. He just announced that he’s going to be stepping down next year. He’s been running it for 15 years. He’s here today to talk about his transition out, the work that My Memorial Trust is doing and will do in the future. Thanks so much for being here, Doug.

Doug Stamm: Glad to be here, Jefferson. Good morning to you.

Jefferson: Why are they firing you?

Doug Stamm: Well, they should have a long time ago, right? You knew that back when we used to work together in Fund the Bus Project, but not actually being fired. When I came into this work I said that I didn’t believe that folks should stay much longer than 10 years in philanthropy and frankly I probably would have left a little earlier, although I’ve been honored and think this is one of the best and most important jobs in Oregon.

But some of the work that we’ve been doing the past five years, decided to make it 15 years and then call it and figure out what’s next for me and next for the trust.

Jefferson: Why a limit of 10 years? I know you’re doing 15, but why did you have that belief? Why do you have that belief?

Doug Stamm: When I came into the philanthropic sector from the private sector, one of my concerns was transparency and accountability because you don’t have a specific customer. You don’t have a constituency that has a vote to vote you in or out, so I felt like if you can’t make a difference in a set period of time, say 10 to 15 years, then it’s time to move on.

Jefferson: What are you looking for and I should ask, how involved are you going to be in the transition and what is the team, maybe including you, looking for in the next leader?

Doug Stamm: I’ll be an advisor to the trustees. As you know when Mr. Meyer established the Meyer Trust 35 years ago he nominated five trustees and obviously those folks have changed, but those five trustees will have the ultimate decision with a lot of input from the staff. I think that they’ll seek some of my counsel and advice and also stakeholders from across the state. In terms of the characteristics and the attributes for this person, what we’re looking for first and foremost, and I think you’re pretty familiar with the equity and inclusion work that we’ve been working on.

I feel like I’m maybe the last piece in this puzzle. We’re looking for a highly qualified diverse pool of candidates. It will be a national search. I think key characteristics are a passion for our mission, it’s equity and inclusion work across the state. A deep understanding of this mission and a commitment to place. We still think Oregon’s a pretty special place and has tremendous opportunity. It’s a place where you can make change. And a leader of leaders because we have an amazing staff. We don’t need someone to come in and completely revamp the organization, but fresh eyes, fresh thoughts.

Jefferson: There is a challenge that Oregon institutions have when they look to recruit, particularly when they identify a challenge or opportunity, when they identify a key priority in hiring diversity, equity and inclusion, and when they want qualified candidates of color that often in order to have a really diverse pool of candidates they look broadly, right? They look across the nation for those candidates.

I have heard you say two things, I also read the transition letter that you wrote, said two things. One, we want this … At least two things. We want this sense of place, a commitment to Oregon. Maybe roots in Oregon, and we want a really diverse pool of candidates. Any tension there?

Doug Stamm: I don’t believe so. I think we busted that myth. I really think it is a myth and frankly, it’s an excuse to say that you can’t find a diverse pool of qualified candidates for virtually any professional job in Oregon. We’ve proven that. If you look now at our trustees, four of the six trustees are people of color. You look at our leadership team, half of it are people of color.

Almost all of it are women and that runs true throughout our staff, so I just don’t buy that. All those folks are from Oregon. We didn’t recruit them from out of state. We considered other people from out of state, but they’re all from Oregon.

Jefferson: This is the big thing I wanted to talk to you about. I was going to ask you what do you view as your major successes. I probably still will ask you that, but I know that you would identify one of them as this major transition that Meyer has made in a big way, not in a small way. In a big way towards DEI work, towards diversity equity inclusion.

The bulk of grant making now essentially focused on those areas. How did that transition begin? There was a time when you all took a break from grant making. Did you have a sense you were going to be making that transition before taking the break or was that a decision you made during that break? Who kind of lobbied you yea or nay? Talk us through that.

Doug Stamm: I wouldn’t say folks were lobbying us. We listened a lot and that’s one of our values is responsiveness and collaboration with the field. We’ve listened a lot to the stakeholders in the field about how Meyer can be of best service to the populations that they were trying to serve and across the state.

In revamping our mission, I’m going to say it was about five years ago, we started to focus on how can we contribute to a flourishing and equitable Oregon? We really honed in on that word equitable. We recognized that those of us like myself who historically had been from the dominant culture, worked in dominant cultural organizations, didn’t really understand that word. We went deep with our staff and frankly it was led by a number of our staff of color at that time to understand what equity really meant.

That began this transition that then led to a strategic revamp within the organization that led to the what we call the hiatus at that point in time where we were shutting down our former programs and then launching the new programs that are we believe focused on the four areas that are critical to equity in Oregon.

Jefferson: I’ll say I can just acknowledge, you’re somebody I admire very much and have looked to to transition as we try to think about this institution that we started up just a couple years ago and how do we live our values and lead our values and who can we learn from. I will say that what Meyer has done recently is one of the places we hope to learn from. As a white leader, how do you see your role in leading that change or in getting out of the way and making way for it?

Doug Stamm: I think you just said it, the reason I stayed on past the 10 years is I felt this was an incredibly important journey, both for me personally and for the organization. I felt like albeit that I come from a white privilege background that I’ve learned an awful lot and listened to the staff around me and the stakeholders in the field to find ways for us to be a more equitable and inclusive organization, both internally and outward facing.

Then you get to the point where you say it is time for me to step aside. As I said earlier and I said in my transition letter, I think I’d love to stay on at the Meyer Trust. I don’t plan to retire, but on the other hand I think it’s ready for someone to lead who comes from a more diverse background, has spent more of their life in the equity area and implementing programs in their life around equity.

Jefferson: What would success look like you think for the next leader, for the next let’s say decade and a half or decade of the Meyer Trust after this transition?

Doug Stamm: Going deeper, having deeper impact with our programs, we’ve now focused our programs. Not everyone in the state’s going to love that because that means that not as many organizations likely are going to be funded by Meyer. It’s going to be tougher to get funding from Meyer. You need to at least, we’re not asking organizations to have a fully developed equity and inclusion program within their organization. We’re asking them to get on the journey like we are.

I just want to stop and say–and I appreciate that Jefferson, your recognition of Meyer’s efforts–we’re far from perfect. We’ve made lots of mistakes in this work. It’s not easy work and it’s certainly not clean, but we feel like calling the question and both internally and externally is critical to the future.

Jefferson: I think about the trustees that were trustees 15 years ago. I think to some degree I’m tutored by rumor on 25 years ago. My understanding, my awareness, was that Meyer was a pretty white organization when I was a kid. You wrote in the transition letter your mission remains rooted in the values of Fred G. Meyer. Help us connect those dots.

Doug Stamm: I think Fred Meyer was an incredible entrepreneur. To be an entrepreneur you need to be taking risk, you need to innovate. He was known and the stores are still known today long after his death for their attention to customer service and serving people that fall within their mission.

So I think we’re living out those values of Fred Meyer. He was a fascinating guy. Very few individuals who create foundations lead broad discretion like he did to the future trustees to determine how his funds should be best applied. Usually they’re very stringent or stipulated designation as to how those funds should be spent. He left it open and we feel like we’re living his values.

Jefferson: Let’s talk about how charities, how Meyer as an example and as a leading example here apply dough. What are some of the things you’re most proud of and/or what’s a mistake? What’s a blunder? What’s something you wish you had back?

Doug Stamm: Well, we always laugh, now this was a long time ago. I think we made a grant for an elevator on a one story building. That would have been a mistake. That was long, long back in the trust history and I think once we found it we figured it out, we canceled that grant.

But the things we’re most proud about, I would say, there’s a lot. The difference is Mr. Meyer left us with the admonition that in giving great thought, even small amounts of money can make a tremendous difference. I think we’ve seen that across the state. Places like rural Oregon where helping to replace a roof on a senior community center has allowed them to continue in operation or $15,000 to a volunteer medical or a food banks, those sorts of things across the state make a big difference.

In a larger scheme picture, I think some of the work I’m most proud about is some of the leadership development work that we’ve done with the coalition of communities of color. Now producing, they have engaged in their programs thousands of people of color from historically underrepresented communities who are going out now and effectively leading and changing who’s at the leadership and decision tables in this state.

Another one I’d say is River Work, it’s one example of the power of a foundation beyond the dollars it can give, where it convenes groups from government, the private sector, nonprofits to really come together and develop a common plan that significantly increases the impact that they can have as opposed to working alone.

Jefferson: I want to get to the leadership development part because this is something, as we try to get a little deeper not just to the kind of pablum that makes … I don’t want to call it pablum. To the surface or the brevity that typically most news media has time for because there are so many things to cover, to get a little bit deeper.

This is one of the things that I’ve really noticed even before your transition, that you had Nicole Maher who was at NAYED, now at the Northwest Health Foundation along with Jason Beason, both of them prime movers in the Communities of Color Coalition. Matt Morton who was also at NAYED. Remember that crew, now working with you at Meyer. The former head of the Communities of Color Coalition, in fact now transitioning out still there and the new head of City Club.

That has really been a major push. I would say one that I hadn’t thought of Meyer’s role in pushing it. I recognize that some of those were in fact Meyer-funded organizations, but there has been, these are all relatively young leaders. That’s been a significant change in the leadership table as you say in Portland over like the last six years.

Doug Stamm: It’s absolutely critical. It’s overdue. It’s critical. When you look at the demographics of this state, we are woefully underrepresented by communities of color and other historically marginalized communities at the leadership table. Let’s face it, we’ve been historically very white dominated, both in terms of our elected officials. It’s still a big deal in Oregon when a person of color is elected to the state legislature or to the school boards. It is changing and it needs to change as fast as possible.

Jefferson: I want to talk to you about The Chalkboard Project. Some years ago, and I remember this story that you told about two trustees over I think it was dinner. Maybe it was just over a meeting, one who was a strong conservative, the other was I think John Emerick who was a former trustee who was a self-described liberal who said, “Hey, let’s work together on education.” You brought together a set of foundations. I think five Oregon foundations in addition to Meyer in a collaborative effort on K12 student achievement. How would you evaluate the success of The Chalkboard Project?

Doug Stamm: I think Chalkboard’s played, first of all there’s six what I would call five original funders and then now it’s six. We also have 27, 28 I think, almost 30 affiliate funders of Chalkboard. When you look at the state’s graduation rate it’s dismal and we all know that. So you can look at Chalkboard and say, “What have you really done in 12 years?” I think what we’ve done is we’ve brought forth independent research, we’ve been an auditor if you will for school budgets and we’ve let parents have an inside look as to both how their kids are being educated, how money’s being spent within their school districts.

We through the Class Project have gone in and worked very closely with educators to develop new models of educating their students, or improved models I should say mainly through mentoring and collaboration between teachers. In those districts if that was applied across the state, it would dramatically increase our graduation rates. Is the work done? Not nearly. Is it important to have an independent voice in public education in this state? Absolutely.

Jefferson: I want to stick with this for a minute because this is a topic that I wrestle with and I think every person running, and every time I say every, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. I think it’s every single one who is running for legislature and even folks who are running for offices that don’t really have anything directly to do with education runs on schools. Everybody purports a commitment to it. We all go to school at some point, not all of us public school.

People generally care about it and yet we haven’t done anything meaningful on funding to boost funding and public education since I was at high school at Grant. You have significant commitment by all these foundations and we haven’t move the needle meaningfully on graduation rates, although there’s some recent successes among early learning it seems like there is. We haven’t done anything meaningful on the funding. As my own thinking has evolved from having the jerk of the knee as a reformer, as somebody who looks for ways things are broken and how things can be done differently, and apply that to education.

Then kind of wondered as I looked through a political lens if so much of this stuff is how we have to transform education, if it was correct. And I think some of it was, but some of it just seemed like an excuse so that we didn’t have to pay for it, so we didn’t have to address capital gains taxes, so we didn’t have to offend anybody who might be the donor or trustee to a wealthy foundation, so we didn’t have to offend a major donor or so frankly we didn’t have to offend a political party who we thought we’d need.

We thought we’d need all the political parties involved in saving education. One of them didn’t want to boost any taxes and didn’t want to spend any more money on it. I wonder, are there limits to what foundations can do in this context? Are there limits to what kind of a Kumbaya feeling of oh yeah, if we don’t deal with the hard thing of funding it will still be okay? Are there limits to that? Are there any maybe humble lessons that you have learned or that we should learn from this experience?

Doug Stamm: Yeah, you’d asked me earlier about a blunder. I don’t think it’s a blunder but in all humility I think you look at this really dedicated hard work that The Chalkboard Project has tried to bring to K-12 public education in Oregon and I think we’ve had great success. First of all I want to recognize we have highly qualified teachers in this state. We’ve been trying to provide them support through mentoring, through collaboration, through continuing professional education requirements.

We’ve also tried to work with school administrators and our belief is if you have strong school administrators and strong teachers, you will have students that thrive. The spending level, if you look at that and you think about what Meyer and what The Chalkboard Project has brought to the equation, it’s a complete drop in the bucket compared to the statewide budget for public education, so that’s where we have to be very smart about what sort of research are we doing, what projects are we focusing on. We’re not trying to transform the system per se. We’re trying to make this a much more effective system through some innovation that isn’t happening with the dollars that are being provided by the state and going directly to support the teachers.

Jefferson: What’s the best role for a foundation when it comes to public policy challenges that are sometimes thought of as the ambit of government? As you’ve said, even the biggest foundation in the state or the five biggest foundations in the state don’t have the kind of scale financially to address every ill. What’s the best role of philanthropy? What are its limits or its greatest strengths?

Doug Stamm: I still think one of the greatest opportunities for philanthropy is its independence and its non-partisanship, and I’ll use public education as an example. One of the real values of the Chalkboard Project is an independent voice that has no dog in the fight and we only want to lift student achievement. We’re not the teachers’ union, we’re not the superintendents’ union. We’re citizens that are looking for better outcomes. I think that lends of independence, non-partisanship, brings them both credibility and, frankly, a lot of responsibility for us to try to improve the system.

Jefferson: This remains a really fascinating topic to me because I’ve seen the limits, for instance like the Gates Foundation, enormous foundation, started by the richest guy in the world. Even it has had a challenge addressing domestic policy problems like education, specifically education. I do wonder where the best rule of philanthropy, because there is an argument out there that we should dump the coercive force of government and rely, instead, on the private philanthropy of donations to address problems that the market doesn’t fix. I am relatively naked about my own view that I disagree somewhat strongly with that argument but I wonder if your experience over the last 15 years has given you some perspective on it.

Doug Stamm: Yeah, it has, and when I came into philanthropy, and I still think this is true, although I think the landscape has changed with the disinvestment both at the federal level and the state level in what I would call critical social services. I think the role of philanthropy, given the limited dollars, even and you think about the Gates Foundation, but certainly bring it down to Meyer where we’re distributing 36 million across the state every year, and that’s a lot of money. On the other hand, that does not solve any of … It just pales in comparison to both the state, the federal dollars that are coming in. Our role, I believe, is innovation. How can we help those dollars be better applied and have deeper impact and more effective outcomes, and then move on to what we believe is the next problem.

Jefferson: Yeah, so innovation, teaching stuff. Before you go, and thank you so much for taking this time by the way. 10 years ago, Doug, you and I had a conversation, it might have been 12 years ago, about impact investing, about you saying, “Listen, we give blank-number of millions of dollars away a year, but we’ve got 700 million, give or take, in our corpus that is invested. We invest in any number of things, what if we applied some of that investment money to investing our values.”

You joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Heron Foundation, launching I think it was the 2% For Mission Campaign. Explain that. Explain why not more than 2%. Talk about values-based investing because … And it’s in context to the City of Portland wrestling with a very similar thing, like what company should it be invested in, what bonds should be invested in? What have you learned?

Doug Stamm: We’ve learned a lot. First of all, I am still absolutely committed, in fact I’m headed to a national conference to meet with … I’ve been asked, because of our work in this area over the last 12 years to sit with the 10 largest foundations in the country, CEOs and some of their CIOs to continue to figure out how we can push this field forward. To me, it makes absolute sense. We sit on, like you said, a … What are we doing with other 95% besides the 5% that we distribute every year in grants, and how is that furthering our mission? Our CIO, Rukaiyah Adams, and Sayer Jones who’s our mission-related investment director, are working on that every day. It’s not easy.

We’re at about 25%, I would say, of what I call our global portfolio is oriented towards impact investing and investing that we can look at. While we can’t directly correlate the benefits into Oregon, we believe it’s consistent with the philanthropic nature of our work. On the other hand what we’ve done to try to have a more direct impact in Oregon is Sayer has started a mission-related investing program where we are looking, we’ve invested in venture capital funds, we are doing some debt lending work to try to create capital into areas that are economically-challenged. Most recently, I think a good example of where, again, if we can help innovate and lead, even with small amounts of money, is we’ve helped Nitin Rai launch a venture capital fund here called Elevate Capital, which is led by people of color and will be funding entrepreneurs of color here in Oregon.

Those are examples of how we continue to do this work. It is not easy to convert a 750 million, 800 million dollar corpus into a fully impact-invested portfolio when you have fiduciary duties to generate a return of about 9% a year.

Jefferson: Yeah, you can’t just do it, and whoever promises to clean up the ocean and they lose a bunch of money and then you can’t give money to the organizations you hope to give to. Before we wrap, as you before Meyer next year, what kind of problems are you still curious about? What still seems worth your energy? Mathematicians typically have their biggest innovations by the time they’re 27, 28 years old. Some of the best musicians have their best songs around that age too, but organizational, institutional leaders, often their very best contributions come much, much later in life. You’re in your prime. What’s still interesting you?

Doug Stamm: Besides being a radio talk show host, I would say I’m going deep into the equity work. I want to continue to go deeper, personally, and I’m absolutely committed to Oregon. I don’t know what that looks like, Jefferson. I want to be engaged in a meaningful way of civil service and community service and continue to bring my knowledge from both the nonprofit sector, private sector and now 15 years running one of the state’s largest philanthropies to be as great a benefit as possible. I don’t know how I’m going to reinvent myself but I’m looking forward to it.

Jefferson: We had a chat in by the way, a text in from a listener that I waited until now to ask. It says, “Doug regularly supports Candidates of Oregon. Now that he’s leaving Meyer, would he consider running for public office?” The question I have, what are you running for next?

Doug Stamm: I’m not making any commitment to running for office. I’m not-

Jefferson: Are you making any commitment not to?

Doug Stamm: I think that would be a long-shot for me.

Jefferson: Sure.

Doug Stamm: I just think I might be … I struggle with bureaucracies.

Jefferson: Yeah.

Doug Stamm: But I’m open to it.

Jefferson: I want to say, Doug Stamm, thank you such much for your service. I will say by way of disclosure that, like every nonprofit in the state, that this nonprofit and others are applying for grants right now, but just so you know the bookers had no idea of that when they booked this interview. Really appreciate you spending the time with us and, again, thank you for your service to the state and to the philanthropic community.

Doug Stamm: Thank you and to the folks at XRAY.