May 17th, 2012
June 19th, 2014
Funding Social Change in the South
May 20th, 2012
May 17th, 2012
My wealth was serendipitous from the beginning. In 1912, my father began delivering packages at age 12 for a small start-up company that became the United Parcel Service. He stayed with UPS most of his life, and when he died in 1964, left $250,000 to my mother and $250,000 to me. During the next thirty years UPS stock multiplied many times over, and in 1998, on my birthday, the stock went public and the share price jumped 150%. (THANKS DAD!!). Over the next few years, I gave away 2/3 of my inheritance, made major gifts to the family foundation I founded, set up significant trusts for my two children and 8 grandchildren, and still had several million dollars.
I had my first real thought about philanthropy in the early 1970s. I lived in Orlando FL, 30 minutes from farmworker labor camps, and I saw the God-awful conditions farmworkers lived in. I wanted to do something. I joined The League of Women Voters because they were studying farmworker issues. One day, driving by a field, I spotted a child about 8-9 years old picking vegetables. I called the FL Department of Labor, and was told, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, we have a 6 month backlog of child labor cases.”
Legislation without enforcement was apparently not helpful. I came across the United Farm Workers Union, led by farmworkers, the only organization I met that addressed the cause of the grave injustices suffered by farmworkers (abysmally low wages) by helping farmworkers build their power to win a living wage. Other well-intentioned churches and agencies concentrated on symptoms, like hunger and bad health. I spent the next decade as an organizer with the UFW and allied organizations and I learned a lot about the difference between charity and justice.
In 1984, I started the Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation with an initial investment of $400,000. Our focus was rural grassroots community organizing in fourteen southeastern states.
My United Farm Worker experience had taught me that it was important to address the cause, not just the symptoms of injustice (WHY are people hungry), and that the real expertise for solving community problems lies with a community’s own leaders; not with academic or large nonprofit institutions. So I invited community leaders and others from the same race and class as the groups we intended to fund to join my family foundation board. Community leaders shared their lived experience, giving us insights we could never have gotten any other way.
Our first ten years of grantmaking confirmed my UFW experience. Once more I saw that the real experts were grassroots community leaders with a history and vested interest in their community. Once more, I saw that community organizing is an important element in attaining lasting change.
In 1994, The Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation board invited eighteen carefully chosen grassroots community leaders from the rural south to explore their interest in forming a new grantmaking entity, which they would create and govern. They were stunned, but three meetings later they said yes.
During Southern Partners Fund's (SPF) four years of formation, we provided the container, a safe space for community leaders to build trust in themselves and in one another, and most importantly, build relationships that would stand the test of time.
In 1998, my dream came true. SPF founders signed incorporation papers in my living room. Together, they had drawn up their own bylaws and had developed a grantmaking program focused on community organizing in the rural south. In the process, they had created a revolutionary new philanthropic resource.
In 2010, after twenty-five wonderful years of grantmaking, the Bert and Mary Meyer Foundation closed. We had granted SPF over $12 million for grants, programs, and operations. We transferred our remaining $6 million to a donor advised fund at Miami Community Foundation designated for Southern Partners Fund. While IRS rules prohibited a direct transfer, all of our assets will be in SPF’s hands by December of 2012.
By choice, I hold no official role in SPF. I’ve tried to let go without leaving teeth marks. I have been willing to face the obstacles race and class can play in developing authentic and lasting relationships, thanks to the support I’ve received from Be Present Inc. and its founder Lillie Allen.
I feel really good about my decision to transfer my family foundation’s assets to Southern Partners Fund. Their board continues to demonstrate that grassroots community leaders have the capacity to manage a foundation and make effective funding decisions. They still face major fundraising hurdles in honoring their commitment to southern rural communities to be there for the long haul. Their only route to sustainability is strong individual donor support. I’m trying hard to help them attain that.
I still don’t have the ease and relaxed days I dreamed of. I rarely say no to organizations I care deeply about when they ask for assistance. But I enjoy my life immensely. I often think of my favorite quote from the author Morrie Schwartz:
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give love and to let it come in. Love is the only rational act.”