News

Putting Something in the Middle

Share this Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

When I read Doug’s announcement about leaving Meyer Memorial Trust at the end of this year, I asked if we might have a couple of conversations about the reflective practices he used to guide his work there. I had admired his leadership of the foundation as it became an early adopter of Mission Related Investments (MRIs) and, more recently, his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at Meyer. This first post is about Meyer’s entry into making MRIs nearly twelve years ago. Investing with a mission lens is a high bar for foundations to clear. There is resistance to it, for good and bad reasons. Doug overcame that resistance by using a reflective practice that is often called “putting something in the middle”—using a third object to help participants explore their assumptions at a deeper level than words. This is an unusual practice but it can be a useful one, especially with analytic people. –Jan Jaffe

Jan: We have some examples of philanthropy practitioners using images or poems or music lyrics to open up conversations. You used a newspaper.

Doug: Of course I didn’t know that I was doing something that had a conceptual frame at the time, but I wanted to move our long journey of exploring the possibility of MRIs to a decision and, frankly, I hoped for an affirmative one. At this point, we had two years of experience in making Program-Related Investments. We had structured a learning journey with key trustees to meet leaders in the thick of it and to attend conferences. We arranged for speakers at trustee meetings and regional forums. While the idea clearly had appeal, I was not getting their attention.

Jan: And it sounds like you were not sure what was getting between your enthusiasm and their noncommittal support. That must have been frustrating.

Doug: By the time I was bringing this to the foundation, MRIs were not a wild-hair concept. When I had discussed it with some of our investment managers, I received polite responses but no traction. Part of that I believe was that fact that I’m the president but not one of them. So everyone shakes their head, yes, but then gets on with the “real work.” Every 18 months or so we bring all our investment managers and trustees together for our “Investment Roundtable.” We had a roundtable coming up, and I wanted to figure out a way to open up this conversation between trustees and investment professionals. I wanted to almost shock them into a different kind of conversation to help the trustees get beyond any roadblocks.

Jan: I know you were a trial lawyer for 10 years. Did that experience shape what came next?

Doug: It might have made me more open to the idea of challenging the norm, as I had experienced the power of visualization with juries. I was talking to Marie Deatherage, who was our communications director at the time. This was before social media was so strong, and we were a one-newspaper state. I told her that I was struggling to drive home the point that MRIs were key to Meyer’s mission. She designed a draft of the Sunday Oregonian with a front-page headline—“Dark Clouds Over Good Works of Meyer Memorial Trust”—and stories going down two columns about Meyer investing in tobacco companies while trying to address second-hand smoke health problems for kids. There were photos of the trustees along with the CIO. She put it in a finished-looking format—the Sunday newspaper without all the stuffing.

Jan: Wow. Fake news before its time. That was a creative move by Marie.

Doug: Yes, and only three years into my tenure this could have been a career-jeopardizing move for me. I tested it on my chairman at the time, John Emrick, by saying, “I have to share something with you. I know the editor of the newspaper. They didn’t want to shock us so they are giving us a pre-publishing draft. Here it is.” John is a well-known environmentalist. He put his head down. “This is not good at all!” I told him, “It’s bad…but it is not real.” I told him the story. Then he said, “This is great!” And I asked for his support to distribute 30 copies at the upcoming roundtable. I distributed it during my opening remarks, saying what we hoped wouldn’t happen, is happening on Sunday. Mouths opened and people were stunned.

Jan: This form of storytelling feels very different than the earlier site visits and talks.

Doug: After the initial impact I was quick to come clean and say it wasn’t true! It opened up the conversation in a very different way than in the past. The report-outs that followed from our investment manager focused on returns but also how they were invested, and some discussed environmental, social and governance factors they applied around investing decisions. One of our international managers said his firm had recently decided to sign on to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment in order to mitigate risk in their portfolio. He helped lead the others in the room to affirming the possibility of doing MRIs at Meyer.

Jan: In addition to getting everyone’s attention, it sounds like the newspaper helped trustees and investment professionals see their way into a different kind of conversation about the cost of some of the orthodoxies or norms at work in the foundation without having to do a lot of explaining. I’ve seen this shift in conversation when trustees and staff have a chance to “get under the hood” of their portfolios to see how investments are rated against the UN Principles for Responsible Investment lens or some other affirmative investment filter. Whatever gets decided, putting something in the middle like that can spur a rich and meaningful conversation.

Doug: What I’ve learned is that when you are trying to introduce new concepts and bring people along, storytelling, visualizing and tapping into the emotional side of people is critical to getting to a good finished product.

(Doug and Jan will continue this conversation about reflective practices with a discussion of Meyer’s work tied to diversity, equity and inclusion in an upcoming blog post. Want to be notified when it’s posted? Sign up here.)