Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer created the Meyer Foundation in 1944 with a broad charter that was appropriate given their wide-ranging interests and eclectic lives.
The son of immigrant parents, Eugene Meyer (1875-1959) grew up in California and moved with his family to New York in 1893. At age 25, he established his own brokerage firm, and had made a fortune as an investment banker by the time he married Agnes Ernst in 1910 at age 34.
Mr. Meyer went on to be a public servant under seven U.S. presidents, holding positions that included head of the War Finance Corporation, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and founding president of the World Bank. In 1933, he purchased the Washington Post, serving as publisher and then chairman of the board until his death.
Agnes Ernst Meyer (1887-1970), whose parents were also first-generation immigrants, was an accomplished journalist, literary translator, author, and activist. Her investigative journalism on the public school systems in Washington, DC, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, highlighted the inequities of segregation well before the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation illegal. A graduate of Sorbonne, Mrs. Meyer also had a deep passion for the arts and was herself a dedicated collector. She was active in the founding of the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC, bequeathing many of her own pieces to the museum's collection.
As a citizen activist, Mrs. Meyer was a relentless advocate for numerous causes, including public education. President Lyndon Johnson credited her for helping to build the climate of public opinion that led to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which for the first time targeted federal assistance to school districts that served children from low-income families.
An Independent Foundation
Although the Meyers created the Foundation to support their own philanthropic interests, in 1950 they both stepped away after appointing an independent five-member board of business and civic leaders to guide the Foundation’s work.
Under the leadership of Davidson Sommers, who chaired the Meyer Foundation’s board for the next 23 years, the Foundation decided to make grants in a broad range of program areas, with a focus on strengthening Washington, DC and the surrounding communities. James Kunen, who was hired in 1955 as the Foundation's first employee, led Meyer's professional staff for nearly three decades and had a profound influence on the Foundation’s development. Mr. Kunen was known for his accessibility, his informal style, his listening skills, and his commitment to supporting leaders with energy and vision. Together, Dave Sommers and Jim Kunen established the values and tone that continue to characterize the Meyer Foundation’s work today.
Creating Institutions, Building Community
Beginning in the 1950s, the Meyer Foundation played a key role in creating civic, social, and cultural institutions as Washington grew from a small southern city to a thriving metropolitan region. In its early years, the Foundation began a long tradition of being an early supporter of visionary leaders as they developed innovative responses to emerging community needs.
Through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the Foundation provided funding for research, facilities construction, demonstration projects, and the development of new organizations as the Washington region faced the challenges of rapid growth and changing demographics, racial inequity, urban poverty, and insufficient government support for critical needs. The Foundation also helped lay the groundwork for a burgeoning arts community that would later revitalize neighborhoods and establish the region as a leading center for arts and culture.
Breaking the Cycle of Poverty
Following Jim Kunen’s retirement in 1982, the board selected James O. Gibson as Meyer's second president. A former assistant city administrator for planning and development in the District of Columbia, Mr. Gibson came to the Foundation with a background in urban social policy and civil rights. In the wake of government funding cuts in the early 1980s, the Foundation became increasingly concerned with chronic, intergenerational poverty, commissioning research and convening business and government leaders to develop solutions. Mr. Gibson’s innovative work attracted national attention, and in December 1985 he left Meyer to become director of a national initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at addressing chronic poverty in five cities, including Washington.
Expanding the Work, Maintaining our Values
Julie L. Rogers, a former public school teacher and staff director of the DC City Council’s Committee on Human Services, became the foundation’s third chief executive in 1986. During her tenure, the Foundation has seen an unprecedented growth in its endowment—from less than $50 million in 1986 to more than $210 million in 2013. During that same time period, the Foundation awarded more than $150 million in grants.
Under Ms. Rogers’ stewardship, the Foundation maintained the values established by her predecessors: listening carefully to the community, supporting effective leaders, making strategic and timely investments that leverage other funds, and maintaining the flexibility to adapt to emerging community needs. In 1987, Meyer responded to the growing AIDS crisis by leveraging funds from the Ford Foundation and for the first time formally collaborating with other local foundations to create what would become the Washington AIDS Partnership.
Strengthening our Nonprofit Community
Recognizing the need for greater collaboration in the region’s growing philanthropic community, Ms. Rogers also led the creation of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in 1992, and the Community Development Support Collaborative, a collaboration of more than 30 funders focused on the development of affordable housing, in 1993.
In 1994, the Foundation celebrated its 50th anniversary by launching the Nonprofit Sector Advancement Fund, a three-pronged, million-dollar initiative aimed at building the management capacity of grantees, providing emergency loan funds for organizations experiencing temporary cash flow problems, and making grants to strengthen and promote the region’s nonprofit sector.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon, the Meyer Foundation and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Area activated and led the philanthropic community response. Meyer led the newly created Community Capacity Fund at the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, directing an outpouring of national funds—including a $1.2 million gift from the Ford Foundation—to strengthen the ability of local nonprofits to serve people who lost jobs due to the severe economic downturn affecting tourism and other industries.
In 2001, 2006, and 2011, Meyer partnered with CompassPoint, a leading nonprofit consulting firm, to conduct national research on the challenges and professional development needs of nonprofit executive directors. The reports on this research, published under the title “Daring to Lead,” drew national and regional attention to the importance of supporting and sustaining nonprofit executives. Following the publication of the 2006 edition of Daring to Lead, Meyer created the Exponent Award to support outstanding executive directors of grantee organizations.
Meyer’s grantmaking and other programs are guided by a diverse board of directors, comprised of local business and civic leaders. In 2010, the board approved a new mission statement and strategic framework that focuses on lasting positive change for low-income people, and champions the region’s nonprofit sector and its leaders.