West Marin has lost one of its most beloved residents, Michael Mery. His many efforts helped make his community a better place, and his work in establishing West Marin Fund, our region’s own community foundation, stands out. Given the steady success of the fund today, it’s easy to forget that when it was first founded, there were many skeptics: Word spread quickly that another organization was coming to town that could compete with the existing 70-plus community organizations and initiatives that play such an important role in serving our unincorporated area.
Michael was part of the founding group that met weekly for two years, from 2011 to 2013, to counter these fears, forge a vision and define the work of a community foundation on the coast. Many issues the group discussed were complex: how to have a grantmaking program that was open to all local nonprofits; whether to have donor-advised funds; how to raise money without harming the efforts of other nonprofits; and how to create a board and advisory council representative of the region. Michael contributed to these discussions in a measured and thoughtful way.
“If Michael had been a politician, and I suppose in some sense he was, he would be remembered for ‘reaching across the aisle,’” said Suzanne Speh, one of the fund’s founding board directors. “Michael never shied away from becoming involved in contentious or controversial issues. He understood the many diverse opinions and currents which ran through the community and respected and addressed all of them, never discounting or diminishing anyone’s views, no matter how far they were from his own.”
Michael brought deep insight and longstanding connections to the fund. His family ran the Inverness post office, and he attended local schools. As a boy growing up in the 1940s and early ’50s, he walked miles and miles across the lands west of Tomales Bay before they became part of the national seashore. It was the land and a deep sense of community, as well as the need to care for his mother, that brought him back to West Marin after working on the East Coast.
“No one I had met had such deep roots and knowledge of our community as Michael,” said Steve Costa, co-founder of West Marin Fund. “He continually offered his vision, passion and compassion for the improvement of this community… He envisioned how the fund could serve the community, offered solid, sensitive and sensible insights that were always grounded in his deep knowledge of the community, and he consistently provided generous financial support to the fund. I had tremendous respect for Michael, and it was such a gift and honor to have known him.”
Michael played a critical role in developing two programs that are core to the fund: its community grants program and the Giving Through Youth program. The community grants program began in March 2013 when the fund made its first round of grants totaling more than $57,000 to 28 nonprofit organizations in West Marin. Grants ranging from $600 to $4,000 helped local nonprofits fundraise through improved websites, social media, donor management databases, training and other creative projects. Since that first, introductory round, the fund has given out over $2.8 million, building on the base that Michael helped establish.
Michael served on the grants review committee for six years, diligently reviewing every application, determined to give every organization a fair chance. This was Michael’s great passion: bringing together his knowledge of the community and the efforts of nonprofits, to serve the place he loved effectively. He drew on his experience and political analysis of rural communities and their struggles for economic and social justice in other parts of the world, particularly Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, where he visited community organizations on behalf of International Development Exchange, or IDEX. He made global connections at the grassroots level, understood the power of solidarity and social movements, and believed in democratic community processes.
Michael was also passionate about the fund’s Giving Through Youth program, which enables students and teachers in West Marin schools to research and recommend local nonprofits for grants. Michael was on the program’s steering committee. He attended the award ceremonies and listened intently as the students presented their research findings and recommendations. As a generous donor himself with working-class rural roots, he understood the meaning of fostering philanthropy among young people.
Harriet Moss, the current board chair and a founding director of West Marin Fund, recalled that Michael “was a walking reference book on who was who, who their parents were, what they were involved in, et cetera. I completely trusted Michael’s sense of justice—what was right and what was wrong—and his intense desire to do the right thing in any situation. He cared deeply about people and things and about making the world a better and fairer place. He brought exceptional ethical values to our community and to West Marin Fund and we will miss him deeply.”
Sarah Hobson, the executive director of West Marin Fund, met Michael and Connie Mery in 1999 through and rural community work in South Asia. For more information about the fund and its programs, visit westmarinfund.org.