As a community foundation CEO for nearly 18 years, I have worked closely with my staff team, board, and investment advisors to weather sustainability challenges after two major economic downturns. All of us whose duty it is to gather and deploy charitable resources will remember feeling very cranky during the first decade of the 21st century!
Under such dramatic circumstances, it is tempting to hunker down and measure success (or failure) by counting financial assets. Whether or not they confess it, every community foundation has an asset goal—as much for esteem as for purchasing power. Our goal at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) was getting over the $500 million mark and staying there. We hit the mark once in 2007 and again in 2013.
But there’s a big problem lurking in this scenario. Defining and counting success this way will never be enough to support any community’s future vitality and prosperity. It is certainly not sufficient to meet the standard articulated by Community Wealth Partners of solving problems at the magnitude that they exist.
In an exchange both shocking and heartening, several GCF board members recently voiced extreme surprise—and frankly, concern—when they learned that our foundation distributes only $5 million per year in discretionary grants from endowed sources. (In fact, GCF typically also distributes $65 million annually in donor-directed and advised grants.) Yet at the same time, board members are incredibly proud of the foundation’s reputation as a go-to, “beyond the grant check” community leader. Our community influence is more visible and generates more leverage than our money.
So how might we explain this seeming disconnect? Perhaps intentional influence, which in my experience entails managing relationships and resources over which the foundation has no direct control, is more tangible and quantifiable than it appears at first blush.
I want to share a story that I believe is emblematic of the power of intentional influence and that is now embedded in our foundation’s narrative.
In 2001, I was still a relatively new CEO, enjoying the cushion of steady market growth and a honeymoon period when I felt free to pursue new ideas. While others may remember most clearly the tragic impact of 9/11 and the bursting dot-com bubble, it was April 7th that brought Cincinnati’s peaceful period to a close, with the police-shooting death of the 15th African-American male in five years.
The community erupted in protest. While the emergency phase of the situation was brief, quelled by the National Guard and other enforcement measures, addressing the underlying issues would take much longer. Almost immediately, the Department of Justice decided to investigate policing practices, adding weight to a lawsuit filed months earlier by the Cincinnati Black United Front and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Mayor Charlie Luken hastily convened a commission of business and civic leaders to start working on immediate police-community issues and deeper racial disparities. I was present for the photo op at City Hall. But then ... a deafening silence. No one called to ask GCF to be part of the problem-solving process, financial or otherwise. We were frankly devastated. After four years of hard work on stepping up our leadership efforts, we were not seen by the city or the by community as critical to the work of crafting solutions.
We had two options: freeze and retreat, or step up and act. We decided to lead, even though we weren’t sure what that would entail, so we chose to take swift action. In collaboration with our local United Way and a private foundation, GCF convened private, corporate, and individual funders to pool funds for quickly addressing the emergency situation.
That work was necessary, but not sufficient, given the magnitude of the challenge. Next GCF offered space and raised money to fund a small staff to coordinate the Mayor’s volunteer-led civic commission, Cincinnati Community Action Now. The commission’s work paralleled a court-ordered mediation process among City of Cincinnati, Fraternal Order of Police, and ACLU to negotiate a class-action remedy called the Collaborative Agreement. The centerpiece of both legal and civic efforts was consensus to use the evidence-based Community Problem-Oriented Policing (CPOP) strategy to help change the culture of how the Cincinnati Police Department engages with neighborhood residents to tackle crime. A new “partnering center” would be designed to teach neighborhood residents how to build a trusting relationship with the police to reduce crime, in conjunction with mandated reforms to policing practices.
This was a very big idea for Cincinnati, but the proposed partnering center had no natural home and no start-up capital. Sensing the very real possibility that this and other solutions could wither for lack of leadership and support, GCF formed Better Together Cincinnati, a collaborative effort among 15 corporate and private funders. We were clearly sitting at arm’s length from the work, but the initiative allowed us to use our collective influence and our funding to sustain the momentum and drive change.
Today, the partnering center is still in operation under the auspices of the Urban League, albeit at a much smaller scale. A recent Washington Post article written in the wake of similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, quoted Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell (the third chief since 2001): “The only way to build trust is to flip the police culture, putting social work ahead of law enforcement.” As a reminder, he carries a copy of the Collaborative Agreement, perhaps hoping to reinvigorate the police department to make better use of the infrastructure built a decade ago: training, performance incentives, and problem-solving tracking and accountability systems.
Our foundation wasn’t directly responsible for these changes, but through intentional influence, we played an important role. Credit rightly belongs to the many unlikely stakeholders we approached at other organizations. But we learned to step up early, support the toughest challenges (with evidence-based solutions whenever possible), and stick with the solution long enough to actually create and experience the desired results. The community came to recognize GCF as a leader willing to work outside of its comfort zone on challenging issues with no clear front-end pathway to success.
I should note that our influence was not just about the money we contributed and raised, however GCF has spent nearly $11.5 million of its own discretionary money and directly leveraged an additional $6.2 million for CPOP and related initiatives, including education, job creation, and workforce development.
Money matters indeed. But not as much as the power to convene and influence the collective behavior of others in a community. In coming together, people can solve problems at the magnitude they exist.