The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 12, 2021 1:00 am

Almost 100, Community Foundation stepping up

Using its $200 million to fill more active leadership role

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

The Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne is navigating a significant mission shift as it prepares to celebrate its centennial.

Known for managing endowment funds and making grants, the foundation's staff had been comfortable keeping a low profile. But the 99-year-old nonprofit's board decided in 2014 to take a more active role in community affairs.

The transition didn't happen overnight or without conflict, but supporters say the growing pains have been worth it because they've led to a recent flurry of activity. The Community Foundation surpassed $200 million in assets under management this year, a milestone that surprised and pleased Heather Schoegler, the board's chairwoman since May.

“To me, it really signifies the trust that the community has in the foundation,” she said last week.

The foundation's recent work includes a focus on entrepreneurship, access to education and access to health care. Results from a local entrepreneurship study will be presented to board members on Sept. 21, Schoegler said. Those new initiatives will build on recently launched foundation programs that promote equity for women and children.

Foundation leaders see the refashioned organization as a convener – the one bringing others to the table to tackle pressing issues. Their approach includes reviewing local needs, looking for opportunities and finding innovative solutions.

And, by making the foundation's work more public, they hope to confer a seal of approval on various projects they deem worthy of support.

Stepping forward

The old way of doing foundation business involved awarding grants to local nonprofits that requested money to support established efforts. The organization didn't take risks by backing unproven programs.

But that stance changed during downtown Fort Wayne's renaissance, which was ignited by Parkview Field's overwhelming success.

Two foundation board members traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, in 2014 for a city visit organized by Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Don Steininger and Irene Walters walked away impressed by the work of the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation and then-executive director Kristi Knous.

“We saw out there someone who would convene all the various interests and make something happen,” Steininger last week. “Then we said, 'How do we take that magic and transform it to Fort Wayne?' ”

After taking more community leaders for a second Des Moines visit and bringing Knous here for a public presentation, foundation board members decided to embrace more of a leadership role.

The Community Foundation has given early-stage grants or loans in recent years to support The Landing, riverfront development and Electric Works projects.

The $34 million redevelopment of The Landing wouldn't have happened without the foundation's support, said Mike Cahill, who chaired the foundation's board until May.

The foundation lent money to the Downtown Development Trust when its members decided to buy West Columbia Street properties until it had enough to propel a complete makeover of the historic entertainment and dining district. The properties were then sold to the developer.

The Summit Initiatives Foundation, which operated under the Community Foundation's umbrella, leveraged a $2 million Lilly Endowment grant to raise an additional $2 million for the riverfront project, said Steininger, former head of Summit Initiatives. That $4 million was the first money raised toward riverfront development, he said.

The three-phase, $100 million project so far has produced Promenade Park with a tree top canopy trail, playgrounds and an amphitheater.

Controversial topics

David Bennett, who led the local foundation for 22 years, retired from the job in December 2017. His departure coincided with the board's change of direction.

Brad Little, president and CEO, stepped into the position in January 2018 with a mandate to carry out the foundation's revised mission.

Just how big the revision was is a matter of opinion. Former board member Jonathan Hancock said it wasn't a dramatic shift.

“I would say it was sort of evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” he said last week.

Either way, Little was at the helm when an endorsement request came from RTM Ventures, developers of Electric Works. Although riverfront development and The Landing projects were widely supported, the team heading the mixed-use redevelopment of the former General Electric campus had its skeptics, including Steininger and Mayor Tom Henry.

Board members heard a presentation from the developers, followed that up with emailed questions and then engaged in a lively closed-door discussion. The final vote count isn't available, but one former board member described it as maybe two-thirds in favor and one-third against.

Despite the split decision, several members interviewed for this story said every board member should support the majority view once the vote has been taken.

Steininger wasn't afraid to voice his objections, however.

“The thing that concerned me most during that time ... the Community Foundation had never before been involved in controversial issues,” he said. “I think that's a role for private foundations. I don't think that's a role for community foundations.”

Hancock participated in those discussions.

“I don't think it was ever our intention to do anything controversial, but to support a project that would benefit the city,” he said.

Ben Miles, a former board member who was also at the table, said it makes sense for the foundation to wade into controversial waters – sometimes.

“I think, at times, organizations have to confront these issues,” he said, adding it can present an opportunity to bring the community together. “It really depends on what the topic is.”

'A few bruises' 

Some former board members say Little came into the position expecting volunteer board members to act more as advisers than deciders.

Other current and former board members, including Schoegler and Walters, disagreed with that description. They experienced a smoother transition but said they weren't on the executive committee at that time.

Cahill spent two years as vice chairman then one year as board chairman. Although he could have stayed on for a second year and then a year as immediate past chairman, he chose to leave the board in May. He described himself as tired.

“We got some really big things done, which was great, but it took a lot of effort,” he said, emphasizing the words “a lot.”

Cahill said there were “a few bruises and hurt feelings” as Little and the board learned to work together.

“Everybody wants change until it happens to them,” he added.

Cahill's advice might have fueled some of the rough adjustment. He told Little that it was better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Cahill instructed Little to feel free to make 1,000 mistakes – as long as they were different mistakes.

Cahill said Little has settled into the position with relatively little upset.

“We had a few yanks on the chain,” he said. “But that's to be expected.”

Back to business  

Little spent 2018 on a local listening tour to learn more about the community, its nonprofits and its players. The board instructed him to get to know donors, nonprofits and grantees.

Not all community foundations have enough staff to allow their director to do that, Little said. He praised the strong organization Bennett built and the experienced employees who allow him to spend so much time away from the office.

Since moving to town, Little has joined numerous organizations, including Greater Fort Wayne's board; the city's Riverfront Advisory Committee; the Regional Opportunity Council, part of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership; the United Way's Emergency Relief Fund Committee; and Black Chamber Fort Wayne's board.

In 2019, the Community Foundation created a vision plan – a full-year process that included more than 300 community members.

“When (board members) adopted the vision plan in November 2019, that's when I felt like we were really rocking and rolling,” Little said.

Just when it felt like the Community Foundation had turned a corner, the coronavirus pandemic hit, he said. In March 2020, the Community Foundation quickly issued a $50,000 check to the United Way to help meet urgent needs.

In late 2020, after vaccines were becoming available, the foundation's board decided it was time to take the vision plan off the shelf, Little said. Since then, the organization has launched the Women's Fund and the Children's Health Collaborative.

Little said the Community Foundation has the opportunity to educate donors about needs in the community and gaps in response.

He cited three priorities printed on the organization's business cards. The foundation helps donors “make their charitable giving more impactful,” connects funding to “effective nonprofits through grantmaking” and provides leadership “to address community needs and improve quality of life.”

“We're still moving forward,” he added.

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