In 2003, philanthropic organizations in Northeastern Ohio realized that they needed to do more. Rather than simply focusing on programmatic missions, a group of organizations came together to create the Fund for Our Economic Future. The Fund is a group of regional philanthropies that focus on economic development in addition to philanthropy. Backed by big names like the Knight Foundation, and smaller Ohio philanthropies,the Fund has been able to move Northeastern Ohio toward transformational economic change. Today, the Fund, with support from Knight released a new report which highlights some lessons learned and offers advice for other states looking to replicate the Fund’s efforts.
“Philanthropy is used to going its own way, and doesn’t typically work on economic development , and doesn’t work regionally, but there was a clear sense we weren’t going to be able to move forward without doing that,” Brad Whitehead, President of the Fund, tells CivSource. The Fund includes representatives from philanthropy, academia,business, local government, and local businesses with the goal of being representative of the local economy as a whole.
“We wanted to work on things that matter, and we understood that everything in the region is connected. We really wanted to focus on transformational change, that was integrated and could take the economy from point A to point B.”
So far, Funders have pooled more than $90 million and invested more through individual economic development grants, including $141 million in grants over 2001-12. Additionally, the Fund has helped the region attract more than $100 million in federal and state support. The report highlights some of these individual cases including a government efficiency project privately supported by the fund, that became a state backed initiative to improve all local governments in Ohio, after proving concept.
Knight came to the fund through its own history as an organization originating in Ohio, explains Jon Sotsky, Director of Strategy and Assessment at Knight. “Our involvement is grounded in place, but our goal is also to help develop these strategies and make them replicable. Much of the work done here fits in with broader civic themes Knight is involved in nationwide,” he says.
Even for all of its successes Whitehead notes in the interview and the report, there is still work to be done. “We’ve faced challenges on issues like land use,” he says. “We know our land use policies haven’t been the best but voters and other interests have a direct hand in how those play out. We are trying to educate the public on how the economic destiny of someone in Akron is tied to Cleveland, and the whole region. There are hundreds of local governments here, we know we are engaged in a decades long process. So we also have to collaborate on how to sustain these efforts. We want to focus on real results, there is always a danger that collaboration falls into co-blab-oration with too much talking and not enough action.”