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A Foundation Center 50th Anniversary Feature:

Five Questions about Economic Development Grantmaking for Four Ohio Community Foundation Leaders

In celebration of the Foundation Center's 50th year of service to the nonprofit and philanthropic community, we are offering special programs, events, and online features throughout the year. The Foundation Center—Cleveland is pleased to present the following interview, the third in a series with leaders of four Ohio community foundations.

50 YearsAligning community and philanthropic resources with initiatives and activities relating to the economic vibrancy of Northeast Ohio is currently of high interest to funders, government agencies, and organizations located throughout the region. One funding coalition in particular, The Fund for Our Economic Future, includes several community foundations among its many partner organizations that are devoting time and resources to economic development. To find out what's on their minds, the Foundation Center—Cleveland asked representative leaders from those four foundations the same five questions about their economic development work.

Jody BaconOur third interview is with Jody Bacon, President, Akron Community Foundation.

Foundation Center (FC): How do you define economic development and what is your strategy for making grants in this area?

Jody Bacon (JB): We define economic development as the beneficial financial and human impact a grant will have on the community, best gauged through a series of questions. Will the purpose of the grant bring new dollars to the area? Will it sustain its impact, or is it temporary? Will the grant provide new or expanded opportunity for employment, or will the grant provide training for new skills to meet the demand of an expanding market? Will there be general improvement of services to the community? Does it contribute to a larger plan of creating or maintaining economic vibrancy? So, for example, in Akron, we would look at whether the grant is working toward maintaining downtown as a desirable place to live and conduct business.

FC: How does your foundation's work in economic development fit within the more traditional silos of grantmaking by program area, such as arts and culture, human services, civic affairs, etc.?

In essence we look at every grant request to see if it will have a measurable impact on an area or population.

JB: We look at economic development from a broad perspective. The concept of “economic development” crosses all categories. We try to assess what the total impact of the organization and the grant will be on the overall community. In essence we look at every grant request to see if it will have a measurable impact on an area or population. Will jobs be create or expanded? Will new people come into the area? Will under-served populations be impacted? Will new tourist dollars flow into the local economy? Almost all of our grantmaking has some impact on the economy regardless of its category, although the timeframe of impact will vary dramatically.

FC: What impact do you want your economic development grants to have? What does success look like?

It’s important for nonprofits to understand that almost any mission of bettering the community will have a positive economic impact on at least some small part of the population....

JB: We certainly hope that the impact the grant makes lives up to the proposal that is submitted! Our goal is to maintain and improve the quality of life in Summit County, so that would be the lens we would use to evaluate impact. For example, the “success” of the recent grant that we made to the capital campaign of the Akron Art Museum will be measured in the number of new visitors, both local and regional. Local residents might be most impacted by the “arts and culture” aspect of seriously expanding their museum; visitors from outside Summit County will bring dollars that might not have otherwise reached into our economy, and downtown Akron greatly benefits by the physical presence itself, contributing to maintaining a vibrant, urban downtown.

FC: How are your economic development grantees measuring their success?

JB: It depends on the grantee and the purpose of the grant. Some are easy because success can be measured in increased numbers. Some grants present opportunity—educational opportunity being a good example—and these require a long-term view. That’s much more difficult to measure.

FC: In your opinion, how can any type of nonprofit contribute to the region's economic development goals?

JB: Every nonprofit organization has an impact on its community. At minimum, it employs people who earn money and spend it. However, most organizations have a mission statement that reflects intent on bettering the community in some way, and the most successful organizations follow those missions. It’s important for nonprofits to understand that almost any mission of bettering the community will have a positive economic impact on at least some small part of the population, typically through some type of programmatic function. For example, if the organization’s programs are largely educational in nature, people who participate will acquire new skills that could translate into a contribution to economic development as it opens up new employment opportunities.
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