Adam Interviews Rochester Area Community Foundation CEO Jennifer Leonard

Adam Interviews

Leonard reflects on the changes in giving in Rochester of 3 decades

Jennifer Leonard moved to Rochester 28 years to make a difference.

She arrived with her family having accepted the job to lead the Rochester Area Community Foundation, which provides grants to charities.

In 1994, the foundation boasted $32 million in assets.

It’s now nearing $600 million.

Having overseen that massive growth and the resulting expansion in giving, Leonard has decided to retire next September.

She sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about her work and the foundation’s impact.

Adam Chodak: You have decided that in a year, you’ll be stepping aside from this role. Any reflections as you make this decision?

Jennifer Leonard: I have been incredibly fortunate to have this role in Rochester. I’m not from Rochester. I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to school in Boston and then lived all over the country, but I always cared about community and about the people who make it up. I took my first community foundation job in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and made grants as a program officer, became vice-president for grants. And then my husband left his job with the Los Angeles Times.

And we came back to the Philadelphia Inquirer and we were based south of Atlantic City in Ocean City, New Jersey. I had no foundations to work for there and I loved the work. So I consulted for five years to some of the largest and fastest growing community foundations in the country that allowed me to write and to become an expert in not just community foundations, but the nonprofit sphere in which they operate when we decided that we were going to move. I decided that I didn’t want to be a consultant for the rest of my life. I wanted to be invested in a community, be able to be part of the ways in which it made decisions. And you can’t do that if you’re the one coming in and visiting.

So I started to look for a job running a community foundation, and to be honest, Rochester was the third position I applied for. I didn’t get the other two. And frankly Rochester was the perfect fit because it was a community that was in a period of great change. And a lot of Rochester had a chip on their shoulder about losing the dynamism of the corporate history of Rochester, and they hadn’t figured out what needed to come next. It gave me a chance to suggest to the board who eventually hired me, that this could be a place that was had success for every citizen that we could be as a community foundation, a powerful tool for community betterment and a regional center for individual and family philanthropy, but a kind of philanthropy that includes everybody, from all walks of life.

Community foundations are literally the every person’s foundation. You can form your own fund, make grants from it to causes that you care about, but together the many donors in our community foundation. Now we have more than 1.500 funds. Those continue to benefit the community and to work together so that we have that powerful tool for community betterment is actually the expression of many different people’s generosity.

AC: What is the difference for folks who don’t know between a community foundation and a family foundation, which we often hear about.

JL: Sure, and there are many more family foundations in the United States by an order of magnitude then there are community foundations. Community foundations are actually public charities that serve a given geographic region. And we serve the eight counties of Greater Rochester. For example, a private foundation is maybe a family foundation, maybe a corporate foundation. It may even be independent like the Ford foundation where the family long ago gave over the administration to non-family members, but the most common private foundation is as you suggest a family foundation.

And that’s where people put money into a legal entity that has certain rules about its operation and they make grants from it. And typically they make grants in the areas of their interest. We are a substitute in many ways for that for a great number of people. We hold donor advised funds that people use in a similar way, but we also provide a significant staff, appropriate to a foundation that is now nearly $600 million in assets. And that staff provides information on community organizations on how to give in the community on how to be a philanthropist. So people can ignore the administration, we’ll take care of it. They can ignore the tax reporting. We take care of that too.

And at the same time, they can often get a better tax deduction for giving to us because we are a public charity under the law public charities are supported by many different people. Private foundations are supported by a family and individual, a couple, a company, a very narrow base. And so they are more tightly regulated than public charities. The presumption in a public charity is that your board is full of volunteers almost, and typically unpaid will oversee the entity and represent the interests of the public in that charities behavior for a private foundation. No one is watching the store except the family. So the IRS in the late sixties slapped some pretty definite rules on private foundations. They insisted that they publicize their grants. They avoid self-dealing, you know, no scholarships to your kids, but also watch out about scholarships to the kids of the family foundation next door.

And you had to report publicly and you had to pay an excise tax to the government, which galls people, as you can imagine. It’s kind of slippery slope so we work closely with private foundations to make change in the community as we do with corporate donors. One thing that’s important to know about Rochester and philanthropy is that when I came the community was very dependent on corporate giving the history of Eastman. Kodak was one of large corporate giving writ-large, and they would assemble what at one time was called the breakfast club of typically gentlemen at the Genesee Valley Club to decide how to support local projects and Kodak would lead and be followed by Xerox and Bausch + Lomb and other significant companies proportionate to their ability to give and their r willingness. That style of giving ended with the demise of the Big Three, or certainly that style of giving ended with the decline of the Big Three.

And I remember the day, our grantmaking passed that of Kodak in Rochester, that was not a good day for Rochester. It was a very difficult one. And what I saw as somebody from the outside was a fantastic community, a community full of parks and waterways and recreational opportunities that supported families. I met people who talked about their families in big cities that was verboten for business people. The fact that I had a three year old and an eight year old, when I came would have been nothing I could talk about. And there were still a lot of rooms where I was the only woman when I came, but as you know, things have changed a great deal in that way. And I’m proud to look around and see so many leaders who are women and our community and across the country. I went to a women’s college and I was a girl scout, top cookie salesperson, but it helped that my mother ran the cookie drive. And you know what, it actually helped a lot because when you go to a women’s college or women’s prep school, you look around and the only people making decisions are women.

So, you know, that’s the potential. It’s very important that we extend that kind of self-confidence to everyone be they immigrant or refugee or members of the African-American or Latinx communities. The fact is that people need to recognize their leadership. They need opportunities to be equally treated. And, in fact, more than equally treated at this point because of the history of discrimination has really put them in terrible positions. So this wonderful community, I mean, Rochester is great. My husband and I have stayed here. We had lived in countless places for our careers. We are so happy to be here and to be settled here, kids went through Brighton schools. It was great, but as we know, a few miles away, it is not so great. And the community foundation set about looking at those disparities through a new idea for our community called community indicators, website ACT Rochester, put the numbers that weren’t so chamber friendly out so that people understood that we had grave growing poverty at our core, following again, the decline of the Big Three companies that we had significant racial and ethnic disparities. You are three or four times more likely to live in poverty if you were Latinx or Black in our community.

And that is across our region. Monroe County is now 30% persons of color. If we don’t get it together and figure out how to bring equality and justice to all of the members of our community, we are missing out on our human capital. We are probably resigning our future as a vibrant community because the people in other parts of the United States do not want to move to a place with the kind of segregated living. We have the kind of unequal education that we have. Even the social discomforts that we have. So the community foundation has been working for 10 years to address racial equity. So long before George Floyd’s horrible murder, Daniel Prude’s murder, long before those we recognized from the numbers that ACT Rochester put forth, that we needed to put our focus on equity. We also invest in the community’s vitality through arts and culture, historical preservation, successful aging, and most recently, environmental justice and sustainability. We’ve reflect what our donors are interested in, but we also use discretionary dollars.

They have placed with us over the decades to improve the way in which Rochester works to make it up us to bring a new kind of success, not the old kind of success of corporate hierarchy, but really a vibrant community of businesses, guilt by many different people. We’ve invested in loan capital for city businesses helped get Kiva started in Rochester, helped start OWN Rochester, which is based on a Cleveland model of cooperative businesses. We believe that the talent is here and we need to lift it up and invest in it, particularly with the new federal and state dollars that are coming in to Rochester. So we’ve started to focus on an inclusive recovery, recovery that will allow for dollars to help people confirm that they have housing, get them decent jobs and decent pay, get them a better education system and make sure that we address the trauma, the trauma, not just of the pandemic, but of growing up poor in Rochester.

AC: Nowhere, it appears to me, is your mission of equality more prominent than in your call to help out after the pandemic hit, through the crisis fund. And afterwards, have you seen any impact or what would we have seen perhaps that would have been worse had that focus not been there?

JL: We were gratified to see that the non-profits on the front lines were able to keep going, to help their own people work and keep going in the face of extraordinary demands for service. We provided additional support for how to apply for PPP loans, which would allow the nonprofits to add to their fiscal stability, which is never good in the best of times. And the answer is that that support fabric was stronger than it would have been without the community crisis fund across health, education, food. There was a huge investment in food supplies because the use of food pantries across the region was so great. And the childcare system actually held it together through some of the pandemic for the essential workers who still needed it.

We’re really seeing some challenges now because the State of New York was slow getting childcare dollars out. And it is a place where the workers earn less than many other professions, and yet they are entrusted with our children, our most precious treasure. So that needs to be changed. That’s a huge coming crisis, but there were dollars for some of that during the pandemic because of the community crisis fund. The other important result from the community crisis fund is a little bit like intel inside the funder community in Rochester,. It came together to provide a lot of that, nearly $7 million in donations.

And they also met four afternoons a week to receive and grant applications for grants that built a very tight, strong partnership that continues today. And we look at problems together in a new way. And when I think of this, I reflect back on the breakfast club, the CEOs who made grants in the community, and I realized that foundations in some ways have stepped up. There are newer foundations, bigger foundations than there used to be. They are replacing what the corporate giving used to do. Although thank goodness, there are many good corporate donors now. And one of our members is the ESL Charitable Foundation. And one of our most generous ones. So the world of philanthropy has shifted in Rochester, the opportunity for people to give philanthropically themselves, to put their name on a fund for giving, to give in the community and to work with others, to give in the community through our foundation has grown in the same 30 years.

So I feel gratified looking back that I could be part of that, I could bring ideas, but also learn from so many others, strong board, many strong volunteers and the community, and very frankly, a supportive family. It’s all been about all of us working together for positive change in Rochester. And that’s our mission. Our mission is to empower both donors and community partners to strengthen this region through philanthropy. It’s very straightforward. We’re trying to make philanthropy a household word, even though it is hard to pronounce as the youth in Michigan taught me hard to pronounce, but fun to do. And so we even have a youth as resources effort that the county, that we helps young people give to other young people’s projects. So part of it is learning about community needs.

We have giving circles that get together and study the community and then give to issues that affect women’s economics or the gay and lesbian community or young people or the Black community. It’s a way to sort of get on the philanthropy bandwagon and also be social. So we’ve had to innovate. There are a lot of out alternatives for people out there in giving we partner with our friends of the United Way and many other nonprofits, because we all are necessary to support and advance this community.

We would not be the same place if it weren’t for some of the investments that George Eastman made in creating strong organizations, from the Center for Governmental Research to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Eastman Dental clinic, and frankly, every successive generation has been part of the story of Rochester. It’s our time to rewrite it together with the voices of the people who are closest to the pain. And that’s the work that we’re all learning how to do and learning from each other about.

Full interview

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