$2.3 Billion is Plenty, A Response to the Cleveland Foundation's Conservative Grantmaking

click to enlarge Rendering of the Cleveland Foundation's proposed new headquarters in Midtown. - CLEVELAND FOUNDATION / S9 ARCHITECTURE
Cleveland Foundation / S9 Architecture
Rendering of the Cleveland Foundation's proposed new headquarters in Midtown.

In a guest column published by cleveland.com August 11th, I argued that the Cleveland Foundation could be doing much more to address the problems of this city. Specifically, by raising its payout rate, the foundation could increase its annual grant-making by tens of millions of dollars.

Cleveland Scene, in a follow-up piece, sought comment from the Cleveland Foundation. A spokesperson responded, neither denying that the foundation could raise its payout rate nor acknowledging the needs I had pointed to, needs which I believe it is unconscionable to ignore.

Nearly 49 percent of Cleveland's children are growing up in poverty, the highest percentage among large cities in the country. Darren McGarvey, who survived drug and alcohol abuse growing up in Britain's underclass, writes in Poverty Safari (2017) that "emotional stress" is one of the most overlooked yet consequential aspects of poverty.

"Stress is often the engine room that fuels the lifestyle choices and behaviours that can lead to poor diet, addictions, mental health issues and chronic health conditions," he writes. 

What is the future of a city when half its kids live with stress at the core of their being? Yet not a word from the foundation spokesperson acknowledged the damning facts of child poverty in Cleveland.

Instead, the foundation touted its "sound fiscal management" as illustrated by a spending policy that has remained at 5 percent for decades. Doubtless this conservative policy has helped the foundation build assets which now surpass all but 7 of the 250 community foundations surveyed by CF Insights in 2018.

Since 1914, the Cleveland Foundation's asset trajectory has moved ever upward into the billions. How do you convey the immensity of billions of dollars? If you spent $1 million per day, it would take 2,300 days—more than 6 years—to spend $2.3 billion, the assets of The Cleveland Foundation. This prompts the question: When will its board of directors conclude its assets are enough to do more? A one percent increase in Cleveland's payout rate would add more than $20 million to address the city’s challenges, which Chris Quinn, editor of cleveland.com, described in an editorial a few days ago.

"Everybody involved knows absolutely that if Cleveland does not map out a future that offers lift for all, including populations that always have been left behind, we are doomed," he wrote. 

In fact, the Cleveland Foundation's board might reevaluate its mission statement: "to enhance the lives of all residents of Greater Cleveland, now and for generations to come, by working together with our donors to build community endowment, address needs through grantmaking, and provide leadership on key community issues."

At $2.3 billion, a sufficient "community endowment" has been built. To "enhance lives" and "address needs" are phrases vague to the point of meaninglessness. To "provide leadership on key community issues"? I thought a democracy provided elections for that.

Consider the original mission Fred Goff advocated: funding "such charitable purposes as will best make for the mental, moral, and physical improvement of the inhabitants of Cleveland." What would past donors say about the decision some years ago to rewrite—and essentially erase—the mission as Goff conceived it? One hundred years ago, Goff came closer to pointing the Cleveland Foundation toward the goal of social justice than the mission that appears on its website today.

Increasingly, social justice has become the mission of community foundations across the country. Take the East Bay Community Foundation’s statement: "We partner with donors, social movements, and the community to eliminate structural barriers, advance racial equity, and transform political, social, and economic outcomes for all who call the East Bay home." It would be breathtaking if Cleveland was the focus of such an idealistic mission. Has there been a greater need for such a goal?

One thing is certain. The Cleveland Foundation unquestionably has the economic resources to play a much greater role in funding collaborative programming aimed at the suffocating generational poverty that threatens this city’s future.

Paul Springstubb is a retired Shaker Heights High School teacher.

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