Red State, Blue Causes: The Local Foundation Pursuing an Equity Agenda in Ohio

 bobby20/shutterstock

bobby20/shutterstock

A foundation committed to Cleveland recently put $4 million toward encouraging inclusive, equitable economic growth in northeastern Ohio. The funder also distributed about $10 million in additional grants to support work on climate change, criminal justice reform, equity in the arts, education and LGBTQ communities in the region.

The George Gund Foundation’s recent grants cover a range of organizations and causes, but they share a focus on equity and inclusion. It’s a progressive agenda in a state that’s increasingly leaning right when it comes to state and national elections. The foundation’s grantmaking is also an example of local funders working to reduce inequality at a moment when Washington has put this issue on the backburner—or made the problem worse through actions like last year’s tax cut for corporations and the wealthy.

With assets around $300 million, the Gund Foundation has long been a powerhouse when it comes to funding nonprofits in Cleveland and the surrounding region. It was endowed by George Gund II, who passed away in 1966 and left his fortune to his namesake foundation. Gund was a banker and real estate investor who spend most of his life in Cleveland.

Since Gund’s death, his foundation has carved out a niche for itself as big supporter of Cleveland’s nonprofits. The foundation’s giving typically focuses on arts, education, economic development, the environment and human services. Much of the funding stays in Cleveland, though the Gund Foundation is known for its support of national efforts to combat climate change.

Like many funders these days, Gund has been alarmed by the current state of American politics. Spurred by the 2016 election, the foundation gave more than $1 million last year to civic organizing and advocacy organizations in the Cleveland area. The goal was to boost civic participation, especially among historically underrepresented groups.

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This latest round of grants is more in line with Gund’s traditional priorities, though they echo the emphasis on equity of last year’s civic gifts.

The big winner in this latest round of giving is the Fund for Our Economic Future, a local funder collaborative focused on advancing economic opportunity in Northeast Ohio. The $4 million gift isn’t the first the funder has given in support of the group.

The $4 million, three-year grant will support the collaborative’s goals to advance economic development in the region through job creation, preparation and access—three priorities laid out in the group’s Two Tomorrows report released last year.

In the report, the fund also set a goal to push for more inclusion in economic growth. The authors point out that white workers earned $1,700 more a month on average than black workers in 2016. That number is up from 2013. Without addressing that gap, the Fund for Our Economic Future’s work will fall short of its promises.

This emphasis on equity and inclusion runs through several of the recent grants from Gund.

A $150,000 grant will fund general operating costs of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. The center pushes for reforms to make the state criminal justice system more equitable and just, along with smaller and smarter.

College Now Greater Cleveland, a nonprofit that provides higher education support for graduates of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, received a $75,000 grant. The money will support scholarships, counseling to demystify enrolling in college and applying for financial aid, and mentoring for kids with scholarships to make sure they graduate.

Of the $14.2 million in total grants this round, $300,000 will fund construction of a new, environmentally friendly center for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Greater Cleveland. The foundation said the new building in the city’s art district will be a “visible and tangible symbol of hope, pride and equity” for the city’s LGBTQ community. Another grant of  $45,500 will fund Twelve Literary Arts, a nonprofit that provides a space to encourage the work of adult writers and artists of color.

As mentioned earlier, Gund is a big supporter of environmental causes and its national gifts often support the fight against climate change. In this round of grants, the funder will support climate change efforts on a city level, too. A $30,000 grant to the City Club of Ohio will sponsor a year-long program that highlights the role the state played in the history of the environmental movement. The program will tie that history to Ohio’s present environmental challenges, like restoring the Great Lakes.

Recent years have been tough for progressives in Ohio, with the state swinging the 2016 election to Donald Trump, and the GOP controlling both the governorship and state legislature. But thanks to support from Gund and other funders, including some national foundations, efforts to advance equity and inclusion in the state keep moving forward. Gund’s economic opportunity funding is also part of a larger story about philanthropy’s efforts to find a new path to shared prosperity in the Rust Belt, a region that’s struggled mightily in recent decades—with major consequences for American political life.

Related: Bypassed: How Philanthropy Forgot About the White Working Class