The Cleveland Foundation: Turning Passion into Purpose

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For Community Service month of April 2014, we teamed up with the Cleveland Foundation's HR Director, Monica Brown, and the HR Manager, Danielle Hanna. In the following pages, they share why community service initiatives and programs are so important at organizations, how the Foundation is celebrating its centennial year with community gifts, and how they've turned their life's passion into purposeful work as an HR leader.

100 Years of Service

As the world's very first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation has a lot to celebrate in its 100th year of existence - a celebration truly on a local, regional, national, and even international scale. Monica states:

"Our centennial is a huge milestone for the Cleveland Foundation, and also for the community, because we're celebrating the birth of the community foundation field. For our staff, it's a great opportunity to celebrate along with the community, and really feel connected with the work we do."

With 2014 being an exciting year for the Foundation, Monica & Danielle comment on the strong focus of past, present, and future. Along with looking back at what's been accomplished, who's been involved, and the progress that's been made over the past 100 years, the Foundation's leadership team is looking at current initiatives and aiming to position itself as they turn toward Cleveland's future.

Leading Change with Purpose

Both Monica & Danielle feel an intense sense of pride in their work - something that's evident not just in these women but throughout the staff. They emphasize that staff are valued at all levels - and Monica adds that no matter the position at the Foundation, staff members are giving back in some way to the community through their work. Danielle agrees:

"Working here feels like a gift - it's fulfilling on both a personal and a professional level. I've always believed that you want the time you invest in your work to mean something and to be bigger than yourself. The time I'm investing in the Cleveland Foundation is translating into really fantastic & purposeful work."

The Foundation's mission and vision match Monica & Danielle's core set of values. They observe that this alignment makes it easier for staff to integrate those organizational and personal values into their daily interactions and into their partnerships within the community.

A Year of Community Gifts

Danielle states:

"The Cleveland Foundation really considers itself an extension of the community, so to celebrate with the Cleveland community just really made sense."

Each month in 2014, the Foundation selects a 'birthday' gift for the community - giving Clevelanders the access and opportunity to enjoy some of the amazing cultural institutions and services our community has to offer. They describe the fantastic feedback the Foundation has received thus far, and look forward to what kind of response will result from future gifts. Many of the responses so far have come from individuals and families expressing their gratitude for the chance to have some of these special Cleveland experiences. Monica includes,

"Internally, we do have a centennial gifts committee, and it's comprised of a member of each of the teams in the Foundation. We meet regularly to discuss ideas for future gifts, how we did with the last gifts, what the metrics & results were, and what impact it had on the community. Future ideas are then recommended to our grant-making committee on the board of directors for approval."

Serving the Foundation & Cleveland

As an HR team, Monica & Danielle are tasked with providing purposeful work and service to the Cleveland Foundation staff. They aim to provide an environment that's encouraging, supportive and positive to staff, and they are charged with developing creative programming and educational opportunities. Ultimately, Monica & Danielle try to provide their staff with the highest level of service possible in their work environment so staff feels supported and can give their highest level of service back to the community.

Monica shares,

"Our internal community is very important to the Cleveland Foundation... we treat our employees and prospective employees with the same care that we treat our donors and the nonprofits we serve in the community. It's just a natural progression then to the work that we do - community service is engrained in our work and our lives."

Danielle mentions that because the Foundation's donors and staff are so passionate about the work they're doing for the community, the idea of being purposeful in your giving efforts and service truly resonates on many different levels within the Foundation's community.

Where HR & Community Service Collide

Monica notes that there's a natural fit for HR in community service. She explains:

"Danielle & I are tying our workforce into the equation and focusing on the service to our internal community. Between the work-life balance, the generous compensation & benefits packages, the opportunity to participate in community events & give back... we really have tried to create a culture where people feel that their internal community is just as important as the work we do externally in the Cleveland community. And I think it's working!"

She elaborates that as an HR team that owns, or champions, the culture goal of the Foundation's strategic plan, she and Danielle can nurture the benefits community service has on the organization's culture. These include:

  • Promoting teamwork
  • Improving employee engagement
  • Enhancing learning opportunities

Monica adds that if you're a for-profit company, having a community service program is a great way to enhance your public image. This image helps build your brand and show your audience that you care.

Danielle responds:

"At the Foundation, we have staff involved and engrained in the community to the extent that their job requires them to be out of the office more than at their desk. Others are more on the administrative side and do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work. Our goal is to make sure each and every employee sees the bigger picture and knows the impact they're making in the community."

In 2014, the Foundation's community service efforts are of course focused on the centennial gifts. Monica clarifies that each team 'owns' one or more of the celebratory gifts. Teams are charged with organizing the gift, making sure there are enough volunteers, greeting guests as they arrive, helping with crowd control, etc. She states that as staff become more involved from a planning and operations standpoint, they see their impact by experiencing the community gifts in action.

Starting a Program to Give Back

First and foremost, Danielle stresses the importance of finding a program or initiative that resonates with your staff. She reasons:

"I think it helps to get their feedback, whether it's through a survey or focus group of some sort - there's lots of ways to serve your community and there's lots of fantastic organizations to partner with. Finding an organization whose mission compliments your own is really a great way to start."

She suggests starting with a volunteer opportunity that promotes working together as a team. Visible leadership support will help drive participation and aid staff in understanding that this is an important initiative at all levels of the organization.

Monica notes that while it may take some encouraging for the senior staff if they're not interested in a community service program, it's important to show them the value of what a program can mean for a company, with regards to employee engagement and community - internally and externally.

She also remarks that it's critical to involve your staff in the selection of these events:

"The worst thing you can do is put a program in place and select a great organization to support, and then your staff don't show up! Another tactic is to partner with an external organization like BVU (Business Volunteers Unlimited), an expert on community service. They were able to propose to our senior leadership team many different service opportunities available, and see what resonated best with our staff and which opportunities connected best to our key initiatives."

HR Leadership

Monica & Danielle comment on how fortunate they are to work for an organization that believes in HR as a strategic partner. Monica explains:

"We are charged with the cultural organizational goal of our strategic plan. Our senior leadership has a very good understanding that HR is going to be the driver for the human capital necessary to help carry out our mission."

At the Cleveland Foundation, HR absolutely has a seat at the table and is always welcome. Monica recommends that HR professionals struggling in this area cannot take a passive or reactive role. She advises:

"You have to get involved - if there's a strategic plan, get a copy of it! Become familiar with it, and look at the sub-plans within the organization. That's something we do regularly - we dig down & find what the goals mean for each specific team in the organization."

She & Danielle really integrate themselves with those teams so they can understand what their needs are - not just from a staffing standpoint - but from a cultural standpoint as well. Monica suggests being  proactive and showing senior leadership how everything in the strategic plan affects the staff. Doing this is key to becoming a leader within your organization.

Danielle adds that since the Foundation itself is considered a leader in the community and in the field of service, this leadership really branches down into its employees and its functions. She observes:

"We're tasked with being thought leaders, strategic partners, and innovators. When we meet with our executive leaders on a quarterly basis, this sets the stage for dialog around the needs of the staff, and ultimately supporting those needs to support the organization's mission and initiatives."


3 Questions with President & CEO, Ronald Richard

How does the Cleveland Foundation turn the passion of its donors into purposeful improvements for Greater Clevelanders?

"At the Cleveland Foundation, we help guide our donors, enabling them to make the greatest impact with their gift in the areas where they want to contribute. Some individuals ask us how they can make a real difference in the area of education, some in social services, some in the arts, some in environmental issues...  and our fabulous expert staff advises them along the way, making the most of their generosity.

We also have wonderful donors whom have passed away, leaving us very clear instructions for their gift. I think our donors would be amazed & incredibly pleased at the improvements their gifts have made 50, 80, and even 100 years after their donations.

How did the idea for the centennial community gifts evolve, and what has been the response from Clevelanders?

"These special gifts to the community evolved out of a staff brainstorming session. In addition to our normal grant-making, the Cleveland Foundation has given the community a special gift each month so far in 2014. These gifts include:

  • January - a free ridership day on the RTA
  • February - a free day at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame & the Great Lakes Science Center
  • March - a free day of admission to the Cleveland International Film Festival
  • April - a free Saturday at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo (including the Rainforest!) on April 26th

"We wanted to do this to thank the community for 100 years of generosity and partnership with the Foundation, and also to increase awareness during our centennial year. The response has been amazing! One young man wrote me an email saying that his mother was in the hospital and he'd wanted so badly to go visit her, but he didn't have the bus fare. Because of the Foundation's gift, he was able to spend the whole day with his mom. The gifts truly have been successful beyond our wildest dreams."

What do you foresee in the next 100 years for the Cleveland Foundation and the community?

"I foresee us maintaining our focus on the areas we've been so passionate about for the last 100 years:

  • Public school reform
  • Youth development
  • Environmental issues
  • Social services of every kind
  • Developing & promoting the arts & culture in our community.

I'm certain we'll also be doing a lot of new things. Our founder in 1914 never could've imagined we'd be leading the charge for advanced energy and the world's first freshwater wind farm on Lake Erie. Or that we'd be advocating for new state laws on education so we can have the best teachers in the classroom. Or that we'd support the Encore Careers program for seniors.

It's thrilling to come work at a place where we know our organization is adaptable and able to keep up with the times - and no matter what we're doing in 50, 80, or 100 years, we'll be up to every challenge & whatever opportunities or problems face us. We'll be making a huge contribution to the community and to Clevelanders."

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