It's trust over control when GAR Foundation funds community initiatives

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GAR Foundation has been around since 1967, investing in Greater Akron to promote quality of life, education and economic opportunities. Through the years, it has awarded more than $200 million in grants to nonprofit organizations that advance education, basic needs and independence, arts and culture, and civic enhancement.
In its position as a foundation, GAR has to find ways to be effective when it’s not the one ultimately executing the initiatives.
“The most significant challenge is knowing in our collaborations when to drive, when to get in the backseat and when to get out of the car,” says Christine Amer Mayer, president of GAR. “Much of our work involves partnering or aligning with stakeholders over whom we have little or no control. To achieve the fullest possible benefit for Akron from those relationships, we need to practice good partnership behaviors, which is sometimes easier said than done, especially when faced with a pressing community problem.”
Smart Business spoke with Mayer about how GAR maintains effectiveness without total control.
SB: How does GAR determine which community needs to address?
CAM: We only fund efforts that advance one or more of our strategies and that can demonstrate their outcomes. We determine our strategies through a thoughtful, research-based planning process with our Distribution Committee, a group of experienced leaders, most of whom held leadership roles in our founder’s company, Roadway Express. And, of course, we continuously revisit and update our strategies to ensure that we are addressing current and emerging community needs through the grants we put out into the community.
SB: How does GAR measure its effectiveness?
CAM: In large part, we act through the grantees we choose to fund. As such, we define ‘success’ in each of our grant making strategy areas — for instance, in education through movement of key metrics on the Cradle to Career Continuum. And then we work with our grantee partners to understand how their work contributes to moving the relevant metrics.
We are also heavily involved in convening work, through which we join forces with other community stakeholders to advance important objectives. For instance, in the past year we have worked hard to push a community-wide effort aimed at strengthening Greater Akron’s arts and culture sector.
Assessing our effectiveness when we are operating in the convener role is somewhat more difficult, but we do it by applying the same discipline to ourselves that we ask our grantees to apply to their work. We identify metrics that will tell us whether we are achieving success in a particular endeavor, and we measure our work against those metrics, making course corrections as needed.
Last but not least, we ask our grantee partners to evaluate us anonymously from time to time, because we take seriously the business of being a supportive, helpful partner to them.
SB: What is it that worries you most in your role as president of GAR Foundation?
CAM: I worry about burnout — for GAR and for our key partners — because oftentimes we are working on the kinds of long-term, complex community problems that one might be tempted to put into the ‘too-hard box.’ These problems did not happen overnight and they certainly will not be solved overnight. We need to have, simultaneously, patience as the work evolves and urgency to make change. That can be a tall order.
SB: How does GAR Foundation work with the business community to achieve its mission?
CAM: GAR has worked alongside the business community in several instances — most notably in our work with the Fund for Our Economic Future, which has drawn significant private sector support. But we need to do more. We are developing stronger, more direct ties with our partners in the business world, to align our efforts with theirs around some of our highest priorities such as educational improvement and vibrancy of place.
SB: What has been GAR Foundation’s greatest success during the past five years and what will be its greatest challenge through the next five years?
CAM: We are most proud of our ongoing partnership with Summit Education Initiative, a nonprofit we helped to establish in the late nineties. In recent years, SEI has blossomed into an asset that is the envy of cities around the nation. Through the thoughtful and responsible collection of data, SEI has given Summit County the tools to understand exactly where we are in educational attainment and exactly where we need to go. There is no overstating the value of these tools in advancing the vision of world-class education in Summit County.

While I cannot predict with certainty the greatest challenge that lies ahead for Akron, I anticipate some growing pains as our community embraces the tide of leadership change that has already started among many of our cherished institutions and will continue in the coming years. I believe this time of transition can unlock a huge opportunity for Akron, through which we can get honest about our challenges, embrace them, and harness the energy and creativity of an emerging set of community leaders to tackle them head-on.