A seat at the table: Small community funder joins Fund for Our Economic Future board

by | Jan 13, 2023

By Kim Palmer for Crain’s Cleveland Business

Late last year, Martin Uhle, the president and CEO of the Community West Foundation, a philanthropic social services agency with nine staff members, joined the nearly 40-person board of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

The move is a departure for Community West, which provides funding for more than 100 frontline social service agencies in Lorain County and the western part of Cuyahoga County. For more than two decades, the organization has focused on the mission of helping the most vulnerable, rarely partnering with other philanthropic funding organizations — until the COVID pandemic.

“In 2020, we immediately joined the Greater Cleveland COVID Rapid Response Fund, which was led by the Cleveland Foundation. That was our first chance to work with other funder organizations and be part of the talks about influencing how those funds were used,” Uhle said.

By joining the COVID Rapid Response Fund, a coalition of nearly 50 philanthropic, corporate and civic partners in Northeast Ohio created to distribute money to nonprofits during the pandemic, Community West partnered with some of the region’s largest philanthropic leaders.

COVID, Uhle said, was such a universal challenge that groups of all missions were affected. To date, the COVID Rapid Response Fund has raised more than $20 million and made grants to 675 nonprofit groups and organizations in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties — and the group is conducting a COVID recovery and resiliency survey to better understand the state (and projected state) of the nonprofit sector in Cuyahoga County.

“Before the COVID Rapid Response, Community West didn’t have a seat at that table with organizations like the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation. We were not invited, and to be fair we were not seeking that seat either,” Uhle said. “But that collaboration has helped us understand and think about the bigger picture.”

It’s that type of collaboration that Uhle hope to be a part of as he begins serving on the board of the Fund, which is made up of leaders from a variety of organizations, …

The Fund, a civic collaborative focused on the economic health of the region, is, as president Bethia Burke describes it, all about the big picture. The group tackles the big, “seemingly intractable problems” the region faces, Burke said, and she and her staff rely heavily on a board of leaders in various areas of expertise to identify and help tackle those issues.

“We sit somewhere at the intersection of grantmaking and what needs to be done,” Burke said.

Bringing Uhle on the board adds a partner with direct ties in the community where the Fund’s policies are focused.

“The big issues we tackle affect people in real ways. Adding Community West to the board is a way to expand and refocus a connection with local community,” Burke said.

For Uhle, joining the board, which does require a $33,000 contribution to the Fund, is a way to expand his organization’s understanding of the larger regional picture while also getting a chance to see the best practices of organizations outside his group’s geographic footprint.

“I think as a collective, we should take the best practices everyone has learned in this three-year pandemic and use them going forward,” Uhle said. “We should find a way to benefit from this pain we’ve all been through.”

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