Kurt Karakul is not one to shy away from adventure and risk. For three years, in between graduating from Kenyon College and attending Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Law, he travelled around the country with his brother, taking old-timey photographs of eager small-town residents and tourists at county fairs, festivals and other events.
So it’s no surprise that Kurt didn’t think twice thirty years later when he received “a scary proposition.” In 2007, he was teaching community development law at CWRU when Marc Stefanski, CEO of Third Federal Savings & Loan asked Kurt to practice what he was teaching. Third Federal had just completed a successful initial public offering and had set aside money to create a foundation. Karakul, who was practicing real estate law at the time, was asked to run it. Philanthropy was new territory and presented quite a learning opportunity.
“Starting a foundation from scratch was interesting,” said Karakul. As its first president and executive director (and sole staff person), he helped develop the foundation’s focus and mission.
Mortgages were Third Federal’s bread and butter, and the financial institution had already invested a lot in the bricks and mortar of its home community of the Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood, where it was founded in 1938. The foundation presented an opportunity to invest in the community’s human capital. Community development and education — particularly early literacy – are the foundation’s primary focus areas.
“We’ve tried to bring partners together to address and collaborate on programs that raise educational levels in the community,” Karakul said. This need is critical, because “forty-seven percent of adults in Cuyahoga County have a 7th grade reading level or less.” The foundation’s education-focused initiatives include the Broadway-Slavic Village P-16 Project and a Service Scholarship program at Cleveland Central Catholic High School. Working closely with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and many other partners, the P-16 Project focuses on improving the educational experiences of those living in the Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood through tutoring services, after-school programming, family literacy programs, scholarships, and kindergarten readiness, among others.
Third Federal Foundation is also focused on the health of local residents, and has found interesting ways to bring both health and education together. Third Federal worked with partner MetroHealth to put a health clinic in a local school. The hospital system found this to be so effective, it plans to add clinics to 23 different schools next year. Third Federal is also working with MetroHealth on a program to promote literacy in pediatrician waiting rooms. Using educational materials provided by ideastream, volunteers speak with parents about the importance of reading to their children and engage families in linking them with community services. Third Federal also provides books for MetroHealth doctors to give out to child patients—a healthy alternative to a lollipop.
Since its beginning, Third Federal Foundation has been a member of the Fund for Our Economic Future. Karakul remembers talking to his law school students about the creation of the Fund and how unusual it was. “It was fun to become a part of the Fund after teaching about it,” he said.
Third Federal brings a local Slavic Village emphasis to the Fund, according to Karakul. “We bring a specific focus. … It’s easy with this stuff to get high up in the clouds, but relating the people in the clouds to the people in the community is critical.”
At the same time, “it’s important to get out of that neighborhood and have contact with other people doing similar types of work in other neighborhoods,” he said. That’s one of the benefits of being a part of the Fund.
Another benefit is the many relationships developed with other Fund members. “I didn’t come out of the world of philanthropy,” Karakul said. “Getting to know directors of so many foundations in Northeast Ohio has been extremely valuable to me.”
Karakul considers himself a native Clevelander, having been born here, though he lived in both Cincinnati and Connecticut as a child. He returned to Ohio for college and law school and for many years practiced law with his uncle. Later, he was a partner and co-chair of the Real Estate Law Section at Weston Hurd LLP. For 20 years, he co-wrote a weekly column in the Real Estate Section of The Plain Dealer with Ohio Rep. Armond Budish (D-8th District), current candidate for Cuyahoga County Executive. Karakul remains on the adjunct faculty staff at the School of Law at Case. He and his wife live in Cleveland Heights and have four grown children.
“I have two of the four living here, but one is in New York and one is in Washington, D.C.,” Karakul shared. “The other two would be interested in returning if they could find comparable jobs here in Northeast Ohio. It’d be great if our economy could produce jobs that would attract them back. The Fund is trying to help create that.”