“Once upon a time, there was no regional Northeast Ohio identity, no shared economic agenda, and no way for many philanthropic institutions to contribute to improving economic outcomes. But there was a crisis.”

And so begins the history of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

It was the early 2000s, and by any measure, our region was significantly underperforming the U.S. economy. That meant fewer jobs, lower incomes, a less promising future for our residents, and—without a strategy to push us forward together—little hope.

Still, many individuals and organizations across Northeast Ohio had ideas about what was needed to change our region’s trajectory, and felt that bringing philanthropy together in a new way could have a major impact on the region’s economic future. While many funders saw this work as central to their missions, for others it was initially less clear. Ultimately, though, we all joined together around the belief that without a good economy, none of our individual philanthropic missions could truly succeed, and that there was a role for us to play.

We knew the economy wasn’t going to fix itself, we were all in this together, and every voice mattered. We also knew the work ahead was going to be long and messy, but oh so critical. These became the founding principles of our Fund, and they ring as true today as they did then. While we have had many successes over the past 13-plus years, the role of collective philanthropy in advancing our regional economy is as important as ever as we work to ensure the economic wins of the last several years, as well as our future gains, are felt by all.

At a recent retreat, members old and new spent time walking through the history of our Fund, and over the past month, we’ve been sharing short podcasts about our history on social media (which you can experience here). It’s important, now and again, to take stock of from where you come. Such an understanding can not only bring people closer together, it can reinforce strengths, distill challenges, and shine a light on a path forward. For me, someone who has been involved with the Fund from the start, this exercise made clear several important points:

  1. Our Fund plays a unique role. It will be quite clear to anyone who takes a few minutes to walk through our history that the grand experiment that began in 2004 was unlike anything our community (or others around the country for that matter) had done before. We paved the way for philanthropy’s role in economic development, pooling our resources and our know-how, and leveraging our dollars, our networks and our experiences to improve our economy. As a regional organization made up of funders from distinct local communities, we came together to see the economy whole, and we continue to use that system-level vantage point today to bring together growth camps and opportunity camps, and bridge the divide between economic and community development.
  2. We have continually adapted and evolved. Early themes of collaboration, a common regional agenda, economic competitiveness, and inclusion have remained steadfast. But the community’s needs have evolved, and subsequently our Fund’ work has evolved to meet those needs.
  3. Perhaps because of our ability to evolve, we have incredible staying power. A commitment to transformation has characterized our Fund from the start. Collectively, philanthropy in Northeast Ohio continues to recognize that this is long-term work; what’s coming to fruition today builds on work from a decade ago. And the decisions we make together now will enable work in the next decade. We are as important today for the future of our region as we were 13 years ago when we started, and our region’s biggest challenges will benefit from collaborative philanthropy.

It’s with a sense of pride in our collective achievements to date that Fund members are now asking ourselves where we go from here. What does our regional economy need from philanthropy now? Stay tuned in the coming months for more details on where we’re headed. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about our past, present or future, or get involved, email us.