YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As president of the Youngstown Foundation, Lynnette Forde says she doesn’t want to just hand out money. She wants to change the power dynamics of philanthropy in the Mahoning Valley.
Forde has been with the foundation some two years. Hired to succeed the organization’s longtime president, Jan Strasfeld, she took over Jan. 1, 2021.
Her background was in nonprofits and universities, including Case Western Reserve University, United Way and, just before coming to the Mahoning Valley, the Center for Families and Children in Cleveland.
Having been on the fundraising and government relations sides and aware of the power of philanthropy to provide “hope and healing” as well as operations and capital funds, she wondered what it would be like to help decide where to direct philanthropic funds, she says. The role at the Youngstown Foundation fit her desire to help people “have their philanthropic dreams come true,” she says.
Traditionally in philanthropy, the “power structure dynamics” – as she describes it – between those who have money and can give support and those who lack money and seek support is that the people with the money typically have the power, Forde says. Having been “on the powerless end of that relationship,” she was interested in “helping to balance the power” in her new role.
“I think about power a lot and influence. Philanthropy, once upon a time, operated in a power dynamic where it was more hierarchical,” she says. “I would like to have the Youngstown Foundation and the philanthropists that drive the grantmaking operate more in influence: What can we do together with the community across the board, with government and institutions, to influence transformation in the Valley where we’re all equals in this?” she asks rhetorically.
Forde was selected from among three finalists for the position, says attorney Martha Bushey, vice chairwoman of the distribution committee of the foundation.
“Lynnette was very impressive in her interview,” Bushey says. “She seemed to have a real grasp of what her job would be and felt very confident that she could lead the foundation in the direction it had been going in and do that as well as it needed to be done.”
Unlike other foundations, the Youngstown Foundation functions as a wholly operated trust of PNC Bank, Forde says. Assets at the beginning of 2022 totaled about $152 million and the foundation made about $5 million in grants last year.
The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University estimates that charitable giving by foundations grew 3.4% in 2021 to an estimated $90.88 billion. Giving by foundations, which has grown in 10 of the last 11 years, represented 19% of total giving in 2021, its largest share on record.
Forde joined the foundation when the nation remained deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, with widespread vaccinations months away, schools largely closed and many businesses shuttered or operating at limited capacity. It was a time that presented challenges to someone new to taking over an organization but also a time when the resources that organization offered were needed, she says.
“I wanted to make sure that the community and the people who needed those dollars could get them in a way that they didn’t have to wait for our normal grantmaking process,” she says. Sometimes the time between when an organization applies and when it gets those funds can be three to six months.
When Forde began with the foundation, it was already collaborating with the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley and the Raymond John Wean Foundation on a joint COVID strategy, she says.
“We had a philosophy of saying ‘yes’ and helping organizations, working with them to figure out how to get to ‘yes,’ ” she says.
The three foundations awarded $2.8 million through the joint COVID efforts.
“We are proud of the way the three foundations were able to come together during the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and persistent racism,” says Jennifer Roller, president of the Wean Foundation. “This collaboration leveraged each funder’s ability to invest resources in the community. It moved us to reconsider long-held grantmaking practices to be more resident-centered and racially equitable, accelerating our efforts to make philanthropy better.”
The grantmaking process at the foundation is one Forde characterizes as involving “less paper and pencil” and offering greater transparency.
Organizations apply for funds online and the process is detailed on the foundation website, including deadlines for applications, she says. Most times, the process begins with a conversation with the entity seeking funding before it begins its application and the foundation conducting due diligence.
“We always do a site visit and have folks tell us their story directly, the reason for their need, what they intend to do with the money, the problem they’re attempting to solve and how they’re working with people at all levels of the issue,” she says.
On this day, she visited The English Center of Youngstown, where a group of clients from Ukraine told her how they had left the war-torn country and arrived in the United States months ago. Among them was a man who was a physician and anesthesiologist in Ukraine but would have to go through medical school again here to “share his gifts with the community,” she says, regret for his situation in her voice.
“I left there feeling joy that the English Center exists to help him navigate and learn English, that maybe he can get a job as a technician. Because that’s probably the best that he can do,” she says. “But I also felt sad. Here we are, all citizens of the world, and we can’t find a way to acknowledge the gifts and strengths of someone like him.”
All of the information gathered becomes part of the record that the distribution committee considers, she says. Rarely are requests refused. Even then the answer isn’t a flat “no” but rather “not right now,” she says. In some cases, the applicant hadn’t received its 501(c)3 status.
Even so, those organizations receive “additional support” to help them with the process, as well as referrals to organizations that award funds to first-time applicants, she says. “And we’ve done grants for first-time applicants.”
Forde’s philosophy regarding philanthropy was “a big part” of the discussion when Animal Charity of Ohio Inc., Boardman, sought a grant for payroll assistance, says Jane MacMurchy, operations director and humane agent.
MacMurchy says she was used to grants requiring they be used for “tangible things” such as equipment. Forde wanted to know what Animal Charity most needed. That turned out to be additional funds for pay increases and to fund new hires.
The $100,000 grant Animal Charity received from the foundation allowed it to promote an employee into a community outreach position and hire an employee to focus on fostering and adoption, which “has really made a difference,” MacMurchy says.
“Having her in this new position has increased adoption by probably two times the amount we did this time last year,” she estimates.
Other local organizations the foundation has funded in recent years include the Warren Family Mission and Project MKC in Boardman.
“They’ve helped us tremendously,” says Caitlin Gilger-White, Warren Family Mission executive director.
The mission operates a food pantry that distributed about 15,000 food bags and provided 105,000 meals last year, and shelters for men and women. The Youngstown Foundation has funded the mission since 2005 and last year provided a $5,000 grant.
“It’s always a struggle every year, especially with inflation this year,” Gilger-White says. “Being so generous and giving to us every year really helps out, especially with food and everything that we have to buy.”
Project MKC focuses on children and their families. Its services include supplying diapers, comfort kits for youths entering the foster care system and summer food programs. The organization has received grants from the foundation for several years, including during the pandemic, says Shelly Marlowe, co-president.
Since coming to the foundation, Forde says she has moved the organization toward becoming paperless to reduce operating overhead and thereby make more funds available to distribute in the community.
“She’s made some good changes,” Bushey says, including shifting the application process online. In addition, she established an online process to review and grade applications before the committee meets to discuss them.
Forde praises the members of the distribution committee. Serving as volunteers, their remuneration is often lunch or “a homemade tart,” she says.
“What they bring with them is different expertise and awareness. Sometimes they bring some money,” she continues. “But most of the time, it’s a commitment to this community and to the Valley – and a heart that doesn’t let them rest, even though they may have retired from one place.”
Forde is helped by students in an internship program she launched with Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration. Part of the legacy she hopes to leave is having young people come through a foundation environment and work with volunteers and donors.
Forde says she is receiving more calls from people who want “to be a part of the magic” of the foundation, whether it’s an East High School graduate who wants to establish a scholarship program or someone who wants to pay for students to receive training to be welders. She recently received a request from someone who wanted to know how much it would cost to pay for school lunches for an entire school building for one year.
“That’s the heart that I’m sure you know about of folks here in the Valley,” she says. “Every day I have the privilege of witnessing that firsthand. We do care for each other and there’s no discussion of Democrat or Republican or race or gender or class. There’s just, ‘How can I help?’ I think that’s the story of the Youngstown Foundation. There’s a place to get help and a place to provide help.”
Pictured at top: Lynnette Forde is changing the “power structure dynamics” that characterize traditional philanthropy.