A Conversation with Steven Minter
It is indeed the end of an era. In July, after 29 years of service, Steven A. Minter will retire as head of The Cleveland Foundationthe nation's oldest and second largest community foundation.
Minter joined the foundation in 1975 as a program officer for social services, and became the associate director and program officer for civic affairs in 1979. He has been president and executive director since 1984.
Minter can count among his accomplishments pushing the foundation to become the first non-coastal community foundation to make AIDS grants, extending services for donors, focusing on improving Cleveland's public schools, systematically revitalizing Cleveland's neighborhoods and lakefront, growing foundation assets from $300 million to $1.5 billion and increasing grantmaking from $17.5 million to $74 million per year. Some era.
For 15 years prior to joining the nonprofit sector, Minter worked in government. With a B.A. in education and a master's degree in social services administration, he started as a caseworker for the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department in 1960, going on to become its first African American director. In 1970, Minter was named Commissioner of Public Welfare for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was the first African American to head the public welfare department there.
With such impressive credentials, it's no surprise the Carter administration was able to woo Minter away from the foundation in 1980 for a oneyear leave of absence to serve as the first undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education and ultimately as director of the department's transition from the Carter to the Reagan administration.
Add to that the numerous community service activities, board associations, awards, honorary doctorates and the fact that he was directly involved with the establishment of three international community foundations and it's clear why the Council on Foundations has named Minter the recipient of the 2003 Distinguished Grantmaker Award.
What changes have you seen take place in the community foundations environment?
The growth of the field. Another is the explosion in the variety of funds and giving mechanisms that are available today through community foundations. The issues related to competing and collaborating with commercial gift funds, such as Fidelity and Schwab and Vanguard and many others, have changed the way community foundations have to operate.
Do you have any concerns for the field's growth?
I think of both concerns and opportunities. When the community foundation field celebrated its 75th anniversary, the foundation put together a committee to produce An Agile Servant: Community Leadership by Community Foundations. We not only examined the history of community foundations, but also looked ahead. My chapter, "Search for Standards: Why Community Foundations Are Different," advocated greater public accountability and national standards.
So, it's interesting that today, community foundations have now adopted standards to try and assure that we don't have, if you will, a "rogue" community foundation or folks out there trying to do their best but not really knowing how.
Will the economy and corporate scandals affect the field?
The current environment pushes everybody to be more diligent about oversight and accountabilityall the more reason why the work of the Council on Foundations and Community Foundations of America will make a difference. For example, Community Foundations of America has adopted uniform standards for members that have donor-advised funds and wish to participate in national deals with commercial firms.
The IRS is about to audit community foundations and other entities. We must have a very high public accountability standard with published reports, information about fees and documentation of what we're doing.
How does it feel watching your call for national standards come to fruition, as well as the formation of Community Foundations of America?
It's very gratifying. But I'm just one of a legion of persons who worked on those issues. I feel privileged to have been at a foundation where its board of directors felt that the foundation had an important leadership role to play and encouraged and supported the efforts of not only myself, but of board members and other staffand even expected us to be engaged in the important issues related to improving the field.
How do you think the IRS proposing dividing exempt organizations into market segments, one of which would consist of community foundations and donor-advised funds that are sponsored by financial institutions, will play out?
My guess is that the IRS will find that there are many different things being done. I think practices vary. But I expect they will also discover that the vast majority of community foundations are trying to be sure that the organizations receiving the grants recommended by the donors are in fact 501(c)(3)s and that the money is being used for charitable purposes.
How did donor-advised funds begin?
Perhaps some context would be helpful in answering this. For most of the first 50 years, community foundations' funds were the result of wills and trustsbequests. Donor-advised funds were not a significant factor in the community foundation field until the early 1970s, when people began to accumulate wealth and live longer with the desire to become involved in charitable causes.
The donor-advised fund began to really pick up momentum in many communities where you didn't have dollars that had come in through wills and trusts. This led to the offering of a full range of servicescharitable lead trusts, charitable remainder trusts and annuities.
By the time you got well into the 1990s, where some persons were accumulating unimagined wealth in their 40s and early 50s, their question went from Can I advise? to How can I advise? to How about my children? and What about my grandchildren? When Fidelity won approval to offer commercial donor-advised funds, competition truly entered our marketplace.
As I understand it, Fidelity's idea was to make donor-advised funds available to anyone and use technology to reach out and encourage persons uninvolved before. Fidelity has great marketing presence and technology capacity. The entry of commercial funds, and the opportunity to participate in the inter-generational transfer of wealth helped community foundations act to develop standards, define our position in the marketplace and be even more donor-focused.
What would you identify as The Cleveland Foundation's major achievements?
The foundation has been a pioneer in many respects. I would cite our work doing landmark community studies on public schools, parks and recreation and criminal justice. This foundation has a long history of public-private partnerships.
We've also been pioneers in working with faith-based organizations since the mid-1960s. Many of the organizations that have really done a great deal to help Cleveland improve its inner city have been faith-based organizations.
Our work in the areas of criminal justice in the 1960s and 1970s was pioneering. We were one of the first community foundations to link up with the Local Initiative Support Corporation to revitalize cities. We were among the first to do program-related investments. We were the first community foundation to establish a supporting organization and we were a founding member of the Council on Foundations.
How might the role of community foundations be changing as the world becomes more interconnected?
Globalization. Today we have donors who are interested in supporting programs all over the world.
There are numerous examples of community foundations facilitating the funding of programs abroad. Community Foundation Silicon Valley has donors who fund charitable programs in their native countries. California community foundations facilitated grants at the time of the earthquake in Osaka, Japan, while foundations such as Ford, Mott and the German Marshall Fund have supported the exchange of community foundation professionals with other nonprofit professionals.
The Cleveland Foundation is supporting efforts to attract new biotech firms. For example, grants have gone to support the OhioIsrael Chamber of Commerce and mission trips, which have resulted in some companies actually coming to the Greater Cleveland area, establishing a presence here and getting venture capital funds invested in them.
What challenges or opportunities face community foundations overseas?
The biggest challenge is to help build in their communities a climate and a culture that encourages giving and volunteering. Typically, they don't have quite the same historical base that we have in the United States, where we've thought in terms of three sectorsthe private, nonprofit and governmental sectorsthat work in partnership, and we've expected the so-called 'independent sector'the nonprofit or 'third' sectorto play a major role.
Did you experience special challenges in this field historically dominated by white males?
In all of the organizations of which I've been a part, there are issues you have to deal with and overcome. And, in each of the jobs I've been in, I found myself dealing with the issue of race. What I've tried to do is to recognize those issues and then figure out how to go about making constructive change.
When I became the director of the foundation, what was important to me was that this is a community foundation. There were those who would say, "We're helping a lot of African American persons and Hispanics, but they're not donors." There were a lot of black persons who'd say, "Well, I couldn't really be a donor. I'm not one of those rich white persons. The foundation is for people who have a lot of money." Well, what is a lot of money? They didn't know.
What we can say today is, yes, this is a community foundation that makes grants to every kind of organization. Likewise, the donors to The Cleveland Foundation reflect the diversity of the community. We made it clear that you don't have to be a millionaire to establish a fund to honor your parents.
One of the things I take the greatest measure of pride in is that this is a community foundation in every respect. If you look at the board, the staff and the donor base, you'll see that they are all diverse and reflect the community.
What have been some of your career best lessons learned?
You have to take the long-term view. We're talking about dealing with challenges that are complex, and what the community foundation can do is play an important intermediary role. We can be political from the standpoint of recognizing the politics of communityand play a role in dealing with the politics without being partisan.
Another lesson is that you're constantly in the renewing processleadership and economics change. Perhaps the lesson I learned more than any other is that success has many parents. A sign of a great project is when a number of organizations share inif not take credit forthe achievement.
What's next on your agenda?
Cutting back. But I will continue on some of the boards I'm very involved with. I'm president of the Learning Communities Network, which is a national education organization working on school reform matters. And I will continue on company boards. I hope I'll have the opportunity to teach and share some of the things I've learned over the years. And I'm looking forward to traveling with my wife, Dolly, and being a grandparent to our three grandchildren.
Photographs by Nick Cool
Allan R. Clyde is the acting editor of Foundation News & Commentary.