We’re Narrowing our Focus

Christine Mayer \
March 23, 2017

In the past fifty years, GAR Foundation has invested over $230 million in organizations to promote the quality of life, education, vibrancy, and economic opportunities of our community. We take great pride in these investments and the impact funded programs and organizations have made on Akron and Summit County.

As funders, we often ask our grantees to embrace change and innovation, to pause and thoughtfully consider the direction their programs are taking, the success they are measuring, the impact they’re making. It’s equally important for funders to pause and take stock, to take a hard look inward and outward, to discern –  as uncomfortable as it can be –  the direction of our programs and how we allocate funds, and to be as candid and transparent as possible in assessing our successes and failings.

Over the last year, we have been reading, listening, and reflecting to better understand the changes underway in Akron and to anticipate the changes yet to come.  Certainly, much has changed in our community – some of it positive, some negative, and some merely disorienting. We have witnessed leadership change in City Hall and in several key anchor institutions. We’ve seen political change at every level of government, with local implications that are not yet well understood. We’ve seen slow economic progress, and a continuing erosion of the middle class, with cascading effects on all our civic systems. We’ve seen the rise of talented artists and community builders who are energizing our community with their new ideas. We’ve seen educators wholeheartedly embracing efforts to connect student learning to career possibilities.

While we can celebrate improvement in many areas, there is no denying that our challenges are deep and complex and much work lies ahead.

Narrowing our focus

With that in mind, we decided to engage in a strategic planning process with the goal of deepening our community outcomes.  By this we mean that with a portion of our funds, we seek to do fewer things better; to go deeper in a small number of high-priority areas, driving toward root causes and systemic solutions, rather than short-term solutions.

 As part of this planning process, we took time to deepen our understanding of the community context — where we can have the greatest impact, what sorts of issues we are well-positioned to address. We engaged deeply with community leaders and stakeholders; we convened focus groups to seek their input on the questions that keep us up at night. These efforts drew dozens of thoughtful responses, some surprising, many enlightening, all honest.

What we’ve learned

Our strategic planning journey continues, and as such, we are not yet ready to share all our plans for the future. But there were some themes that came through loud and clear that are worth discussing now, even as we continue our analysis.

 First, we learned that there is overwhelming support for GAR to “focus more, sprinkle less.” In other words, stakeholders we have engaged have strongly urged us to set aside hopes of being all things to all people, and instead to deepen our work and focus in a few key areas where we can have the greatest impact.

Second, there was widely shared consensus that GAR should work closely with other community partners, using fact-based, cross-sector approaches in addressing key issues.

Lastly, we were humbled by the many people who spoke of the deep trust we have established with others in the community. Throughout the history of GAR Foundation, our approach has always been to be collaborative, compassionate, and candid.  We were reminded, in many ways, of the incredible opportunities before us, but also of the great responsibility we have to identify where GAR can serve as a leader, a supporter, a convener, and a communicator.

What happens next

By early summer 2017, we will communicate to you about our future direction and how we will implement the changes necessary to set us on our new path. The May 1 application deadline is still in place, however, because we are in the midst of planning, we will not be expanding funding for current grantees, nor will we be taking on new programmatic applicants at this time.

As we write this, our board has not yet approved final strategies.  However, they have agreed that we will deepen work in some areas and step down our funding in other areas. While we expect our changes to result in fewer grants and fewer recipients, we can assure you that we are taking care to implement changes in a way that is transparent, candid, and respectful of organizations’ need to adjust their capacity.

We realize this may be difficult news to hear for many. Truthfully speaking, it’s complicated, messy work. But we are convinced that changes are needed if we are to be the best, most responsible stewards that we can be for GAR Foundation’s resources. We are energized by the potential promise a more strategic approach holds for our beloved community of Akron and Summit County.

We commit to being a respectful, open partner to you throughout this journey. We encourage you to visit our website for periodic updates. We also strongly encourage you to invite members of your board of trustees to subscribe to our mailing list to receive important news delivered to their inbox.