ASHLAND -- As the Ashland County Community Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary, executive director James Cutright wants the community to know, the organization is here for good.
Since the Ashland County Community Foundation was founded in 1995, nearly $15.4 million from 6,989 donors has benefited the community through scholarships, grants and other often strategic efforts by the Foundation.
These dollars were seed money to launch Ashland Young Professionals and the Ashland County Land Bank in recent years, and they were the capstone grant allowing other projects to move forward.
While the Foundation rarely fully funds any project or effort, its dollars have contributed to playgrounds across the county and floral displays in Downtown Ashland. They have assisted 2,534 students earn college or trade school education with a total of $2,648,649 in scholarships.
As 2020 marks one of the Foundation's first major milestones, even more giving is planned from January through August in celebration of the occasion.
"We want to be known as an anchor institution... We want our anniversary to demonstrate, we are here for good," Cutright said. "It has a double meaning. We're here for the long haul, but also we're here to do good in the community."
The ACCF wasn't started with one large gift from one noteworthy donor, as is the story with many community foundations.
Rather, the local Foundation had more of a grassroots beginning. It was started in late 1995 out of an office at the First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, under the leadership of pro-bona president Dr. Lucille Ford and a volunteer board of trustees, who each placed either $10,000 of their own money or $50,000 deferred with the ACCF.
Shortly thereafter, in 1996, the Ashland YMCA, Hospice of North Central Ohio and the Ashland County Cancer Association brought significant portions of their own endowments to the new foundation, facilitating its further growth. The agencies benefit through an annual and sustainable income generated from their initial investment.
Cutright was on the board of Hospice at that time, but couldn't at that time imagine he'd later be leading the Foundation into its 25th anniversary. At that time, he supported the agency's investment in the Foundation.
"I think they realized we were really behind the curve," Cutright said, explaining that each of the surrounding counties had already established community foundations when Ashland began taking steps towards its own.
"A lot of wealth had been created here, but at that point, many (businesses) had been sold off to out of town ownership, and all the monied up relatives of founding industrialists left and took their money," Cutright said. "To capture the wealth in our community, we realized we needed to start a community foundation."
By 2002, the Foundation needed a larger space. The ACCF purchased the former Huntington Bank branch building on College Avenue. Two years later, the Foundation created the Women's Fund -- its 100th fund -- which was created with the intent to enhance the lives of Ashland County women.
The ACCF would further expand with the addition of an 800 foot wing, named the "Dr. Lucille Garber Ford Wing" in 2018.
Cutright was a board member for the ACCF when he was offered the job as executive director. At that time, Ford was aging, and the board was looking for a smooth transition.
He had a desire to further grow and see the ACCF thrive, so he took the role in 2012.
"When I came into the job, someone asked me very early on, how does it feel to be in the fundraising business," he said. "And I hadn't thought about being asked that question, but right off the top of my head I said, 'I don't think I'm in the fundraising business. I think I'm in the stewardship and grant making business, and I feel like if we do a good enough job in those two areas, the fundraising will take care of itself.'
"I say that because stewardship builds confidence in those who are giving you their dollars, and if we make an impact with our grant making, that is going to draw people to the organization. It's a little simplistic, but for the most part, that's what happened."
Under Cutright's leadership, assets have grown from $16.2 million to $57 million and endowments have grown from 246 to more than 500.
In 2015, he established the IMPACT (Imagine Making Philanthropy an Ashland County Tradition) Youth Council, which gives local high school students an opportunity to gain awareness of youth needs in Ashland County, review applications for programs and services to meet those needs and then award grants to fund those programs. In 2018-19, 19 grants were awarded, totaling $18,155. In total, 54 grants have been awarded for $47,989 total.
More recently, at Cutright's suggestion, the city of Ashland hired consultants to create a targeted action plan as a roadmap to identify key areas of the city where strategic improvements could be made within the next five to 10 years using a combination of public and private funds. ACCF provided the funding for the plan, and Cutright served on the steering committee to help guide the plan's formation.
To start, Cutright and another searched for inspiration from similar communities -- ones with a population of roughly 22,000, a university, hospital system, historic downtown and an interstate nearby. It led them to Winchester, Virginia.
"So we got in the car and drove down there. They have a city manager and a mayor, so we met with both of them and other leaders," Cutright said.
The city was what he imagines Ashland might be in a few decades. What he learned was that the city had invested in strategic planning and implemented the resulting plans.
"What my thought was is, maybe they're ahead of the curve because they've done planning and invested dollars in that," Cutright said.
He and the ACCF board decided to use a portion of their strategic grant dollars -- or funding that donors have not designated for a particular reason -- to fund the planning.
"I wanted it to be sort of our gift to the city of Ashland," Cutright said.
The steering committee, which consisted of Mayor Matt Miller, Ashland University president Carlos Campo and other leaders, created a targeted plan, with components that they believed could be completed within the coming years, Cutright explained.
Moving forward, Cutright would like the ACCF to be more proactive in its grant making efforts.
"Most donors when they give a gift, they want to control where the earnings from the endowment fund go, so when it comes down to it, the amount of unrestricted dollars we have is quite limited," he said. "But when donors entrust us to make a decision, then we can respond to things as they change. Organizations may change; missions may change. It allows us to be more proactive.
"If we see something in the community that looks to have potential, seems to have legs, then we can reach out to them and say, 'let us assist you in that.'"
To recognize its 25th year, the Ashland County Community Foundation has planned a series of special "Silver Anniversary" grants for 2020.
The grants are expected to support organizations doing important work in the community, entities working to ensure a bright future for Ashland and specific projects that will benefit the community for years to come, both within the city of Ashland and all over Ashland County. Most will fall into these four categories: education, compassion, community improvement and economic development.
"This was the result of a board retreat we held three years ago. I drew four buckets of need, and asked the board to fill them," Cutright said.
At that time, he recalls the Foundation was filling the first two buckets well, but he saw a need for further funding to support Ashland's future through community improvement and economic development projects. He said a fifth bucket could be health and wellness, but the Samaritan Hospital Foundation in Ashland fills this need well.
The special season of grantmaking will kickoff in January and culminate with a celebratory Silver Anniversary event Aug. 20, 2020.
During that time, the community will have an opportunity to engage with the Foundation to help determine how to award a portion of the grant dollars.