Do Good Do Good!
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Christin Farmer always has the perfect quote in hand ready to inspire others. 

Every Monday at 10:30 a.m., her staff at Birthing Beautiful Communities gathers for a weekly check-in at their office on Euclid Avenue just east of downtown. The 22 individuals assemble various chairs into a circle to set the tone for the week.

Then, Farmer shares the quote she has selected. On this Monday in early October, she reads an old African proverb: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” 

“It speaks to our work,” reflects Farmer, the nonprofit’s founding president and CEO. 

Staffed almost exclusively by black women, the organization has a mission to address and improve on birth inequities in Cuyahoga County, where black babies are currently dying at a rate seven times more than white babies. So each day, they train women to become community-based doulas and employ them to support pregnant women in their neighborhoods. 

“Doing good is about collectivism,” says Farmer. “Yes, we’re individuals. But we’re individuals in a community and our voices together allow us to do even more good.”

And goodness knows, we need it.

If you spend any time on Twitter, watching cable news or driving in rush hour traffic on Interstate-480, you’re witness to all sorts of nastiness and division. The opioid epidemic, the scourge of gun violence and the effects of poverty and inequality are just some of the problems we’re confronting in Northeast Ohio. Add in a president whose rhetoric routinely includes lies, name-calling and fearmongering, and positivity can be tough to muster. 

“The national climate may have the power to prevent people from working with each other,” says Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. “But in Cleveland, everyone always wants to work with everyone to do the most good possible.”

Cleveland’s propensity for goodness rivals any city in America with a history that easily dates back more than 100 years with the founding of the country’s first community chest in 1913 and its first community foundation a year later. 

That spirit continues today with example after inspiring example of energy spent trying to make things better. Charity Navigator recently ranked Cleveland sixth in the country in philanthropic giving, including taking the top spot for financial performance. The Corporation of National and Community Service placed us among the top 15 metropolitan areas with the highest rates of volunteerism. 

“The interactions of those doing good here in Cleveland is the classic case of two plus two equals seven,” says Hoffman. “This city keeps proving we are greater working together.”

It’s easy to identify Cleveland’s early philanthropists — industrialists such as Hanna, Severance, Rockefeller and Wade. Their names, like their contributions, are etched into our cultural and civic landscape. 

Yet as impressive as any of those individuals, our city’s united efforts, which helped create the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation and the United Way of Greater Cleveland, have made us leaders in giving. 

“I don’t feel like I have philanthropic rivals in Cleveland,” says Hoffman. “There’s a real feeling of unity, support and cooperation here.”

Established in 1903, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland brought together eight local Jewish agencies to pool their resources and ask the community for support in a more unified voice. 

The work’s founding principle was tikkun olam, the responsibility placed on Jewish people by the laws of the Talmud to make the world a better place. 

Much of the Jewish Federation’s success has been working with other organizations, Hoffman says, from partnering with Case Western Reserve University on lectures to working with more than a dozen organizations to bring Holocaust rememberance program Violins of Hope to Cleveland in 2015. Last year alone, the organization made more than 6,600 grants to the tune of more than $117 million.

“We don’t believe you can have a healthy Jewish community unless the community around us is healthy,” says Hoffman. 

When Clevelanders elected Tom Johnson as mayor at the turn-of-the-century, the self-made millionaire made free trade a priority of his reform policies. 

In 1908, Johnson negotiated a high-profile streetcar deal with lawyer Frederick Goff, which thrust Goff into the public eye. 

Within a few months, Goff was asked to become the first full-time president of the Cleveland Trust Co., which provided banking services, business loans and administered large estates held in trusts. 

These fortunes inspired Goff to create a community trust, a foundation for Clevelanders to pool whatever resources they could offer into a central fund for charitable giving that would respond to the evolving needs of the city. It became the Cleveland Foundation.

“Goff was heavily influenced by the notion that we need to encourage people to leave something behind to promote the quality of life in their communities,” says Steven Minter, president and executive director of the Cleveland Foundation from 1984 to 2003. “Building the trust was a clever new marketing strategy that ended up doing a world of good.”

As the oldest and third-largest community foundation in America, the Cleveland Foundation has doled out more than $2 billion since Goff’s original idea. In 2017 alone, it made more than 4,700 grants totaling $101 million, always with the goal of enhancing the lives of Greater Cleveland residents. 

But numbers do not tell the whole story, Minter says. 

“I always urge people to look at what Goff did before the money started coming in,” says Minter. “Those years between 1914 and the early 1920s did as much to set the tone for philanthropy as the funds that were dispersed.”

That’s because Goff set out to determine what needed to be done in Cleveland, asking community leaders about the important issues. These resulting studies helped create the Cleveland Metroparks and, a century before Serial, a landmark report on Cleveland’s criminal justice system. 

“These were the real enduring community issues that we keep coming back to,” says Minter. “These issues remind us that the goal of philanthropy is not to provide assistance, but to seek to try to alter the conditions to make things better for everyone in the city.”

Although many of these Cleveland efforts date back to the early 1900s, their methods are not stuck in the past. 

Before it became known as the United Way, the organization was founded in 1913 as the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy. 

It was the first collection of health and welfare agencies in the country that featured annual allocation of funds to address the problems associated with a city. 

As the largest private-sector funder of health and human services in Cleveland, United Way caught everyone’s attention when it dramatically changed its funding model in 2017. 

“We needed to innovate to make sure the funds were doing all the good they could do,” says William Winans, United Way’s vice president of brand strategy and marketing.

After a yearlong assessment to understand the needs of the community — reminiscent of Goff’s work a century earlier — the United Way introduced its community hub model. The new approach includes grantees setting and measuring meaningful outcomes, reporting indicators to the United Way every six months and a lens that is focused on solutions-related processes. 

“The increased rigor will allow us to concentrate funding even more on people who are making a difference,” says Winans. 

Earlier this year the United Way also introduced the Impact Institute, which brings together organizations, volunteers, corporate and academic partners, local government and others to do a deep dive into some of Cleveland’s most challenging issues. Phase one is focused on early learning, family-sustaining employment, violence prevention, housing stability and more.

“Innovation helps us look at the root causes of poverty,” says Winans, “not just the symptoms.”

Doing good doesn’t just mean nonprofits and philanthropy, either. Throughout our city, we see companies, educational institutions and everyday Clevelanders trying to make things better.

Consider Case Western Reserve University’s Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. Housed in the Weatherhead School of Management, it focuses on the influence that businesses can exert to make the world better. 

“The general perception of business is that they’re just in it to make money,” says Katherine Gullett, senior director at the Fowler Center. “We have found that business does better when the people working there can excel and nature is thriving.” 

Through its AIM2Flourish initiative, the school has produced more than 1,400 mini-case studies of positive and profitable businesses, including Cleveland’s Storehouse Tea Co., which employs refugee women to blend and pack its fair-trade teas, and Akron’s Vigeo Gardens, a non-GMO, pesticide-free vertical farm inside the 110-year-old former BFGoodrich tire factory.

Every three years, the Fowler Center hosts the Global Forum, which convenes business and thought leaders from all over the world to contribute to a tipping point in businesses making the world better. 

“At Fowler, we approach the system with this positive energy in mind,” says Gullett, “so that businesses can do even more to create good in everything they touch.”

The same could be said about Julia Foos. The Avon Lake 17-year-old grew up in a family where altruism was the norm. 

Every Christmas, they would “adopt a family” — buying, wrapping and sending presents to those with less financial means. 

In 2015, after the then high school freshman read an article on low literacy rates and individuals lacking access to books, Foos set a goal of collecting 250 books to donate to the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank. Appeals to her friends, family and local businesses yielded more than double that number. 

“There’s nothing that compares to the happiness I feel when a little boy or girl runs up to me in shock asking, ‘We really get to keep these?’ ” says Foos.

To date, Foos has collected and donated 32,000 books and expects to reach her goal of 35,000 before she graduates Hathaway Brown School in May. 

“I just wish more young people could realize that you don’t need a ton of time to do good,” says Foos. “It doesn’t have to be a giant effort all at once. Anyone can make a big impact by just trying a little bit each day.”

Yet, it is not without challenges. Government bureaucracy, limited assets and general resistance to change can all serve as obstacles to what we want to achieve. 

“Time and time again, I am around community leaders who have a belief that they can take on the impossible,” says Nelson Beckford, program director for neighborhood revitalization and community engagement at the Cleveland Foundation. “I am continuously inspired by people like Christin Farmer, who move boldly forward as the rest of society throws up roadblocks.”

Even in instances where available and distributed resources are plentiful, however, Farmer reminds us that maximum good may not be taking place. 

“At the end of the day, doing good is about measuring equity,” says Farmer. “For example, a program to provide assistance to homeowners is not successful just because people are using it. If the attention isn’t going to communities that have long-suffered from divestment, then have we really done good?”

Farmer reminds her staff at Birthing Beautiful Communities that they all play a crucial role in making things better in Cleveland. And yes, she has a quote ready to get that point across too. 

“Oprah said, ‘You are responsible for your life. You can’t keep blaming somebody else for your dysfunction,’ ” says Farmer. “Cleveland is a great place to do good, but our village has to get out there and do it.” 

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