When riots ripped through Cincinnati in April 2001, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation was a stalwart, a respected philanthropic organization for nearly four decades. Kathryn Merchant had been at the helm of the organization for four years, working steadfastly to understand the needs of the community and connect charitable donors with organizations and projects.

Then Cincinnati found itself in trouble, looking for ways to deal with the crisis and its exposed  long, painful process of rebuilding the city and the racial divisions the riots exposed.

But no one called The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

"In truth, folks didn't think of us to be part of the team to help," Merchant recalls of the post-riot efforts. "This is disturbing to me. We feel a responsibility to be a part of the helping team, whoever that's going to be."

To Merchant, that silence was a call to action. "We were not visible. And we were little. And we were responsive and passive," she says. "We've tried since to be bigger, more active, more visible, and offer to do things instead of wait to be asked."

It seems Merchant was an ideal match for that calling. Since taking the GCF helm in 1997, she's leveraged the foundation's longstanding reputation and worked to increase its visibility and leadership, doubled grants from $14 million to $32 million last year, and boosted its staff from 11 to 31. She's done this through the six main channels by which the foundation has long worked to inspire philanthropy and connect donors with meaningful projects: health, human services, community progress, arts and culture, environment and education.

The GCF mission, "To empower donors to make a profound difference in the quality of human and community life in the Greater Cincinnati region, today and tomorrow," is an ever-guiding principle, notes William Portman III, chairman of the GCF board of 18 that, in addition to approving grants, sets strategy and assures investment policies and returns are responsibly managed.

Founded in 1963, GCF consistently earns the highest rating on Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of non-profit groups. The foundation manages 1,450 funds, $433 million in net assets, with $51.6 million in contributions last year. Its $32 million in grants ranks the foundation"”whose reach includes eight counties that touch Hamilton County, including three in Northern Kentucky and one in Indiana"”among the top 25 largest community foundations in America by total giving, according to the Council on Foundations.

Although The Greater Cincinnati Foundation often collaborates with charities, the GCF differs from an umbrella organization like the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Instead of conducting community or corporate fundraising drives, community foundations work with a pool of donors on an ongoing basis, setting up and administering their individual restricted or unrestricted funds. Donor-advised funds (an alternative to forming individual foundations or charitable trusts) now account for nearly half of GCF's fund assets.

"We are the helper in between folks with resources and folks who need them. So we're big yentas. We're matchmakers," Merchant explains.

On the giving side, the foundation tends to fund single projects that have lasting impact rather than long-term operational goals. "We often say we fund projects, not organizations," explains Elizabeth Reiter, GCF's vice president for communications and marketing.

"The key is that we have multiple flexible options for donors, and our job is to make their giving easy and convenient," Merchant adds. Then she looks at Reiter sitting across the table. "Do I pass my key messages test right now?" They both laugh.

GCF also participates in and supports an array of high-profile and innovative projects. Among those are Pulse, a 2005 study the foundation commissioned about the status of women and girls in Greater Cincinnati; Cincinnati CAN, for which the foundation provided leadership, office space and funding; and, most recently, an unprecedented $1 million commitment over four years to help establish Community Learning Centers in Cincinnati Public Schools.

That effort is now part of the Strive education initiative, which Merchant calls the "most exciting coming together of leaders in this community around that set of goals, for kids to be successful, in my 10 years here."

Known for listening SKILLS

As friendly as she is animated, Merchant is an auburn, sophisticated woman with an easy laugh wh'™s earned a reputation as a listener, someone wh'™s out in the community as much as she's in the office mentoring her staff.
An impressive pig statue from The Big Pig Gig named Piganthropy greets visitors in the lobby of Merchant's quiet office overlooking Fourth and Elm downtown. She is engaged and thoughtful while discussing a range of topics, from female leaders to the challenges of community healing. But she's clearly most excited when her foundation is the subject.

"We love to talk about what we do!" she exclaims.

Merchant holds a bachelor's degree from Indiana University and a master's degree from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. Her career path led her to directing the Pew Charitable Trust's Neighborhood Preservation Initiative. She visited Cincinnati in 1997 when it was under consideration for a Pew grant. Cincy lost out on the money.

But Karen Hoeb, the foundation's first CEO, was retiring, and she sought Merchant's help in finding a replacement. It turned out that the advisor was an ideal candidate.

Since then, Merchant has built a reputation extending well beyond the Tristate. "She's a positive force in the community and she is very well-known in the world of community foundations, too," says GCF Chairman Portman.

Merchant has served on several non-profit boards, including the Ohio Grantmaker Forum and the United Way of Greater Connecticut, and is currently the vice chair of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foundations and Chairman of the Community Foundation of America.

That Merchant is able to manage all these roles comes as no surprise to her employees, who nominated her for the recognition she received in October: The 2006 Ohio Philanthropy Award from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, a statewide association of foundations, corporate contributions programs and other grant-making organizations.

"She's a good listener," Portman observes. "She's a creative thinker. That's very important. She is able to think about problem solving in a creative way."

Opportunities in the gloom

It hasn't been easy. The 2001 community challenges were exacerbated by 9/11 and the downturn in investment earnings. The situation is now much brighter for GCF: The foundation's 2005 investment return was 6.1 percent, with a three-year overall return of 10.7 percent.

Nevertheless, it bothered Merchant that GCF was not seen as a "go t' resource to help redress local social and economic ills. In the gloom of 2001 she saw opportunities to provide added leadership and support for the community's work. "As soon as we realized that it wasn't going to happen naturally, that we'll be invited to be part of the problem-solving team, we'll invite ourselves, because that's our duty to do that," she says.

The GCF board convened special sessions and funded immediate initiatives through C-CAN. It continues to be involved through Better Together Cincinnati, a group formed to fund some of the more challenging projects, such as the Community Policing Partnering Center.

"Our role escalated quickly to being very much responsible for the thought process of what do you do as a community to fix the problems that underlay the crisis? You can deal with the crisis and quit, or you can stick with it," Merchant observes. "And we're a stick-with-it kind of organization. We are here forever."

As for the underlying problems, the GCF board decided the answer is education"”a conclusion leading to the recent $1 million commitment to the Community Learning Centers. As envisioned by Cincinnati Public Schools and its partners, each center addresses specific neighborhood needs, from GED tutoring for high school dropouts to health and wellness screenings. "We're talking with Newport and Covington about extending the concept into their communities," Merchant says of the two other cities joined with Cincinnati in the Strive collaboration.

Reaching out is a priority on the donor side, too. In addition to donor advising and fund administration, the foundation offers services to attorneys specializing in estate planning, financial advisors and other professionals. Foundation work includes the Planned Giving Design Center on its web site, an e-mail bulletin addressing charitable giving issues and GCF programs, seminars featuring national experts in the field, and presentations or one-on-one meetings for advisors and their clients.

All the outreach efforts haven't gone unnoticed, says Brenda Mayes Kloos, an attorney with Thompson Hine, LLP, which specializes in personal and succession financial planning, and sometimes points clients toward GCF. "In a lot of ways they've stayed the same," Kloos says of the foundation. "But in a lot of ways they're reaching out further and further in the community, and I think it's paying off. They do a lot of connecting with law firms."

Merchant enthusiastically embraces the chance to participate in so many facets of the community, a variety that plays to her curiosity and passion for being involved. In the span of several days recently, Merchant visited a school to make a presentation, met with a company that provides services to high net-worth individuals, and joined more than 50 local business, civic and political leaders who traveled to Boston together for a series of "leadership exchange" encounters with movers and shakers there, organized by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. In September, she was named to the steering committee of GO Cincinnati, which Mayor Mark Mallory formed to devise a comprehensive economic development strategy for the city and its neighborhoods.

But Kathryn Merchant has her limits. "I haven't figured out how to clone myself so there are two of me to get everything done. This is not a job where one could get bored. If you're bored in this job, you are really making a mistake."