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Half-full region Featured

6:35am EDT May 23, 2005
"Plucky optimism" isn't a phrase that's often used in the business world; in fact, an overly rosy outlook can be perceived as a weakness, akin to naïveté and excessive idealism.

But for Robert Briggs, chairman of the Fund for Our Economic Future, optimism isn't about being naïve or unrealistic; it's a conscious decision to acknowledge and address problems and still maintain a positive attitude.

"People who try to be positive get up in the morning and say, 'I'm not going to let my problems bother me or anybody else. I'm going to be upbeat and positive.' I think that's what we, as a region, have to do," says Briggs, who also serves as executive director of the Akron-based GAR Foundation and is vice chair of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Board.

By working to improve the economy and promote northeast Ohio's assets, the fund's goal is to infuse the region with a healthy dose of optimism. It launched in February 2004 as a philanthropic economic problem-solver with three objectives -- generate a regional dialogue, establish and track economic indicators, and give grants.

It's the third objective, grant-making, that the fund is best known for. In July 2004, the Funders' Committee (the decision-making body comprised of donors) granted more than $8 million to four regional nonprofits -- BioEnterprise, JumpStart, NorTech and Team NEO. These were chosen because of their dedication to fostering and growing small businesses, funding technology innovation and encouraging businesses to locate and expand in Northeast Ohio.

Smart Business spoke with Briggs, chairman emeritus and former CEO of law firm Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, about how the fund helps its grantees succeed, which issues need attention and why Northeast Ohio is one of the best places in America to do business.

How do you decide which nonprofits to support?

It's a very democratic process. Everyone on the Funders' Committee gets a vote. Ashland County has come up with $100,000, through a combination of contributions from the county government, which is a first; the city government, which is a first; the university, which is a first; the community foundation. A couple of other community leaders came up with $100,000. They all have the same one vote that the Cleveland Foundation has, who came up with $10 million. That factor was very important in drawing in outside communities.

As you begin new relationships, what are you doing to maintain those you've already formed?

We are in constant communication. Imbedded in each organization is a representative from the fund. They're not officially board members, but they're invited to attend every single board meeting, they're invited to and attend every single executive meeting, they receive all the materials that all the board members receive and they give quarterly reports to the funders.

And in order for them to get a second round of grants, they have to give a detailed report, which our due diligence team will follow up on, as to how they've progressed in all of the benchmarks that we've provided, which include specific diversity-inclusion benchmarks.

How do you manage your partners' expectations?

We are a very transparent organization and very accessible. While I am the chair, there are a number of us who speak for the Funders' Committee, because we're all so interconnected with what we're doing.

We maintain close relationships with these folks, and we laid out from the get-go what our expectations were and determined what their expectations were, so I don't think there's any discrepancy there. Because of mutual transparency and our involvement with the organizations, so far it seems that we've managed very well.

What are the greatest challenges facing the fund?

No. 1, overcoming city-centric parochialism. No. 2, overcoming malaise on the part of our citizens, the chronic depression where people, when asked where they're from, say, 'Oh, I'm from Cleveland,' or Akron, and look at the ground and shuffle their feet. It ought to be, 'I'm from Northeast Ohio, and I live in Akron, and things are great there.'

And they are.

We have our challenges, of course -- to overcome that parochialism, to infuse a positive attitude. But we're not talking about blind boosterism. We're talking about being able to sell real assets and potential and get people excited. We have great patience and great optimism and a great team.

Also, sustainability is an issue. We've got that on our radar screen and we've got some ideas. We're entrepreneurial enough and connected enough that we can come up with some approaches to sustain us.

The fund is involved in other projects besides grant-giving. How will these programs help battle civic malaise?

Another of our projects is going to be a massive civic engagement program. The focus will be, No. 1, to inform. We want to reach literally hundreds of thousands of people in the region and explain what regionalism is and what it isn't. [We want to] talk about not only our challenges, which everybody talks about all the time, but talk about our assets and how we can leverage those assets.

Second, we want to focus. We want to get feedback. We want to have civic engagement, an enlightened dialogue. We want people to tell us what they think the most important priorities are for the region -- we don't presume to set those priorities.

And third, we want to mobilize. We need to proactively mobilize the citizens, as well as the media and the corporate community, health and human services, to work together collaboratively to make this thing happen. We have a lot of naysayers who say, 'Eh, it's great, and it's good thinking, but you're not going to do it.' And we don't believe it, obviously.

We've decided that we're not going to be spectators anymore; we're going to be good citizens, we're going to be proactive, we're going to gravitate toward bringing this region back to the greatness it once was.

What are Northeast Ohio's key assets?

We have an extraordinary manufacturing [sector]. We have a very good industrial base, which has a great capacity. We have extraordinary health and human services organizations, a phenomenal network of higher education organizations, world-class arts and culture organizations, major and minor league teams. And we've got the lake and the parks. The list just goes on and on and on.

Fast forward 15 years: What do you see for the region?

Wow, that's a toughie. Because when I think of what the region was 35 years ago and how I thought it was going to be in five years, I would never have predicted that we would be where we are, in some positive ways and some negative ways.

But best of all worlds? That we have a world-class collaborative region that has worked to bring this region back to economic, social and diverse prominence throughout the world, where our diversity is a major asset and where we've expanded to other Great Lakes regions to essentially do the same thing.

We have an environment of continuing improvement, where the foundation community has, through another generation, brought on new folks to continue the momentum, and there is an electricity, an attractiveness and a tremendous marketing arm for the region to market the assets we have. I see great potential.

How to reach: Fund for Our Economic Future, (216) 615-7583, www.futurefundNEO.org