Akron Community Foundation empowers philanthropy now, into the future

The opportunity to teach philanthropy to the next generation of community leaders in the Akron region is perhaps the most rewarding part of John T. Petures Jr.’s work at the Akron Community Foundation.

“To see Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, granddaughters and grandsons sitting in a room talking about a backpack program that will give young people in the community equipment and material for the classroom or food they can take home for the weekend,” says Petures, president and CEO at the nonprofit organization.

“We have the greatest jobs in the world. We’re there to be a resource and an advocate for the things they want to do. Above all else, we listen and then say, ‘How can we help structure and shape and fulfill this vision for you?’ That’s a remarkable thing.”

Back in 1955, Edwin Shaw’s bequest of $1 million established Akron Community Trusts, now known as the Akron Community Foundation. According to Shaw’s will, which is posted on the ACF website, the organization was created to “meet the changes in the community needs brought about by the passage of time and the variance in circumstances.”

More than 60 years later, that $1 million gift has been transformed into $185 million in philanthropic capital across more than 560 named funds that benefit people in the Akron community.

“We’ve added in the last five years alone almost 220 funds and about $70 million in new contributions,” Petures says. “This is just an incredibly generous community. The vision for our future and how we can make an impact today and forever through these various funds that donors, companies and families come to set up is a pretty remarkable thing. If a place like this didn’t exist, someone would have to be out there creating it.”

Anyone can help

There are more than 1,100 community foundations in the United States, including 84 in Ohio. These entities are set up to help people become philanthropists and support causes that are near and dear to their hearts.

One of the biggest challenges for Petures is to convince people that you don’t have to be incredibly wealthy to start a charitable fund.

“With a gift of only $5,000, you can start a donor advised fund,” Petures says. “These kinds of funds are among the fastest growing charitable vehicles of choice in the country. They give people not only that immediate tax deduction they are looking for, but they give them the time, which is often important to make a more informed giving decision and distribute the charitable dollars to the nonprofits in the community they feel are most deserving.”

Petures came to ACF in May 2008. He previously worked at the United Way and the Arthritis Foundation and has helped raise more than $900 million for community causes over the course of his career.

“We support everything from early learning to afterschool programming, the arts, job training, neighborhood development and the environment,” Petures says.

“Grantees complete an extensive application and they are absolutely held accountable to effectively invest the grants we give them and deliver the results and outcomes to alter the state of peoples’ lives. In my early days, all nonprofits did was measure headcounts. How many people came through the doors? We can’t just do that. We have to say are people standing on their own two feet? Did they find a job? Did they get the training they needed? Do they have a roof over their head?”

Nonprofit work has changed in numerous ways. The work that is done is built around helping people turn things around so they can lead better lives and become self-supporting again. From the donor perspective, there is a much greater desire to know what their money can do and how it will be used to do it.

“People want to be more informed,” Petures says. “We invite people to come on bus tours of local nonprofit organizations and to community forums that we’re hosting for seniors. They want to be more involved and get more information.”

Meeting the need

Times have been tough for many people lately and when the economy is struggling, it only increases the needs in the community.

“It’s at times like those that organizations like ours have to convince people to give even more,” Petures says.

Fortunately for those in need, one of the worst economic downturns in American history did not stop people in Akron from giving.

“Our grant making went up because we worked hard and our donors were enlightened to see that it was a time of great need and great urgency,” Petures says. “We set priorities at that moment for basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter.”

He says he has seen a similar outpouring when times are good and people choose to share their prosperity with those who are struggling.

“I’m a firm believer that people don’t give to causes, they give to people,” Petures says. “Akron is the kind of community where when you’re sincere and you work hard and you look people straight in the eye, they rally for you and become a champion for you and our cause.”

How to reach: Akron Community Foundation, (330) 376-8522 or www.akroncf.org