CLEVELAND -- It’s the season of giving, and some of the biggest givers here in Ohio are foundations. The Buckeye State is home to more than 3,600 community, corporate, and private foundations. 

  • Philanthropic groups have large economic footprint throughout state
  • Areas of focus: workforce development, economic growth and the arts
  • Each group decides priorities and funding

Those groups combined to give more than $1.6 billion in 2015, according to the most recent data available from Philanthropy Ohio. But each organization choses their funding priorities differently. According to philanthropy scholar Leslie Lenkowsky, there’s an old saying in the world of foundations.

“If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation," he said. 

By that, he means each organization is different in deciding what their priorities are and how to support them with their dollars.

Focal areas include a wide slate of goals, including workforce development, creating economic growth, and the arts.

Ohio’s community, corporate, and private foundations have a big economic footprint.

But when a foundation makes a financial commitment to a group or non-profit, what does that move suggest to the community?

“The foundation thinks that the area in which its granting is worth public attention," he said. "Not everybody will agree with that, of course, but it reflects a decision that boards and staffs make that something’s worth funding.”

The Columbus Foundation’s Dan Sharpe said their priorities are set by being responsive to the community’s needs.

For example, the organization recently identified youth homelessness as a focal point.  

More than 1,300 people under the age of 24 reportedly spent time at a homeless shelter in the area in 2017, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Sharpe said the decision to invest into that issue was based on a three-pronged approach.

“Using research from local entities like the community shelter board all the way up to national entities like HUD," he said. "Then organizational leaders, are these nonprofits being guided by innovative folks that are doing good work that would be investment grade for our donors’ dollars, and then the third factor is less of a science, and less of an art, more happenstance, that the stars are aligning to brining organizations and these causes to the forefront." 

Philanthropy expert Lenkowsky also suggested funding can reveal a deeper look at different approaches organizations are taking to solve communities’ problems.

“For example, if they’re concerned about reading, they may be funding programs that use phonics as a method of teaching reading versus other methods," he said. "That also tells us something about the range of options for dealing with public problems.” 

Literacy is actually an issue the city of Cleveland struggles with.

Sixty-six percent of its adult residents are reportedly functionally illiterate, according to the non-profit Seeds of Literacy. It’s looking at problem areas like that -- along with other potential opportunities for growth -- that the Cleveland Foundation’s Kathy Hallissey said the group keeps in mind as they think of their priorities.

“We’re looking at ways, how can we approve that," she said. "We’ve also noticed that youth don’t have access to employment, so how can we make a difference. So I would say our priorities definitely do reflect the community and what they’re interested in making a difference on, as well." 

But at the end of the day, philanthropy expert Lenkowsky said there’s one thing to keep in mind when following foundations’ funding.

“We can learn a lot from foundations, but we have to be very careful to remember that foundations are just people like the rest of us, people with money," he said. "And they will choose to spend that money in all sorts of ways, just as the rest of us do.”