Transform Cincinnati Connects Causes with Cash

Transform Cincinnati aims to pair the city’s most pressing issues with those with the means to solve them.
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For those who care deeply about Cincinnati, these early fall days have special resonance. On September 30, a panel of handpicked civic leaders will field presentations from the winners of Transform Cincinnati’s first competition for—as its fact sheet grandiosely states—“the bold solutions that will have a lasting impact on the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati.” Names of the leaders remain anonymous, so no one can lobby them.

In the days immediately following, the reaction to the presenters will be almost as interesting as the contest itself. That’s because, almost inevitably, Transform Cincinnati is going to alter the face of Queen City philanthropy from mostly tangible (bricks and mortar, endowing a chair) to more conceptual (funding a program, catalyzing research).

But let’s back up. Transform Cincinnati is the brainchild of Dick Rosenthal, one of the city’s most generous stewards, his name prominently associated with both the Contemporary Arts Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Recognizing that many other philanthropists—among them Manny Mayerson, Louise Nippert, Bill Friedlander, Patricia Corbett, Carl Lindner, and Stanley Kaplan—have died in recent years, Rosenthal’s goal for Transform Cincinnati is to inspire a new generation of donors. But who are they? And what will bring them to the table?

His tactic has been to invite proposals for “transformative” ideas that could genuinely reshape the way the community approaches its most pressing needs—including health, housing, poverty, education, the arts—a range limited only by the proposer’s imagination. Interested participants were required to apply and then submit ideas, which were culled to a list of six and ultimately presented to potential funders for adoption. In other words, the project funnels ideas to potential philanthropists in an effort to pair the two halves together. Thus the importance of September 30.

Curious as to how it was all going, I met with Rosenthal this summer after the application deadline, to hear of any progress. He was pleased. “What I’m most proud of,” he said, “is that some of these [proposed] projects deal with some of the ugliest social issues that confront us in Cincinnati. I’m very hopeful that some of them, either individually or collectively, will get funded and eat into the horrible social problems they address.”

Dick Rosenthal managed to spread the word about Transform Cincinnati through newsletters at places such as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and ArtsWave, selective e-mail lists, and an agreement with the United Way to pass along information to each of its member agencies.

The winning applicants, selected in late August, include projects related to cancer breakthroughs, neighborhood redevelopment in Walnut Hills, and eliminating youth homelessness. Others focus on expanding and renovating Ziegler Park in Over-the-Rhine and developing an affordable citywide preschool program. To Rosenthal’s astonishment, Transform Cincinnati received more than 150 distinct proposals by the deadline date, and more were coming in. “We dramatically underestimated the number of people we thought we would get.”

Susan Ingmire, president of Ignite Philanthropy Advisors (a local philanthropic consulting firm), thinks the idea is “brilliant” on two levels: First, it’s collaborative, bringing together outfits like the Haile Foundation, the Jewish Federation, and Interact for Health (among many others) to suggest possible funders and to contemplate funding themselves; in the past, she points out, any budding philanthropist might have to make several stops before finding “the thing” with which he or she wanted to become involved. Second, Cincinnati’s positive momentum—Over-the-Rhine’s evolution, 3CDC, STRIVE, People’s Liberty, Smale Riverfront Park, new homeless shelters—make this an auspicious time to climb aboard.

To hear the proposals, Rosenthal compiled a list of 35 to 40 prospective funders he identified through meetings with active philanthropists, foundations, bank wealth managers, and more—the 1 percent of Cincinnati, if you will. “We asked them to be at the table, and to invite peers,” says Rosenthal. “This city is rich in social entrepreneurs, but they need resources. And we’re talking not just $25,000 to $50,000, but up to $10 million.

“When people hear that, they sit up very straight.”

As far as those involved are aware, Transform Cincinnati is unique in the nation. If it works—best-case scenario, several programs are funded and there’s a call for more next year—you can bet that plenty of other cities will sit up very straight as well.

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