Scrappy from the Start

October 3, 2022

When Linda Shapiro Weinstein started as Rochester Area Foundation’s executive director in 1977, she was the sole employee. The Foundation had $92,000 in assets and was located in donated office space with second-hand furniture.

One board member even helped to buy paper for the copier. “We tried to make a little bit of money go a long way,” Weinstein recalls.

Through creativity and sheer tenacity, Weinstein’s work paid off. Over the next 17 years, she helped to grow the Foundation’s assets to $32 million and establish the fledgling organization as a force in the region’s philanthropy.

Board Chair Bud Rusitzky with Linda Shapiro Weinstein in 1987

From the start, she recognized that raising the Foundation’s profile was a top priority, focusing her efforts on donor engagement and community leadership. Weinstein started with the board, encouraging them to become ambassadors and fundraisers. Together, they engaged attorneys and bankers to introduce the Foundation to potential donors. By 1979, the Foundation’s assets topped $1 million.

To reach a wider audience in a more festive way, Weinstein worked with the Foundation’s PR committee to create An Evening Out at Home. The first event in 1982 brought more than 100 guests together for dinner in homes of 11 Foundation supporters. Over the years, it has been the organization’s premiere awareness-raising event. “We attracted a lot of people who wouldn’t have known about the Foundation otherwise,” Weinstein says. “That kept us from becoming the best-kept secret.”

Another pivotal project that she counts among her biggest accomplishments was the Early Childhood Education initiative. With input from the community and a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1987, it addressed gaps in early childhood education. “We decided what else could be more important than giving kids the right start,” Weinstein says. The initiative, which started with a focus on informal daycare, has since grown into a county-wide collaboration dedicated to high-quality care, education, and support for children through age 8.

In addition to donor-engagement efforts, Weinstein leveraged opportunities for community leadership. One of the early projects was the creation of the Rochester Grantmakers Forum that allowed local funders and grantmakers to network and share ideas. Today, known as the NY Funders Alliance, it promotes philanthropy statewide and connects and convenes funders.

The Ford Foundation grant helped propel the Community Foundation into sustainability and more significant grantmaking. Within two years, assets reached $20 million with gifts from the sales of Lawyers Cooperative Publishing and Champion Products.

Throughout her tenure, and during her most challenging times, Weinstein found support from board members and mentors. Her husband, Sid, and their three children — affectionately known as the “Coat Brigade” for checking coats at Foundation events — also provided steadfast support and encouragement.
Weinstein says that one of the best parts of her time at the Foundation was getting to know different kinds of people. “It opened up the world in a way a suburban mom wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she says.

Bold Ideas Kick Off a 30-Year Commitment

While working as a consultant, Jennifer Leonard theorized that successful community foundations share three features that ensure growth: grantmaking from permanent “community capital;” a focus on donors who make those grants possible; and community leadership.

As she considered the position of executive director in Rochester, Leonard saw a donor-centered foundation that had taken on its first community leadership effort — early childhood education — and great opportunity to expand the Foundation’s grantmaking and $32 million in assets.

“I looked the search committee in the eyes and said with a straight face that this could be a $100 million foundation within 10 years,” Leonard recalls. After six years under her leadership, the Foundation did indeed exceed that projected goal and has continued to grow in assets and influence ever since.

With solid strategic planning and a disciplined investment approach, Leonard has led the Foundation through three economic recessions and a global pandemic. When she retires in September 2022 after nearly 30 years, the Foundation will have reached nearly $600 million in assets and become a driving force in addressing disparities throughout the Rochester region.

“I have the best job in the community,” Leonard says. “I get to work with a lot of generous people and a lot of very smart people. We’re trying to make things better by putting them together.”

Central to Leonard’s success has been her emphasis on greater connection to the community and cultivating a culture of curiosity and compassion among the staff and board. With these priorities, the Foundation diversified its workforce and volunteers, and began looking at key indicators of community well-being to determine how best to serve the region.

This work began in 2000 with a Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which revealed deep rifts across the community, and led to grantmaking with an emphasis on civic engagement. Over a decade, the Foundation broadly funded efforts to connect people across differences, including the Biracial Partnerships Program; interdenominational community conversations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and programs to connect urban and suburban students.

By 2009, the Foundation launched ACT Rochester, a community indicators project, with added start-up funding from United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes.

Using census and other public data on issues such as poverty, education, housing, public safety and health, this project showed stark disparities related to race and ethnicity across the region. It became the basis of the Foundation’s first poverty report in 2013.

“We took one look at the content and said, ‘We need to publish this. This is too important to just use to inform ourselves,’” Leonard recalls.

The findings led to action and collaboration in various sectors of the community. The Foundation sponsored lectures, interpersonal training, and an exhibit on race at the Rochester Museum & Science Center that was seen by more than 48,000 people. It also supported local media exploring the impact of racial disparities, as well as the formation of a community-wide coalition. These efforts have evolved and now include the Interrupt Racism initiative at the Urban League of Rochester.

Looking back, Leonard is most proud of spurring this kind of environment for change and collective impact. As she looks forward to a year-long sabbatical after retirement, Leonard is grateful for the expertise and commitment of her teams over the years and excited for the leadership that is in place.

Linda Weinstein, Executive Director from 1977-1993; Jennifer Leonard, President & CEO from 1993-2022; and Simeon Banister, current President & CEO

“We are blessed with big thinkers who are also generous and humble individually and good team players, both within the Foundation and in the community,” she says. “The Foundation is on the right trajectory. We have an ear to the community in deeper ways than ever before and we are committed to going forward.”

— Lydia Fernandez


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