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Lehman: CFMT needs unrestricted funds for rapid impact
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Ellen Lehman
Ellen Lehman says the foundation she leads is gaining "trusted advisor" status and is prepared to manage the larger unrestricted investments that are needed in the Nashville region.

Lehman is a founder and president of the nonprofit Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which manages roughly 670 funds.  Thus far in 2008, CFMT has distributed more than $75 million in its 40-county region.  In 2007, CFMT awarded grants to 1,144 organizations.

Lehman made clear CFMT aims to encourage innovation, as well as traditional giving. For instance, said Lehman, "If everybody who is a VC took a share of every deal" and contributed it to an unrestricted fund, then "liquefying events" -- such as investor exits or recapitalization of a company -- could produce assets for support of community programs, much as deaths of individuals trigger gifts from their estates.

The energetic and entrepreneurial Lehman would probably look to the investment community for greater involvement, even if she hadn't earned an MBA at Harvard University and a second master's in public management and enterprise at the London School of Economics.

Although the foundation has achieved a great deal, Lehman said, an increase in "unrestricted" funds would allow CFMT to do more to help Middle Tennesseans.

She said the organization could also do more to help major funders cope with the "relentless stream of opportunities to give, in a way that will make them feel good about what they are doing, instead of feeling bad about what they're not doing."

Lehman said that despite its gains, due to insufficient unrestricted funds "we haven't been able to be as catalytic as we should be... or use our ability to think upstream as much as we could be doing," to spot community trends, anticipate needs and then act swiftly.  As an example of trends to which CFMT needs to respond aggressively, she said, is homelessness. "I think that's an issue that's going to grow," adding there are about 500 school-age children who are homeless, locally.

Lehman said Nashville is trailing other cities in expanding its unrestricted endowments, partly because CFMT is only 18 years old.  In contrast, Chattanooga's foundation was formed in 1963, while Memphis acted in 1969. Foundations sprang-up much earlier in many U.S. cities, starting with Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914.

In Lehman's view, Nashville's delayed start was paradoxical, a result of the fact that Nashville is "an incredibly generous town...[in which wealthy individuals and families were for many years] able to fund from gifts of income the kinds of nonprofit infrastructures that we needed at that time."

Particularly given the complexity of today's community needs and the state of the economy, she said, major donors are increasingly concerned about ensuring competent management of their charitable and civic contributions, and there's growing recognition that donations "are no longer gifts, they're investments."

Lehman said she believes CFMT has established sufficient trust and "track record" among both investors and local nonprofits to fill that need.

One of CFMT's boldest moves in the past three years was insisting that local nonprofits in search of funding become more "transparent" and accountable, by uploading their profiles and reports onto a platform CFMT developed at GivingMatters.com. Practicing what it preaches, CFMT posts its own information there, as well.

She noted also that the foundation's ability to target, test and grow successful philanthropic ventures has been proven by recent successes.  Among the most visible of those throughout the community has been "NowPlayingNashville.com," a public-private partnership project that involves hundreds of allies, and which helps spur tourism, economic development and development of the arts and entertainment.  Those assets and amenities, she argues, help attract and keep residents, companies, jobs and spending in the region.

There are dozens of less visible examples.  Lehman cited CFMT's new Early Childhood Education Scholarship Initiative, which supports early education for children of the working poor (households earning income of $18,000-24,000 per year), and which recently awarded its first ten scholarships, which stay with students from birth until they're old enough to enter state pre-kindergarten programs.

With additional unrestricted funds, she said, CFMT could much more easily deploy funds "to the most pressing need," allowing "the community to address solutions as they evolve [and] opportunities as they emerge." 

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Tags: Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, culture, economic development, Ellen Lehman, entertainment, Harvard University, investment, London School of Economics, NowPlayingNashville.com, philanthropy, social services

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