COLUMN: CEO Kathryn Merchant's influence will be missed at helm of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation

She helped move 'us towards the future we want'

CINCINNATI – Chances are you don't know the name Kathryn Merchant, or even Kathy Merchant, as she's more commonly known here.

And that's too bad because she has spent the past 17 years as CEO of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation figuring out how to spend other people's money to make the region a better place.

With Merchant at the helm, the downtown-based foundation has tackled everything from racial unrest to poverty to educational attainment and job readiness.

She and the foundation's board created the "Weathering the Economic Storm Fund" in 2009 to help the region cope with its worst economic crisis in 60 years, bringing other funders together to help address Greater Cincinnati's desperate, immediate needs.

Just this year, the foundation served as "co-convener" of the Cultural Facilities Task Force, the group that's working to preserve Union Terminal and Music Hall.

After all that, Merchant is planning to retire in June 2015. By that point, she'll have had the job for 18 years and will be 63 years old.

"I've done what I set out to do," Merchant told me during a recent interview at her office. "I've had fun making change and making this community better. I'm proud of it."

When I got the announcement June 9 that Merchant was retiring, I was a little stunned. It's not exactly that I thought she would be the foundation's CEO forever. It just felt a little like she had always been there.

See, I grew up in Northern Kentucky. I left to go to college and worked in a few different cities before I moved back about 18 years ago. So it felt like for just about as long as I had been a reporter back in my hometown, Kathy Merchant had been here at GCF.

She helped redefine what a community foundation should be here and made GCF something of a model for the nation as a result.

'Moving Towards The Future We Want'

When Merchant was hired, she told me, the foundation board wanted to shift from being a "responsive grant maker" – a place that waited for applications for money and then either awarded grants or did not.

Instead, the board wanted GCF to become a place that sought out ideas and organizations to fund that would help make Greater Cincinnati a better place.

Merchant and GCF have done plenty of that.

As GCF Governing Board Chairman Pete Strange put it, Merchant has helped "us as a community become strategic in moving towards the future we want."

Sometimes that has meant financing the regional conversations that help us determine that future – such as Vision 2015 in Northern Kentucky and Agenda 360 in Southwest Ohio.

Still, all that takes money. And Merchant and her staff have built GCF in that regard, too.

At the end of 1996, right before Merchant started, the foundation's charitable assets totaled less than $191 million.

At the end of 2013, those assets were nearly $540 million.

And that's even more growth than it would appear. During our interview, Merchant pointed out that the foundation hit $501 million in assets for the first time in 2007 but then dropped below the half billion mark during the Great Recession.

The organization didn't recover until October 2013, she said.

That growth allowed the foundation to make more than $69 million in grants in 2013. That compares to the $14.2 million in grants made in 1997, the year Merchant started.

It would be easy to get lost in all those big numbers. But one of Merchant's gifts over the years has been her laser focus on making the region a better place and viewing the money as the means to that end.

"I'm a problem solver. I'm a risk taker. I'm all about how you get to yes," Merchant said. "I'm not about, 'no, you can't do that.'"

Merchant doesn't want to influence the advisory board's search process for the next CEO. She said she doesn't think that's fair.

But she hopes the board will find "somebody who likes to look up and out and likes to see what can be."

Strange said the board will be working to determine the qualities it is seeking in the foundation's next CEO. He's grateful that Merchant gave board members a year to prepare for her departure and find someone new.

The good news for Cincinnati is that Merchant plans to stick around. She loves her house that sits just north of Over-the-Rhine, she said, and she wants to continue to work with the Strive education initiative on a part-time basis.

She also plans to help other foundations that seek her advice. And she's going to spend more time as a wine consultant, educator and blogger .

It will be a chance for her to focus strictly on the things that she loves to do.

Goodness knows Kathy Merchant has earned it.

And with the foundation and staff she has built at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Strange said he and the rest of the board expect to be able to find "a world class leader" to become the next CEO.

I sure hope he's right. Our region is counting on it.

For more information about The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, go to www.gcfdn.org .

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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