As president and CEO of Rochester Area Community Foundation, Jennifer Leonard shies away from discussing her personal accomplishments, instead preferring to discuss the success of the organization she oversees. Fortunately, those who know her are happy to speak on her behalf.
“I think if you asked Jennifer if she has made an impact on Rochester, she would say, ‘Well, I’ve tried,’” says Sharon Stiller, an attorney at Abrams,
Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf LLP in Penfield. “But if you ask people who know Jennifer, and her leadership and her vision, I can’t think of many other people—except maybe George Eastman—who have done what she has done to better the community.”
Stiller sits on the board of directors of ACT Rochester, an organization that serves as a repository of local facts for people interested in community problem-solving and decision-making through the use of credible, independent and timely data.
ACT Rochester is an initiative of the Community Foundation. It was created by the Community Foundation and the Greater Rochester United Way Inc. and is now primarily supported by Community Foundation. ACT Rochester and the Community Foundation together have published three poverty reports since 2013. Those reports led to the creation of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. That effort seeks to reduce local poverty by 50 percent during the next 15 years. It is an important and lofty goal in one of the poorest cities in the country, where one of every two children lives below the poverty line.
“Jennifer was the visionary who started ACT Rochester,” Stiller says. “She’s been there and she’s grown it, and it is a testament to her that she understands the need to have that good information in order to make good decisions.”
As the leader of RACF, Leonard, 64, guides a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting community needs and carrying out the wishes of its donors, often over the course of multiple generations. Last year, it awarded 6,000 grants totaling $28 million.
Celebrating its 45th anniversary, the foundation serves an eight-county region, from Genesee and Orleans counties in the west to Seneca and Wayne counties in the east.
“Our mission is to engage philanthropists from every walk of life and community partners to create a better region,” Leonard says, “and our vision is to lead, inspire and support positive, enduring change in our region.”
RACF is the largest grant-making foundation in the region. Under its umbrella are more than 1,250 individual funds designated for general use or more specific purposes outlined by donors.
Many local philanthropists opt to have their donations overseen by RACF rather than creating and managing their own foundations. They can take advantage of a donor-advised fund at RACF, which is similar to those offered by companies such as Fidelity Investments or the Vanguard Group.
Improving the region
RACF has two main goals for discretionary grant-making. First, it seeks to create an equitable community by supporting efforts to improve race relations, close educational achievement and opportunity gaps and help pull people out of poverty. Second, it desires to strengthen the region’s vitality by advancing arts and culture, historical preservation and successful aging initiatives.
Opportunities to improve local conditions are plentiful, but so are the challenges.
“We have a tale of two communities,” Leonard says. “We are one of the most segregated communities in America and that counts for a great deal of the difference. There are other communities in the Rust Belt with similar challenges, but they are not as great or as grave as ours.
“I am determined that we will make a positive change and pull together as a community,” she says. “The Community Foundation works to raise awareness of these issues, not because they are unsolvable, but because they are quite solvable. That includes trying to reach out to people of goodwill across the region to encourage them to think broadly about how they can support a more unified region.”
RACF stewards the community’s assets, now totaling $432 million, and is thriving under Leonard’s leadership. However, she freely shares the credit with her partners.
“Nonprofit organizations are legally overseen by a volunteer board that is charged with ensuring that they are run in a capable and efficient manner and manage donated funds with very strong fiduciary stewardship,” Leonard says.
Since 1990, the Community Foundation has earned on average 9.1 percent net of fees on its invested endowments.
“That’s above our benchmarks and allows us to provide a reliable 5 percent for grant-making while putting money back into the funds to protect the long-term purchasing power of the endowment,” Leonard says. RACF spends less than 1 percent of its assets on operations.
This month, José Coronas completed a two-year term as chairman of the foundation. Having served on the board for nearly a decade, he has gotten to know Leonard well.
“She could easily be described as the ultimate professional,” says Coronas, a partner in the Trillium Group, a private-equity firm. “She is an outstanding executive. She has a broad knowledge of the community foundation world, not only locally, but she really is very well-known in the community foundation movement throughout the country.
“That’s clearly a real asset. She is thorough, incredibly committed to the community and has the integrity needed to represent the foundation. We are very fortunate in Rochester to have had Jennifer for this many years.”
Off the job
Leading an institution that oversees hundreds of millions of dollars comes with responsibility. That sometimes calls for a breather. When Leonard needs a break from the demands of the job, she likes to read fiction.
“I tend to read a fair amount of mysteries—for the escape factor,” Leonard says. “I just finished Lauren Groff’s book, ‘Fates and Furies,’ and it was very engrossing. It is a tale of a marriage in which neither partner really understood the other yet seemed so tight in their partnership to the casual eye.”
At home in Brighton, Leonard has access to her own personal author. She and her husband, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, have eight children between them.
“It certainly has been exciting,” she says of their relationship. “I married a man who already had six children and one of them helped us raise our two children. Our daughter, Amy, lives here in Rochester and has been an incredible source of support in allowing us to pursue what really are more than full-time careers.”
Johnston, a well-known author and journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, among other newspapers, recently found himself the topic of national headlines. Last month, he provided a part of President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return to MSNBC, which reported on it with great fanfare. The tax form reportedly appeared one day at his home.
“Yes, our infamous mailbox,” Leonard says, with a laugh.
While many people her age are enjoying retirement, Leonard enjoys coming to work.
“The Rochester Area Community Foundation is a power tool for community betterment,” she says. “It is an incredible honor for me to be able to lead it. I will become eligible for Medicare in June, but I am enjoying the fact that I have the best job in this community, so I will be working for years to come.”
Travis Anderson is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
Title: President and CEO, Rochester Area Community Foundation
Education: B.A. in psychology, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1973; M.A., urban studies, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1974.
Family: Husband, David Cay Johnston, author and journalist; eight children
Outside interests: Reading fiction
Quote: “I will become eligible for Medicare in June … but I will be working for years to come.”
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