When Jennifer Leonard applied to the Rochester Area Community Foundation nearly three decades ago, she wanted to help make the agency a powerful tool for community betterment while serving as a regional center for family philanthropy.
During Leonard’s tenure, the Community Foundation’s assets that benefit the Greater Rochester-Finger Lakes region have grown from $32 million to $598 million at the end of its fiscal year on March 31.
The foundation – which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – has distributed more than $547 million in grants and scholarships since its founding in 1972.
Leonard, who has led the foundation as its president and CEO for 29-plus years, will be retiring at month’s end. She is the foundation’s third top executive — and longest serving — in the organization’s history.
Simeon Banister, the foundation’s executive vice president, will succeed Leonard and starts the job Oct. 1.
Leonard is proud of being able to lead a strong, local community foundation that maintains positive partnerships.
“We’ve delivered on that plan to make this a center for optimism and positive change,” she said.
Rochester Area Community Foundation, in partnership with philanthropists and community partners, works to improve the quality of life for people who live in the eight-county region through its leadership and strategic grantmaking.
The foundation, as the region’s largest grant maker, focuses on two goals — creating an equitable community and strengthening the region’s vitality.
The foundation has 36 employees and operates 1,500 funds.
Before moving to Rochester in 1993, Leonard was vice president of the California Community Foundation in Los Angeles and a national writer and consultant in philanthropy.
Throughout her career, she learned about the importance of partnerships – among members of the community, as well as the government, businesses and donors – and how those partnerships can make a difference by working together toward positive change.
Leonard credits the kindness of the Rochester community for helping the foundation grow over the years.
“Charitable giving relies on people caring about each other,” she said.
Leonard noted that the foundation has strived to stay at the forefront of change.
Early on, for example, the foundation saw the need for and spoke about the importance of, a diverse community. As Rochester struggled with racial equity, the foundation was aware of the statistics on racial disparity and its link to poverty, Leonard noted.
“We addressed racial equity before it was on everyone’s agenda,” she said, adding that the foundation was not afraid to have uncomfortable discussions to help move forward.
“Building awareness is a precursor to changing behavior.”
Late last year a Sienna College research poll on racial attitudes showed that local awareness is expanding, with three-quarters of respondents saying they would embrace initiatives to reduce racism’s impact.
The Community Foundation initiated the poll series in 2012 after ACT Rochester, a Community Foundation affiliate, documented severe racial and ethnic disparities that were holding back the community’s progress.
While the poll shows attitudes are changing, Leonard notes there is more work to be done.
The foundation has several ways to help, she noted, including its Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, that supports projects, programs and initiatives that address and remedy inequities and injustices and builds common ground throughout the region.
Immediately following her retirement, Leonard, who lives in Brighton, will be spending more time with her family – including her husband and two adult daughters.
She plans to remain living in the Rochester area and expects to continue to get involved in projects for the betterment of the community.
“I’m sure I’ll get to the point where I’m saying I don’t know how I found the time to work,” she joked.
Leonard is leaving the foundation well cared for with Banister.
She described Banister as the quintessential Rochesterian who is well respected — and well connected — throughout the community.
Prior to his role at the foundation, Banister’s career spanned public and private sectors and included the New York State Senate, state Department of Taxation and Finance, the State University of New York and several private commercial real estate firms.
A graduate of North Carolina Central University and the Princeton Theological Seminary, Banister is a sought-after speaker, most recently on Rochester’s history of redlining and racial inequities.
For several years, he has been president of the Greater Rochester Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and serves on the boards of the University of Rochester Medical Center, The Children’s Agenda, Genesee Land Trust and the Congressional Award Foundation.
“He loves Rochester and is optimistic about the future, and we both share that,” Leonard said. “Rochester has so much potential to be a great 21st Century city. Simeon knows that and he can help get it there.”
Banister, a Rochester native, has been with the foundation since 2017. He lives in the city with his family.
He is focused on what he refers to as “taking charge of change” and continuing the foundation’s momentum.
Like Leonard, he is a fan of the late writer James Baldwin’s quote “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“There is often a tendency to dwell on the challenge,” Banister said. “We need to work together and push our way toward the solutions.”
An example of that collaboration came in March 2020 when the foundation and United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes launched the Community Crisis Fund.
Banister co-led the committee that met every day for several months to review and approve grant requests.
As a result, nearly $7 million was distributed by the committee during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the priorities moving forward is continuing to lead change efforts for environmental justice and sustainability, Banister said, noting that such funding is rooted in the understanding that the adverse effects of climate change are felt disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Grantmaking efforts in this area aim to empower the most vulnerable communities through investment and inclusion and to make sure that all individuals – in urban, suburban and rural areas – have access to the benefits of an equitable and green economy, he explained.
Banister is confident about the organization’s growth, given its solid foundation, which was built by those who came before him, including Leonard.
“It’s a wonderful organization with good bones and I’m grateful to build on that,” Banister said.
Leonard has been recognized locally and beyond for her many contributions over the years, including receiving the Athena Award from the Women’s Council of the Rochester Business Alliance (now the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce) in 2010.
She most recently ranked on this year’s RBJ Power 100 and, in 2019, she was one of 10 women inducted into RBJ’s Circle of Excellence.
Area business and community leaders spoke of Leonard’s impact on the region.
Tom Richards, RACF board chair, said the mark that Leonard made on the community and everyone she has worked with will be present for years to come.
“She has been an outstanding leader who encourages and nurtures community-minded donors to address tough issues here at home and skillfully engages community partners to make our region a better place to live, work and educate our children,” Richards has said.
Gina Cuyler, M.D., vice president for Health Equity and Community Investments at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and a RACF board member, said Leonard has been a convener of both individual and collective resources to drive meaningful, measurable change and impact for all.
“Her impact and legacy will improve the lives and communities she has served, long after her retirement,” Cuyler said. “During her three decades of leadership, she has ensured that everyone had a place at the table and could contribute to making our communities sustainably better.”
Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, described Leonard as the true definition of a community champion.
“Her efforts in creating an inclusive, equitable community have been evident through her early work on helping our community understand the importance of social capital and social connections, her push to focus on disparities through data and by centering conversations around the indisputable facts of race and inequities,” Saunders said. “Her impact is woven into the fabric of this community and leaves an indelible mark on us all.”
[email protected] / (585) 653-4021