Fortifying community’s foundation

January 4th, 2018

By Matthew LeBlanc | The Journal Gazette

A gathering two years ago to commemorate his 20th year with the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne marked the moment in which David Bennett began to take stock of his career with the philanthropic organization.

The foundation experienced unprecedented growth in assets, grant-making and scholarships doled out under Bennett's leadership. There was also a shift in gift-giving at the organization, allowing money to be given toward community development initiatives such as the riverfront project along with the traditional grants to social service agencies.

Bennett considers all of those successes, but the gathering triggered a sense that it might be time for a new direction personally.

“We had a nice celebration for my 20th anniversary here, and that kind of got me thinking about how much longer I want to do this,” Bennett said. “A job like this can be physically demanding. I could be out every night of the week and all weekend if I chose to.

“Part of it is I just wanted to do something a little different with my life while I'm still relatively young and relatively healthy.”

Bennett, 61, will step down this month as the community foundation's executive director, a position he has held since October 1995. The foundation announced his decision in March. Brad Little, president and CEO of the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation in Iowa, will take over Monday as president and CEO.

North Side graduate

Bennett moved with his family to Fort Wayne in 1963 from Huntington, where his father was a shipping clerk for Railway Express Agency. The company – a kind of FedEx before FedEx with a facility at the old train depot on Baker Street – tended to “move people around,” Bennett said, and they ended up in Fort Wayne.

The family moved into a home on Pemberton Drive, just minutes from the community foundation headquarters on East Wayne Street.

After graduating from North Side High School, Bennett earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1979. He earned a master's degree in public affairs with a concentration in domestic policy from Princeton University in 1982.

He worked as a staff auditor for Ernst & Whinney for three years and became executive director of the Taxpayers Research Association, a lobbying firm. There, he first began to work with the community foundation and other philanthropic organizations such as the Foellinger Foundation.

Bennett was named executive director of the community foundation when Barbara Burt stepped down in 1995.

The foundation's assets were about $32 million in 18 different charitable funds in 1995. At the end of Bennett's tenure, there are more than 500 charitable funds with more than $150 million in assets. Donors and corporations have helped drive the growth, but grants and matching funds from the Lilly Endowment were also instrumental.

Lilly gave $20 million in 2009 to create a regional program focused on education and training in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

In recent years, tens of millions of dollars in funding has been granted by the foundation to civic and social service agencies.

Those who have worked with Bennett say he has an even-keeled, calm demeanor that has made it easy for him to network and secure funding from well-heeled donors and companies. His knowledge of economics and finance also is an advantage, they say.

Mayor Tom Henry met Bennett in high school, at North Side. Even then, he said, Bennett's warm personality and intelligence could cool potentially volatile situations and bring people together.

Bennett, with his lobbying group, kept a close eye on Fort Wayne City Council action. Disagreements were cordial and never contentious, Henry said.

“I was on city council at the time, and I remember meeting with David,” Henry said. “He could have easily come out of the chair as a bulldog and vehemently opposed everything. He didn't. He was willing to sit down and understand.”

Bennett used those skills to run the foundation.

Different era

Fort Wayne was a different place in 1995, and so was the philanthropic landscape in northeast Indiana.

The foundation had just 21/2 employees, and Bennett did finance, development and communications work. It now has 10, and its staff members specialize in those areas.

How the foundation is funded – and who provides the money – has also changed. There has been a shift over the past two decades from businesses and financial companies that once were among its largest and most reliable donors.

Large businesses such as Vera Bradley and Sweetwater Sound that have become more prominent have taken their place.

“In 1995, the Vera Bradley Corp. was just a small, little operation out at an industrial park,” Bennett said. “Steel Dynamics was still pretty much an idea in Keith Busse's mind. Chuck Surack and Sweetwater Sound were not even on anybody's radar at that time. No one could have known at the time how large they would become.”

With the rise of those companies, Bennett said he has also seen an increase in the number of charities seeking help. He estimates that 50 percent of the charities the foundation funds did not exist when he became executive director.

A consistent beneficiary of grants from the foundation is Matthew 25, which provides free medical, dental and vision services to uninsured and low-income area residents.

The foundation announced $525,000 in grant funding in mid-October to 22 nonprofit agencies; Matthew 25 received one of the largest amounts, $50,000.

Mark Dixon, the clinic's CEO, credits Bennett with helping to keep Matthew 25 afloat but also with helping him learn to run a nonprofit. Dixon was an officer at a private health care company before taking over Matthew 25.

“The nonprofit world was a brand new enterprise for me,” he said. “The support that we've received from the community foundation has been amazing.

“He's a very kind man; he's very benevolent. Dave has a lot of compassion.”

Expanded reach

Asset growth in recent years has allowed the community foundation to expand its reach beyond social service agencies.

In a September column published in The Journal Gazette, Bennett announced that the foundation will support and provide funding for public redevelopment projects. As a “philanthropic angel investor,” he wrote, the foundation can help move forward development plans for the riverfront downtown and redevelopment of The Landing.

The foundation made more than $4 million available to planners working on the riverfront development and $1.2 million in loan funding to kick off The Landing project, which will turn space on West Columbia Street into an entertainment and residential area.

Henry said Bennett saw those investments as a way to help a variety of people, a basic tenet of the foundation.

“I think David took that to heart,” Henry said.

Bennett agrees, but maintains that much of the focus of the foundation remains on social services. But, he said, having more money to spend equals more opportunity to spend it in different areas.

The move toward community development also comes as Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and other groups plan improvements in various areas for the region. The foundation can use some of those ideas and work with those agencies to improve the city and northeast Indiana, Bennett said.

“If the stock market had been lousy the past 10 years, we would not be in a position to do these community development-type things that we're doing,” Bennett said. “Because of that growth, we are able to maintain our grant-making to the charities that we support annually, and we had dollars available to do things like The Landing and the riverfront and other community development-type projects.”

Because of the foundation's growth and increased funding of charities and public projects, Bennett expects the organization and its incoming executive director to take more leadership in Fort Wayne.

The foundation will continue to fund worthy nonprofits and projects, he said, but the new leader will also have to consider and weigh the impact of those grants and how they affect the area.

A leadership transition is in place, but Little, an Indiana native who graduated from Ball State and Butler universities, said Bennett has not provided specific plans or wishes for how he expects the foundation to be run.

“I'm very much aware that I'm filling some big shoes,” Little said. “He has built an amazing organization. He's been a rock of steady leadership.”

A new role

Bennett said this month his departure hadn't sunk in yet, but he was finding himself thinking twice about what to handle in his remaining days.

He's not sure what his next step will be, though he has expressed interest in continuing to work with the local foundation or even coaching community foundation leaders, he said. Regardless, Bennett doesn't plan to leave Fort Wayne.

“We're not going anywhere. I still hope I can be a benefit to the community.”