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Long-time Rochester community foundation leader leaves behind a legacy of caring

When Jennifer Leonard arrived in Rochester in April 1993 as the new president of the Rochester Area Community Foundationphilanthropy in Monroe County was still dominated by large donations from legacy companies: Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Bausch + Lomb and others.

The community foundation, on the other hand, was small: about $32 million in assets divided among 250 different funds, which amounts to about $3 million in mostly uncoordinated grants each year. Its main function was to administer funds for relatively small individual foundations.

Leonard’s arrival coincided with a momentous change in the way RACF viewed its role in the community. Today, as she retires after nearly 30 years, the scale and scope of philanthropy in Rochester has changed dramatically.

Today, RACF has about $600 million in assets across 1,500 funds, from which it distributed $48 million in grants last year.

“Philanthropy was a very small industry when I came to town,” she said. “Thank goodness it’s bigger now, because we needed it as the big companies were downsizing and the oversized corporate donations here were also downsizing.”

Lori VanAuken, president of Catholic Charities Family and Community Services, worked at RACF for nine years in several capacities. The most important lesson she learned from Leonard, she said, was the need to understand a donor’s passion and find a way to connect it to ongoing efforts in the community.

“If you look at the growth of the foundation under his leadership, maybe that’s the special sauce,” she said. “People give to people. … She’s very good at cultivating relationships.”

2021: Jennifer Leonard retires from the Rochester Area Community Foundation

Rochester Area Community Foundation President and CEO Jennifer Leonard speaks during a Summer Meals Launch Celebration at Frontier Field on Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

Established model of early education initiative

One of his first major moves was leading an early education initiative for which his predecessor, Linda Weinstein, had secured funding from the Ford Foundation.

The very existence of a programmatic initiative was new. The RACF, like many medium-sized community foundations, had been largely content to carry out the wishes of its individual donors, however disparate.

Leonard had studied metropolitan collective action principles in graduate school. She recognized the opportunity to leverage smaller-scale philanthropy to achieve outsized impacts.

“People put (funds) with us so they can make grants in areas that interest them and become philanthropists,” she said. “But at the same time, we are the staff of these 1,500 funds, so we have to be able to be very wise in how we apply the dollars.”

The early education initiative included many components that later became hallmarks of RACF projects: a focus on convening stakeholder groups and other donors; a strong, long-term commitment to data collection; and an intention to directly confront racial and socio-economic gaps.

The Early Childhood Development Initiative, as it became known, helped create training and standards for early childhood education and advocated for broader policy changes. It works in concert with other organizations and initiatives that RACF spawned during Leonard’s tenure, including The Children’s Agenda, Rochester Education Foundation, ACT Rochester, and Greater Rochester Afterschool and Summer Alliance.

“Instead of thinking about what your organization can do on its own, it’s about how different sectors in a metro area can work together, each to achieve their own goals,” Leonard said. “If you can do that, you can have a very powerful coalition effect on whatever you’re trying to achieve.”

Community Foundation President and CEO Jennifer Leonard speaks during the Philanthropy Awards and Annual Community Luncheon at the Riverside Convention Center on Thursday, September 24, 2015.

“Discouraging but not discouraging”

Certain indicators – the number of licensed child care centers in the region, for example – show the benefit of the RACF collective action being exploited. In other areas, however, change has been more difficult to achieve.

Child poverty, for a glaring example, has remained stubbornly high, a condition that threatens to overwhelm hopeful initiatives elsewhere. Racial disparities persist in nearly every local area, and violence has increased over the past two years after a long-term decline.

“It’s discouraging but not discouraging,” Leonard said. “We still have to work on it; we have to find new ways to make things happen.”

Over the past decade in particular, RACF has sought to directly confront structural racism and poverty through its grants and its own programmatic initiatives, including a series of reports and workshops. It was the main sponsor of RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition at the Rochester Museum and Science Center in 2013.

Simeon Banister and Jennifer Leonard.  Banister succeeded Leonard as president and CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation in 2022.

That emphasis will remain under Leonard’s successor, Simeon Banister, who becomes the organization’s first black president. He is the engine of North Star Coalition, a community-wide attempt to harness COVID-19 relief funds and other funds to benefit marginalized communities.

“The community can’t function if it has too many people who are left out, who aren’t accepted into groups, who feel left out,” Leonard said. “What we’ve been trying to do is create an empathy that will lead people to be welcomed. …

“Rochester can be one of the most remarkable cities of the 21st century if we can just get it right.”

Banister grew up in Rochester, giving him an early advantage that Leonard lacked. But VanAuken said Leonard left an indelible mark on the community through his leadership and hard work.

“She’s just a terrific leader in the community,” she said. “She’s always worked hard, and I think she cares. You don’t spend 30 years of your life in a position like that if you don’t really care about the community.”

Coming soon: a presentation of the new president of the RACF, Simeon Banister.

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