Ronn Richard sits at the helm of the Cleveland Foundation, which has $3.2 billion in assets and disburses over $115 million annually to nonprofits in the Greater Cleveland region. Launched in 1914, it’s the oldest community foundation in the United States.
Under Richard’s leadership, the foundation has made some pretty big bets in recent years, including giving $40 million to the city’s Say Yes to Education tuition-assistance fund, co-launching a local journalism outlet, and signing on as an inaugural member of the Community Foundation Opportunity Network, which encourages wealthy donors to support efforts that combat structural racism.
Prior to joining the foundation in 2003, Richard was managing director and chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital fund; spent 13 years at Panasonic in a variety of management positions; and was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, serving at the American consulate general in Osaka/Kobe, Japan, and as a desk officer for North Korean, Greek and Turkish affairs, respectively, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.
I recently caught up with Richard to discuss his biggest personal and professional influences, what advice he’d give his younger self, and the famous speech that Winston Churchill may not have actually given.
You have an extensive background in the government and private sector. What made you make the transition to the nonprofit world?
I really loved my previous careers in the public and private sectors. Those jobs were internationally focused and broad in scope, and I thought I could take those experiences and put them to use in a more intensive way within a single community, where I could see the impacts clearly and in real time, and that’s exactly what’s happened.
This has been the best career I’ve ever had. It’s just been wonderful to intimately learn from the community, whether it’s economic development or arts and culture or environmental issues. It’s democracy at the local level, and deciding to work at the foundation was the second best decision I ever made in my life after marrying my wife, Bess Rodriguez.
Who were a few of your biggest influences?
I’ve loved history since I was young and have been influenced by so many great figures—Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Churchill, Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Colin Powell, FDR, and maybe even more importantly, Eleanor Roosevelt, because she impressed upon FDR to do a lot of things he did, especially in civil rights.
But I think the biggest influences on my thinking when I was a kid were John Stewart Service and John Patton Davies, who were towering figures in the Foreign Service and America’s great experts on China in the 1940s. I was so interested in understanding how World War II came about, the aftermath and the Cold War, and how China became communist. Service and Davies had seen it coming and were ultimately purged by Joe McCarthy, and that was a tragedy. They were and remain two of my great heroes.
On a more personal level, my great-aunt Frida was a grandmother figure to me. She was a major figure in the formation of the United Auto Workers Union. She worked on the assembly line and was the original Rosie the Riveter. Another great mentor was Johnnetta Cole. I was on the board of Spelman College for many years when she was the president, and learned so much from her in terms of management and her moral strength.
I had a wonderful mentor when I worked for Panasonic, Hiroyuki Mizuno. He was executive vice president of Panasonic worldwide and in charge of R&D. He won the Japan Prize for being a world-class physicist and then a second Japan Prize for literature. A true Renaissance Man who taught me so much about life.
And my boss in the Foreign Service, Vladimir Sambaiew, became my best friend and is the godfather of my children. He taught me about being a good diplomat and a good representative of our country. And of course, I’m influenced every day by my wonderful staff at the Cleveland Foundation. It’s been a joy to work with the best foundation staff in the world—but I’m prejudiced, of course.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of advice that I ever received was my great-aunt Frida telling me, “Above all else, be true to yourself. Say what you mean, mean what you say, stand up for your values.”
The next great piece of advice I got was from Winston Churchill. There’s the famous story when he gave a commencement speech and he went up to the podium and said, “Never give up, never give up, never give up,” and then we went and sat back down. Now, this may have been something of a myth, but the message is what’s important.
Values matter, hard work matters, patience matters, and I tell this to my son all the time—if you really want something, keep working at it. All the important things in life didn’t happen because someone tried and failed the first time and then just gave up.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
There’s that old quip, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself,” and I think a really important piece of advice is when you have your health, you have everything, so I’d encourage my younger self to be mindful of that.
Another piece of advice that I would have given my younger self—and I did a bit of it, but not as much as I would have liked—is to expose yourself to as many experiences as possible while you’re young. Learn as many foreign languages as you can, live abroad, and develop a keen sense of listening and observing because that’s where wisdom comes from.
What are some of the most important changes you’ve seen in philanthropy in the last two years?
There’s a lot, but maybe the most important is a greater sense of urgency. Our field wasn’t known for operating at warp speed, but I think there is much more entrepreneurship now and a greater willingness to take risks.
I think we have a much better understanding of systemic barriers to success for the people we serve, including, of course, racial barriers. And I think there’s a real commitment—I don’t think it’s going to be the fad of the month. There are other changes too, like the growth of donor-advised funds, but I think this sense of urgency is the most important one.
What’s the last great book that you’ve read?
I read a lot of good books, but the last great book that I read was written by a guy who grew up right here in Cleveland in Shaker Heights, and that’s Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See.”
It’s an incredibly well-written novel, but the reason why I love it is that by talking about how Hitler came to power, it’s so pertinent to our times. I think right now, the world is suffering from a real resurgence of authoritarianism, which is very shocking and scary. Sometimes, things are better conveyed in a novel, and I think every American should read that book.
Any parting thoughts?
I think the single most important issue for every American right now is to preserve our democracy. Americans don’t seem to have a current set of facts, and I think that foundations and donors really need to focus their efforts on preserving democracy starting by preserving factual journalism at the local and national level. All the funding we give to the YMCA or the local food bank ultimately will not be so meaningful if our democracy falls apart after 250 years.
So that keeps me up at night. I was a history major in college in grad school, and I’m very concerned about where the world is going in terms of authoritarianism, and I think that not enough people are operating with a sense of urgency on this issue, which is the critical issue of our time.