Foundation for Appalachian Ohio creating opportunities for a revitalized region

Jess Deyo
Columbus CEO
Cara Dingus Brook, CEO, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio

Appalachia is full of success stories: John Glenn, former U.S. senator and first to orbit Earth; Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback; and Kyle Zimmer, founder of nationally recognized nonprofit First Book, to name a few. However, the community has endured more than its share of economic turmoil.

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio aims to rewrite that narrative. 

Founded in 1998 with a $1 million state grant, the foundation is tasked with uplifting the region and creating opportunity. Decades ago, it launched with I’m a Child of Appalachia, a program now paired with a fund, designed to change the mindset of the community by telling stories of the region’s successes. 

“Appalachia is confronted with stereotypes,” says Cara Dingus Brook, CEO of the nonprofit. “If we look across the U.S., Appalachia has been marginalized. There has been a lot of poverty, a lot of intractable challenges and a lot of misperceptions about what being Appalachian is.” 

Brook grew up in the region and remembers her childhood peers continuously facing barriers to opportunity. First serving as an intern at the foundation, she was appointed CEO in 2007 at age 25. 

Cara Dingus Brook, CEO, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio

For many of the organization’s early years, Brook recalls the team raising about 80 percent of the annual budget themselves, evidence of a deep philanthropy gap that runs through southeast Ohio. Instead of large corporate donors, something the region lacks, much of the funding for services, and simply keeping the lights on, was up to the team.

Knowing their time could be used more intentionally, Brook and the team established a so-called initial philanthropic offering (IPO) in 2014, a fundraising model that relies on developing an asset base for more permanent dollars. 

Starting out, the goal was to identify 100 shareholders who each would give $32,000 for a combined $3.2 million, enough for five years of operation. Long term, the goal was to raise $100 million in 15 years. Seven years later, the IPO has raised $128 million.

The goal has ambitiously been upped to $1 billion, with hopes of making $55 million in grants each year — a jump from the $5 million the organization disbursed in 2020, which included 990 grants to nonprofit and public organizations. It also offers scholarships.

For Megan Wanczyk, vice president of communications and programs, the IPO is a major milestone. 

“I’m proud of how the foundation [is] unapologetically saying, we need to grow these permanent resources, we need to grow these in-depth endowments,” Wanczyk says. “That is what will make a long-term difference.”

Board member Jeffrey Chaddock and his husband willed 97 percent of their assets to the organization.

“I’ve always fought for the underserved and the areas that are underdeveloped,” he says. “I love the down and out organizations. It’s low cost, high impact philanthropy.

“To see what certain nonprofits do south of [state] Route 37 in Ohio is amazing,” says Chaddock, who is also a board member of the Columbus Museum of Art.

The gifts from the IPO have contributed to opportunities and partnerships all for the benefit of the community.

“When I look across southeast Ohio, I see a region abundant in visionary and capable leaders who have chosen to spend their lives advancing opportunities for others,” Brook notes. “My message is one of gratitude. Now is the time to think big about our region’s future. We need to be bold, strategic and collaborative. Collectively, we have so many assets to leverage.”

Foundation for Appalachian Ohio

35 Public Square Nelsonville 45764

Mission: To create opportunities for the people of Appalachian Ohio by supporting and inspiring philanthropy.

CEO: Cara Dingus Brook

Employees: 16

Revenue: $17.7 million in 2020

Funding sources: 75% donations and grants; 25% investment and fee income