Profile: Jane Scott and the Columbus Metropolitan Club enter a new era of community engagement

Kitty McConnell

Authentic conversations make the 40-year-old club one of the most desirable idea platforms in the city.

On any given Wednesday, Jane Scott can be found mingling with a cross-section of Columbus executives, politicians, academics, philanthropists and average citizens. Scott is the face of the Columbus Metropolitan Club. She offers the same engaging hello and handshake to everyone she encounters on her way through the room as she welcomes a new crowd to each week's CMC lunch forum.

Scott is a gracious host who seems to know every club member in attendance. Her enthusiasm for lively discussion quickly wins new guests over to the weekly luncheon panels on public policy and matters of local significance.

"There's nothing I enjoy more than introducing you to another nice person, then the two of you develop a relationship and my network just grows exponentially," says Scott. Her work leading the 40-year-old Metro Club taps into her natural ability as a connector. "Those networks are how things work in this city."

When her predecessor, Megan Melby, resigned as the CMC's executive director in 2003, Scott's husband, Chris, and her many friends encouraged her to throw her hat in the ring. "Everybody kept saying, 'That's such a perfect fit for you!' I think I was the most qualified for the least amount of money," says Scott in her humble, light-hearted manner.

Scott grew up Mennonite on a 190-acre beef and grain farm in Logan County, 60 miles northwest of the capital city. Farm life was a world away from the wood-paneled reception hall of the Athletic Club of Columbus, where the CMC hosted weekly forums for the last 20 years.

"Everybody has this image in their mind of who they are. My image is of myself barefooted on the back of my horse taking lunch out to my dad in the field," says Scott. From the time she got Prince at age 11, the horse was her best friend. Her life on the farm revolved around Prince and 4-H Club. Scott's first executive appointment was as president of her 4-H chapter. She credits the club with fostering her leadership and organizational skills.

Right around the time the Metro Club was founded in the mid-1970s, Scott was one of the few women in the agricultural program at Ohio State. There, she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural economics with a focus on journalism. She was reluctant to return to farming after graduation, wary of the physical demands and financial risk of running a farm. She spent 15 years doing public relations for Countrymark (formerly Landmark), an agricultural cooperative serving Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and national affiliate organizations. She left Countrymark to focus on running her own businesses, which included Wm. Graystone Winery and Wyandotte Wine Cellars in the Brewery District.

Throughout each stage of her career, Scott served on a number of commissions and civic associations including the Ohio State University Alumni Association board, the Columbus Historical Society, the Brewery District Historic Preservation Commission, the Ohio Wine Producers Association, the Ohio 4-H Foundation and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce Downtown Council.

The cooperative spirit she took from agriculture and her passion for community engagement are evident in the initiatives Scott has led at the CMC. For example, in 2007 Scott and her board introduced the first Columbus Metropolitan Club Summer Celebration. The organization's annual meeting is open to the general public in addition to CMC members, directors and staff.

"Every farm co-op and every company in agriculture has a big annual meeting that's a party, that's a celebration of the company," says Scott. "Being able to celebrate ourselves-not just always point the spotlight at someone else-has been something that helps our members be proud of who we are."

Scott considers herself privileged to be the "current torchbearer" of the Columbus Metropolitan Club. "It's the organization itself and the people who are drawn to it who are really the strength of it."

This is the CMC's 40th anniversary year, an occasion that will be marked with new endowment funds, an expanded calendar of events and a new home for its weekly forums.

Beginning in April, Wednesday speaker luncheons will take place in the Boat House at Confluence Park. The Athletic Club of Columbus has been a "great partner" for the last two decades, says Scott. However, the CMC-which draws between 175 and a sell-out crowd of 350 members and guests to every forum-has outgrown the venue. The Boat House will accommodate upwards of 400 luncheon guests in the banquet room, giving the CMC room to continue growing membership and attendance.

A gigantic whiteboard in Scott's office in the Chase building Downtown is filled from floor to ceiling with recognizable names and trending topics plugged into a calendar grid. It's a roadmap to the conversations that will be taking place at the CMC in the coming year, and the people who will be part of them. It's also an indication of the breadth and depth of Scott's involvement in her organization and her community.

Scott is devoted to her work. The same week in February that she was finalizing the Boat House deal she was dealt a personal blow, one that has threatened to level other executives. Scott was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time this article publishes, she will have undergone surgery and expects to have returned to her work.

"I really believe from the bottom of my heart that we're never given anything that we don't have the strength and courage to face," says Scott.

Her colleagues, family and friends have given overwhelming support. She's found further support in acquaintances who have responded to her news with their own survivor stories.

"The people who have a shared their stories are already some of the early harvested blessings that are coming from this experience," says Scott. "It's another step or two along a path that, unfortunately, many men and women have taken."

Her response to the diagnosis indicates her resilience, her leadership capacity and her collective approach to life and work. She is focused on business as usual-cancer is just an unexpected addition to her agenda. Scott has the full support of her board and staff as she continues with further treatments.

Scott's drive and determination have led to the successive growth of the CMC during the past 13 years. Under her direction, the club's annual budget has increased from $300,000 to over $1.2 million. Annual sponsorship revenue has grown from $82,000 to more than $800,000. Membership has almost doubled from 630 to nearly 1,200, and forum attendance has increased from an average 110 to 175 guests weekly.

Her goal in coming years is to widen the circle of CMC membership. "It's difficult to break that image that we're not some kind of an elite closed club. We always work on that," says Scott.

"Our mission is to connect people and ideas through community conversation, but our vision is to have an informed citizenry. If people aren't informed, they can't make wise decisions."

It's not a radical idea-the concept of an inclusive forum for discussion and debate among the citizenry. But four decades ago when it was founded, the Metro Club posed a serious departure from the gender-segregated civic clubs of the time.

Beginning in 2007, Scott led the CMC in a slight adjustment of its programmatic focus. With the addition of programming VP Andrew Campbell and program committee chair Mike Thompson, news director for WOSU, CMC's weekly forums became increasingly oriented towards "newsworthy" topics and speakers.

"To make sure that the programming is really worthy, and newsworthy, is extraordinarily important to our relevance in the community and to our long-term success," says Scott.

When the Ohio GOP needed a host for a John McCain event during his 2008 presidential run, they called Jane Scott. In ten days, she and her CMC staff staged the campaign event, which drew nearly 400 people and a press corps to the Convention Center.

An increasing focus on corporate partnerships has helped the CMC bring in notable guests, such as the 2011 luncheon with Jane Goodall facilitated by American Electric Power. Candidates and stakeholders in controversial issues-like the 2015 marijuana legalization amendment-come to the CMC when they want an open debate before central Ohio constituents and the media.

Scott maintains an ethical distance from CMC programming. With friends on both sides of the aisle, Scott abstains from attending fundraisers or supporting campaigns.

"Friends are friends and business is business. We don't mix the two," says Scott. In keeping with the CMC's founding principles, she guards against any compromise of the organization's independent programming. This can lead to pushback from sponsors and other interested stakeholders when they disagree with a scheduled guest or topic.

That objectivity has made the CMC the most desirable platform in the city. Scott and her staff regularly field calls from the governor's office, mayor's office or large corporations when they have significant information to release. The answer is, "Yes, let us figure out how to do that," 99 percent of the time, says Scott.

"It's not that we're the mouthpiece for other people, but they've discovered that we have a unique and credible platform and that they will have a fair representation of their program to the audience, to the community."

During her tenure, the CMC has prioritized digital outreach as a means of spreading the discussions to a wider, internet-oriented audience. The club owns its own video production equipment, and produces a YouTube broadcast of each weekly forum.

Scott is optimistic about the CMC's trajectory. Sustainability is a huge focus in the near- and long-term. The club is taking its 40th anniversary as an opportunity to attract more legacy and civic engagement funds, managed through the Columbus Foundation. In June, the CMC will host its first large-scale fundraiser featuring MIT social sciences professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle. Scott expects the event to draw between 600 and 900 guests to the Convention Center.

"If we can continue to do (all of) that, and the community continues to thrive, I think that the next 40 years, the sky's the limit."

Q&A

Is it important to the CMC to include a variety of viewpoints, even when members or stakeholders may object to some of the panelists you invite?

That's core to the mission of the Metropolitan Club. We will have times where there might be a pocket that looks like it's all the same perspective, but over a period of a year or a period of years it evens itself out.

We try to (ensure) different perspectives, diversity as far as race, ethnicity, gender...But it's the mentality, it's the thought process, it's the diversity of viewpoints that we're after, not just demographics. That's our goal.

Do you view that as a journalist might, which is that you're reflecting what's happening rather than trying to shape it?

Absolutely. I think that's really an important point as far as how I look at the Metropolitan Club. I and our program director, Andy Campbell, we both have journalism genes. That's a big part of our mentality. Definitely from a news perspective, we want to get lots of different viewpoints.

It's not our role to save the world, it's our role to point the spotlight at the people who are saving and shaping the world. We don't try to create policy.

Are there segments of the community you find are underrepresented in your membership?

There are. Our membership committee and our board definitely want to increase the diversity of our audience. That's always been a goal. It depends on the speaker-our audiences are very topic driven. Every audience, every week, is different than the week before, and is different than next week.

We had a program on Franklinton, and it was an express goal to make sure that some of the residents of Franklinton were there. We try to keep our price points low enough that anyone can afford to come to a CMC forum. We're trying to set up some potential sponsorships of individuals who can become involved with the Metropolitan Club.

What organizational factors have contributed to the CMC's success?

We're a nonprofit, but that doesn't mean we don't want to be fiscally responsible and fiscally successful. I look at a nonprofit as a tax status, not a business model...This is a small business, and that's germane to how I manage it.

That the programming is really worthy is extraordinarily important to our relevance in the community and to our long-term success.

Our mission is to connect ... (and) to have an informed citizenry. If people aren't informed, they can't make wise decisions.

Jane Scott

Executive Director, president & CEO (since 2003)

Columbus Metropolitan Club

Previous positions: Owner, Wm. Graystone Winery and Wyandotte Wine Cellars; proprietor, Vintage Communications; director of public relations, Landmark/Countrymark.

Education: Ohio State University, bachelor of science in agricultural economics; master's in agricultural economics.

Columbus Metropolitan Club

100 E. Broad St., Suite 100

Columbus 43215

About:Connecting people and ideas through its 50 to 60 public forums annually, which feature approximately 175 panelists and moderators speaking on a variety of timely topics.

Founded: 1976

Employees:4; 20 trustees; ~80 volunteers

Membership: Nearly 1,200