Robert Eckardt of the Cleveland Foundation discusses his work in the fundraising and grant writing for the creation of National Parks in Northeast Ohio. Echardt discusses in detail the Trust for Public Land grant and the role of the Cleveland Foundation in securing land for National Parks in the recent years. The interview also discusses newer projects such as the Towpath Project and citizen awareness in land preservation.


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Eckardt, Robert (interviewee)


Grindall, Karen (interviewer);Testa, Steve (participant)


Rivers Roads and Rails 2008



Document Type

Oral History


38 minutes


Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Karen Grindall [00:00:00] Steve's gonna handle the recording and as long as the mic is... As long as you're not bobbing back and forth... The mic is a very wonderfully sensitive mic. You don't even have to worry about it.

Robert Eckardt [00:00:11] Okay, sounds good.

Karen Grindall [00:00:12] Alright. Okay. So if you'll start off by telling us who you are and who you represent today.

Robert Eckardt [00:00:18] Sure. I'm Bob Eckardt. I work at the Cleveland Foundation.

Karen Grindall [00:00:23] And Bob, when were you born?

Robert Eckardt [00:00:25] I was born [...], 1951.

Karen Grindall [00:00:28] So birthday coming up.

Robert Eckardt [00:00:29] Coming up, right.

Karen Grindall [00:00:30] Yeah. And where were you born?

Robert Eckardt [00:00:32] I was born in New York City. Actually, my parents were living in New Jersey at the time, but the nearest hospital was across the river in New York City.

Karen Grindall [00:00:40] In New York? Okay. Where in New Jersey?

Robert Eckardt [00:00:43] Actually we were living at Fort Lee, which is the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.

Karen Grindall [00:00:48] It sure is. And the reason that you moved to Ohio, you did as a child or you did as an adult?

Robert Eckardt [00:00:56] I did it after graduate school. I was recruited for a job in Cleveland. Had done my master's in Michigan and was recruited here.

Karen Grindall [00:01:05] Okay. So you lived on the East Coast...

Robert Eckardt [00:01:07] Until I went away to college. And then four years in the Midwest and two years overseas and two years in Michigan and then Ohio.

Karen Grindall [00:01:18] Oh wow. And how long have you been with the Cleveland Foundation?

Robert Eckardt [00:01:20] It will be twenty-six years on July 1st.

Karen Grindall [00:01:23] That's about the same length as the National Park.

Robert Eckardt [00:01:27] Right, just about the same, right,

Karen Grindall [00:01:30] It is about the same. Can you tell us what you remember when you first came here as far as the beginning of the national park?

Robert Eckardt [00:01:36] Sure. Well the foundation's first involvement with the National Park was through a group called the Peninsula Association, which was trying to lobby essentially for the creation of a national park or at least for the protection of the property between Cleveland and Akron, with a sense there was a lot of development pressure and the foundation had made some grants to the Peninsula Association. And then when it looked like the park was going to happen, the foundation made some grants to the Trust for Public Land in order to purchase some of the critical pieces of property, which then were conveyed to the park. And it was a more or less an idea at that point when we started getting involved with it.

Karen Grindall [00:02:23] When you were with the foundation at that time period, how did you see what you thought was going to happen with the park? Did you think it was a doable... How did you precieve it?

Robert Eckardt [00:02:37] Well, I think we perceived it as one of those high-risk, high-return kinds of grants when we first made the grant to the Peninsula Association, we didn't know if it'd work out or not. And there were a number of hurdles that had to be overcome to get there. But I think we saw that if it could work, it would be a great addition to the region.

Karen Grindall [00:03:04] What were some of those hurdles that you were perceiving about it?

Robert Eckardt [00:03:07] Well, no one knew whether you could get it through Congress as a national park. Obviously, John Seiberling was a tremendous resource to get it done, but still only one vote when it comes time to to get the bill passed. There weren't as... The kind of the idea of the national park having as much of an urban presence was pretty unusual. Other than some of the major historic sites, Statue of Liberty, etc., the National Park [Service] was pretty much in Yosemite and Yellowstone and kind of the true natural splendors, but far away from the population sites. And so the idea of the National Park Service having a presence in an area like this was very unusual. And of course, it also involved cooperation between Cleveland and Akron, which wasn't or which wasn't so easy to do. Still isn't so easy to do, but perhaps was harder in those days. So...

Karen Grindall [00:04:10] Can you explain the foundation's relationship to northeast Ohio? Is it confined mainly to Cleveland, or do you perceive yourself as a regional entity that needs to pull everything together? How do you... How does the foundation perceive...?

Robert Eckardt [00:04:29] Well, we're predominantly Cleveland-focused in that we... As a community foundation, you're getting money from lots of donors as opposed to a single donor. And essentially people are saying, having made my fortune in Cleveland and wanting to give back, I give money to the Cleveland Foundation. So our focus is Cleveland. But over the years, our focus has grown and changed and it varies a bit in the different program areas. So we recognize that the environment's a little bit different than human services. So we're more regional in the environment and in economic development than, for example, we are in Human Services where we wouldn't work with very often with the YMCA in downtown Akron, but we might work on a large environmental regional effort.

Karen Grindall [00:05:24] When we talked about the National Park, one of those entities that is there is Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center.

Robert Eckardt [00:05:35] Mhm.

Karen Grindall [00:05:35] I understand that you have been very involved with the beginnings of that. Can you talk to us about that?

Robert Eckardt [00:05:43] Yes, we provided one of the original grants for the renovation of the property. I think there were probably a half dozen funders who provided some initial support. The... I will tell you that that was one of the few grants that I've worked on where our board got a lot of nasty letters from people opposing the grant. And they were really from the neighbors who didn't want the environmental center there and had all kinds of horror stories of how terrible it would be that they sent to members of our board. And usually boards of foundations get mostly thank you notes as opposed to complaining notes. So... But our board wasn't deterred and realized that the regional resource of really getting kids into the national park was worth, worth working on. So...

Karen Grindall [00:06:46] And in hindsight how do you feel about your decision on doing it?

Robert Eckardt [00:06:51] Well, I think in hindsight it was a great decision. I think the the education center has more than met our expectations. And, you know, and I think, you know, kind of the neighbors concerns were proven not to be so dramatic. I've never seen as many buses lined up on the road that they were afraid would occur. I suppose some days there are more buses coming on, drop off and pickup day, but at least some of their sense of how terrible it would be doesn't seem to have come true. And I think the, you know, since then the center has evolved in other ways, including the summer camp and other things that were not originally envisioned when the education center was created.

Karen Grindall [00:07:42] But you and I talked earlier. You mentioned to me that one of your children was involved in one of the programs there. Tell us about that?

Robert Eckardt [00:07:50] Sure. Our youngest daughter spent a couple of summers in the summer arts program as a camper and then went back as, I'm not sure what it was called, counselor and training or something, where she [crosstalk] in the summer and in the... She's a musician and so really focused on the music parts of the arts camp, so, very good experience for her. That was many years after we'd been involved in the grant. At the time I was involved in the initial grant, I never thought I'd have a child who'd go through the program, but it was great to see it from the other side as well. And then several years after some of the initial support, the foundation also played a role in the November Lodge, which was a significant addition to the facility and recognized that they just didn't have the classrooms and other things they really needed to to meet their, to meet the opportunity they had before them.

Karen Grindall [00:08:51] And the foundation still involved with the CVEEC?

Karen Grindall [00:08:55] You know, we're still involved to some degree. We have some funds at the foundation that provide scholarship support. And we've been working with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association on a couple of efforts as well, which, some of which involved the education center, some of which are broader than the education center, so...

Karen Grindall [00:09:18] Talk to me about the relationship of the foundation with Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association.

Robert Eckardt [00:09:26] Well, I think the relationship's been numerous. For a while the association essentially was our conduit because working directly with the Department of Interior to set private sector dollars proved to be harder than it should be in terms of... You wouldn't think it would be hard to give money to the government, but it turns out it's actually pretty hard to do in terms of what has to be signed and various other kind of legal documents. And so a lot of the work was through the association. And then a few years ago, they participated in a program we have that helps nonprofits develop kind of business plans for ways that they might generate income off of businesses. And they've been... Their model was actually using the Environmental Education Center for other activities, retreats and other things that it could be rented out for. And they've been very successful in using that to generate some additional income for the year for the association.

Karen Grindall [00:10:33] And the model that you just put that they're using, is that an unusual model as far as a nonprofit using the business model to generate income?

Robert Eckardt [00:10:47] Well, we've been... I think we've had three cohorts now of nonprofits that have received technical assistance through the foundation to investigate business models and to try to put business models in place that can kind of diversify their funding streams. Some have worked better than others. I think the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association has been one of the more successful in making their business model work for them.

Karen Grindall [00:11:15] So as a partner with them in that by financially supporting them you recommend their model to other organizations, is that part of the role that you play or does someone else play that role?

Robert Eckardt [00:11:34] No, we play that role. They actually get technical assistance through a group in Washington, D.C. called, boy, I think it's called Share Our Strength, which is one of the, which was a hunger program in Washington that was very successful and kind of using their hunger program to reach out to businesses and generate income and is run by a guy named Billy Shore, who's been featured in Time magazine and others as a social entrepreneur. And so we kind of use them to do this training and we obviously can't fund all the nonprofits that want the training. But then we also try to connect other nonprofits with successful models in Cleveland, and I believe the Cuyahoga Valley Association has had several groups come out and look at their business model and see if there are things they can learn from it.

Karen Grindall [00:12:27] Which obviously benefits all of us.

Robert Eckardt [00:12:29] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:12:33] Can you explain to us how you have or how your life has been involved with ecology or with outdoors, or were you an outdoors kid [Robert laughs] when you were little or were you an indoors kid?

Robert Eckardt [00:12:52] I think when I was growing up, everyone was more of an outdoors kid in that you were always going out to play baseball in the street or whatever. But I wouldn't say I was kind of an organized outdoors kind of kid. I mean, it's more went in the backyard and played and went to your friend's house and went to the park kind of effort. My background is actually in healthcare, both my master's and my doctorate are in public health. And I came to the Cleveland Foundation to do the health grantmaking. And about a couple of years after I arrived at the foundation, our board asked me to look into environmental grantmaking. So I looked at what a number of other foundations were doing and laid out what we might do and in the way that sometimes happens. And the board said, great, why don't you do it? So I added environment to my portfolio and took on a number of groups in this region that might be kind of defined as environment. And our focus really wasn't environmental health. Even though I was doing health and environment, it was kind of health and kind of a focus on open space and parkland and protection of critical resources and that kind of piece of the environment, as well as working with groups like Shaker Nature Center or the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, kind of some of the providers of environmental education. So I didn't start into the environment or the ecology field. I kind of got it added to my portfolio over time.

Karen Grindall [00:14:41] So do you get out into the park?

Robert Eckardt [00:14:43] I do, not as much as I wish, but I get out at least a few times a year. Always nice to be invited to a meeting down there and build in enough time that you can at least take a short walk and try to get down there occasionally to get onto the Towpath Trail. So I get out, but probably not as much as I should.

Karen Grindall [00:15:08] Are there some other projects within the National Park that you have found a passion or very pleasurable ones that you would enjoy watching evolve?

Robert Eckardt [00:15:21] You know, we, we were along with the Gund Foundation the funders of the Countryside Initiative, which is a very interesting initiative in the National Park, which really was raised off the question of what should happen with urban parks. And, you know, they transfer to the park service, they're, they're not wild. They're already, they've been farmed, they've been in use. And if you do nothing, of course, they'll return to their wild state. And John Debo, the superintendent of the park, raised the question of that's really what we should have happen here or not, or whether people didn't want to open vistas and the fields that they could look across and all that. And in Europe, a lot of the national parks are kind of active farms and actively involved. And so the Countryside Initiative was looking at what should we do in the Cuyahoga Valley long run? Should it be allowed to just go to woods or should it be kind of sustained with the kind of vistas and other things that people appreciated when it became a national park and really led to the reintroduction of farming in the park. I think there's seven or so farms now that are active down there and has become kind of a model for other some other national parks now. But this was the pioneer park doing it, and it took a lot longer than anyone thought. It wasn't something the Department of Interior had a lot of experience with, leasing park land to be farmed, dealing with, you know, coming up with the lease that made sense to the government, protected its interests as a park, but also was economically feasible for farmers and others. And that had kind of an appropriate mix of protection versus recognizing that when you use property, you use it too, you know, even driving a tractor on it has certain impacts on the land, even if you do it in a sustainable model. And that's been really kind of interesting to see unfold. I think we all were way over optimistic. And as I recall, the original proposal was in a year there'd be seven. I think it took three years before there was one farm that had been reopened. But I think it's a very good way to kind of combined history and agriculture and sustainability and parkland in an urban setting that may make more sense than just, you know, buying the land and letting it go completely to be deep, heavy woods in twenty years.

Karen Grindall [00:18:28] We see that happen so easily.

Robert Eckardt [00:18:30] Right, right. Which is interesting for people to see happen. But on the other hand, I think for a park where people are going to be driving along roads and, you know, they want the space where they can picnic or the space where they kind of get the vistas across the valley. And again, when people are saying this was important land to protect, it wasn't virgin forests they were protecting. It was kind of this sense of open space and the valleys and the views and other kinds of things.

Karen Grindall [00:19:01] In what way did money from the foundation support the farming?

Robert Eckardt [00:19:08] Well, the work... The foundation money predominantly supported someone to be the manager of the whole project and to work with the National Park Service on which property should be reopened, work with them on the lease development, finding the farmers, kind of running the lottery once you have the property of who would get it, doing the checks to make sure that they're still meeting the rules of the lease because the lease does have certain sustainability things in terms of chemicals and other things that you can and can't use in the park, and working with the farmers on business plans that worked within the lease. So it was all that kind of supportive function. And as I said, that was much more complicated than anyone thought it would be. That was not someone who National Park Service, because they'd never done this, had money to hire. And so we had to find someone who could kind of understand agriculture or understand parks and could figure out how this would all work.

Karen Grindall [00:20:18] And so does that person who does that person then initially report to?

Robert Eckardt [00:20:25] You know, I'm not sure I can answer that now. It was originally housed through the predecessor, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association. And I think it's still there, but I'm not totally sure.

Karen Grindall [00:20:38] Do you have a favorite one of those farms that you, it's like, oh, this is this is really unique?

Robert Eckardt [00:20:45] Well, I guess I always have kind of a warm spot for the first one that opened because I was there walking the property before the bill, watching the house be renovated, watching the barn be renovated, hearing all the stories of the complicated negotiations of what the government would pay for, what the landowner would pay for, how the lease would be structured. So although I hear very nice things about some of the new ones an herb farm, a winery, and some others, I actually haven't seen those yet, so. I know some of my staff have been down to see them, but I haven't. But that first one's always the challenging one because at that point, you know, we were kind of taking a role that foundations often take, the kind of risk money, but we didn't know if it would actually work or not.

Karen Grindall [00:21:36] Within the foundation, would you consider, how would you consider the national park investment? As high risk, low risk, medium risk?

Robert Eckardt [00:21:47] I think it's become lower risk over time, but as I said in the very beginning it was pretty high risk. And there was then a number of periods over the history when there were threats to the national park. During the Reagan administration, there was a desire to spin off all the urban parks and either sell them or turn them over to the states to run. There was a whole hit list of national parks that the head of the Department of Interior didn't think the government and the federal government should be running. And the Cuyahoga Valley one was on that list every year. So, you know, we were kind of behind the scenes working with people to continue to make the case as to why this was important and that there was a role for the national park in having a park that a lot of people visited year-round that was close to population centers, et cetera. The foundation a number of years ago won the Leadership Award from the National Parks and Recreation Association. And one of the reasons we won it was for kind of our role early on in the creation of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We also were recognized for some of our work on the lakefront parks in Cleveland and the transfer of those to the state. And so I think, you know, we felt good about it. But, you know, sometimes when you look back from history, you forget that things didn't have to unfold the way they did because they seem kind of obvious. So to a lot of people growing up now, it probably seems obvious that there should be a big park between Cleveland and Akron, and that this should all be protected land, and that the national park should have a presence and that kind of work, and there should be an environmental education center there. And none of those were obvious to anyone in the beginning. It really took people of vision and then mobilizing both dollars from largely the foundation community and then kind of leadership on the political and other fronts to make it happen.

Karen Grindall [00:24:11] Now, how much does the foundation get involved with the political side when you are committed to a project such as this such as this, such as CVEEC? I'm well aware of the threats from the neighbors up there...

Robert Eckardt [00:24:30] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:24:31] The tombstones that were put out...

Robert Eckardt [00:24:31] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:24:32] And the black ribbons.

Robert Eckardt [00:24:36] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:24:36] How much do you get involved in that political side? Does the foundation feel this is the right thing for us to be doing?

Robert Eckardt [00:24:47] Well, foundations are governed under a tax code that we have to be very careful about not being involved in advocacy around a particular bill. So foundations can never weigh into elections of individuals, so we can't take a position in any kind of race. We can comment if invited on pending legislation and we can take some degree of position on issues, but not on particular bills. So we are very sensitive to that. And so we kind of had to mind our Ps and Qs appropriately. On the other hand, foundations also can do a lot of convening, and we played a role in bringing a lot of leadership in the region out to see the park, working with the Cuyahoga Valley Association and originally Peninsula Association. As I said, we brought dollars to bear that began to protect property, and then when the government started buying property began to protect some of the fringes around the park so that you had the potential to add to it and expand it out from kind of the smaller original footprint, I think we've been, you know, strong supporters politically in the small P sense, the kind of building constituency for the park, but never kind of in a way that would suggest we had stepped over the line in terms of advocating on behalf of a particular bill. So I guess that's kind of how I'd say we walked the line. We do view our role as being not just a passive funder role, but being a leader on important issues. And so we would play that role, where appropriate, in the history of the park.

Karen Grindall [00:26:55] I know that Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center has been strongly received by school systems who went a little dip for a while when they came out with the state exams and everybody [crosstalk] was so afraid with... [inaudible] not feeling now that they have moved through that fear... [inaudible] So what would you like to see for their future, to sustain it as the number of children that are there now? What would be the vision to see the grow for more children?

Robert Eckardt [00:27:31] I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I think that what we've been seeing is a strong sense of the importance of building a sustainable funding strategy, be it scholarship funds and others, recognizing that schools always find it hard to find those kind of supplemental dollars, and particularly the urban school districts find it hard. So we have a number of funds at the foundation that support scholarships. We actually hold some endowment money that has been contributed to support the association that supports scholarships. So at a minimum, I think sustaining it and sustaining it in a way that it doesn't just become something for the well-to-do districts, but that, you know, the districts that are facing it, facing financial problems, can participate is really important. I've been struck, having been out there sometimes, you know, with kids being there who really have very little sense of nature at all. You know, some of them can't sleep because it's too quiet or too noisy in terms of animals and, you know, don't have any sense of, you know, where food comes from or anything at all. And so I think that, you know, from our perspective it would be critical to that. Now, whether they can grow and grow it, they would have to tell you more. But I wouldn't want to see them grow it in a way that threatens kind of the core or that it becomes kind of just an elite program.

Karen Grindall [00:29:21] Let's go back to the Cleveland Foundation because we all know that you are very important as many foundations are to the region. Tell me the mission of the Cleveland Foundation.

Robert Eckardt [00:29:35] Sure. Well, the foundation really has a three-part mission. We exist to build community endowment, which, some of which is our endowment, so we exist to support worthy community projects through grantmaking, and we support to provide leadership on key community issues. And so our mission captures all three of those. The Cleveland Foundation was the first community foundation in the country. And so we still take the sense of being a pioneer seriously and like to think we're, although we're the oldest community foundation because we're the first, we're also flexible and nimble and change over time to reflect the changes in our community. And so, and we're the largest foundation in the state of Ohio and the third largest community foundation in the country. Yes.

Karen Grindall [00:30:39] Can you tell us about some of the other projects or fundings that you would like to brag about [Robert laughs] that the Cleveland Foundaton has done because I think it does this make a big difference in the relationship to even the Earth and the land and the ecology,.

Robert Eckardt [00:30:57] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:30:57] All of it fits together.

Robert Eckardt [00:30:59] Right.

Karen Grindall [00:31:00] Can you share with us some of those joys?

Robert Eckardt [00:31:03] Sure. Well, I think the Cleveland Foundation's supported so many things over the years and from efforts to strengthen Cleveland's neighborhoods to efforts around regional economic development as communities faced the challenges that a lot of Rust Belt cities have faced. The... I think personally, I've been involved in a lot of interesting things from initial work in AIDS and HIV back in the mid 1980s when the disease was known but the causes and the progression of it weren't known and there weren't very many people willing to step up and work on it because no one wanted to be identified as the AIDS whatever, AIDS hospital, AIDS service provider, AIDS whatever, and really trying to help this community think through and put in place what the service system should be for people with AIDS and HIV. Should it be mainstreamed through existing agencies or should there be separate agencies created? So that was a significant part of work we did. We've done some very significant work around trying to improve the quality of care for older people with chronic conditions. Could be nursing home care. Led a major effort to reduce the use of restraints in nursing homes and to kind of make Cleveland maybe not a restraint-free community, but much less use of restraint. There was a period where very high percentages of people in nursing homes were restrained and they were... It was being done for their safety. But in fact, it actually made it more dangerous for people. But you had to change mindsets of administrators and deal with concerns about would they be sued and how could you do this without having more staff and all that and led kind of a significant effort that that really made Cleveland one of the first communities to have as an overall goal, reducing restraints in nursing homes. So there's been a whole range. It's kind of hard to pick out just a couple. I do think that the whole area where the foundation, as I said, did, was recognized in the American Parks and Recreation Association for Leadership around kind of open space,. We're currently a major funder of the Trust for Public Land, and they played a role and taking over the old Coliseum site and restoring that to the national park. They're now working on protecting key parcels in the region, whether it's wetlands out by Sandusky Bay or whatever, and they played a significant role in protecting the sixteen hundred acres of Edison Woods. And we are a major funder of their work. So I think over time I've become more, I'm more recognizing the importance of some of the open space and land protection work that we're doing.

Karen Grindall [00:34:23] Public Lands and Trust [sic] has become a funded partner in your philosophy?

Robert Eckardt [00:34:30] Yes, the Trust for Public Land is a national group, but we... And in almost every case I'm talking about, we were partnering with the Gund Foundation, but the two foundations got them to open their office, targeted just on Northeast Ohio, and have supported their land protection fund. We have a million dollars that is available to the Trust for Public Land for land protection. So rather than identify an important piece of land and then go raise the money, they have the money up front, which in the real estate business is often helpful because you need earnest money or, you know, a deposit to hold something there. Now, leading a major effort on completion of the Towpath Trail and the creation of the Canal Basin Park in downtown Cleveland on the river, again using funds from the Cleveland Foundatio

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