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Sunday, November 03, 2019 1:00 am

Foundation CEO stepping aside

Leaving Foellinger post after 30 years in May

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

There's something Cheryl Taylor wants to try. 

“I would like to write a philanthropic murder mystery,” she said last week. “I have not found that on the shelves anywhere.”

Starting next year, after three decades with one of the area's most prolific philanthropic organizations, she might have a little more time to write that book. 

Taylor, 68, will step down May 31 as president and CEO of the Foellinger Foundation, the private charitable organization she joined in 1990 as a program officer and has led since 2001.

It's not exactly a retirement – she plans to continue working with nonprofits and philanthropies and their leaders. But she'll take a small step back from the foundation and the work that has made her a prominent figure in Fort Wayne and Allen County. 

“There's more life to come,” Taylor said. “My intention is to stay actively involved in philanthropy and nonprofits. I don't have it all nailed down.”

The foundation was created in 1958 by former News-Sentinel publisher Helene Foellinger and her mother, Esther, to “carry forward their family's tradition of civic involvement and active concern for the well-being of their community,” according to the organization's website. It has since grown, developing a permanent philanthropic endowment and becoming one of the largest sources of grant funding for area nonprofits. 

Millions of dollars have been given to local groups including the Allen County Public Library, Little River Wetlands, Early Childhood Alliance and others that “have demonstrated leadership, a relentless focus on mission and a commitment to results.”

Foundation assets hold a market value of more than $200 million, up from nearly nothing when it was created. Last year, grant payments topped $8 million – an increase of about $2 million from 2017. 

Much of that growth occurred on Taylor's watch, after she replaced Barbara Burt, who stepped down as president and moved to chairwoman of the foundation's board. The numbers are significant, but they have not been the focus of Taylor's efforts. 

She instead points to grant programs aimed at nonprofits that help children – one “signature grant” initiative is led by an Allen Superior Court judge and offers leaders training and support – as successes. There are also initiatives designed to help nonprofit leaders adapt to changing organizational environments. 

“It allows them to learn about innovation,” Taylor said. “We learn how to be better leaders when we learn about ourselves.”

Helene and Esther Foellinger began the foundation with values and principles – integrity, accountability, responsibility, results – that Taylor is quick to point to when asked about her work. In announcing grants, Taylor often discusses the foundation's mission to assist organizations that help children and families, “particularly those with the greatest economic need and the least opportunity.”

“We're always talking about those values,” she said. “We need to live up to those values first. I've worked hard at that.”

Michael Moellering said that's obvious. 

He began a three-year term as board president this year and describes Taylor's leadership as “dynamic and adaptive.” 

“She's been a difference-maker in the community for the last 20-plus years,” he said. 

Taylor likely also won't be easily replaced, though the foundation has hired Kittleman& Associates – a Chicago-based executive search firm – to find a successor. 

“It will be a challenge to find someone as well-rounded as Cheryl is,” Moellering said. “It's a positive challenge. We're not trying to replace her. That's not fair to the next person.”

Helen Murray, a current board member and former chairwoman, called Taylor “a gift to the Foellinger Foundation for many years.” She credits Taylor for her knowledge about philanthropy but also a willingness to try new things. 

Taylor understands nonprofits can be made stronger with trained leaders at their helms, and the leadership initiatives work toward that goal, Murray said. 

“She's very focused,” said Murray, noting Taylor will remain a board member. “She has the ability to see the big picture yet keep things moving along. She's very engaged in what she's doing.”

Carolyn Hughes joined the Foellinger Foundation board in 2000 and served as its chairwoman about nine years later. She echoed colleagues' statements that Taylor is laser-focused, willing to think about different solutions to problems and loyal to the foundation's mission. 

“Helene Foellinger would have been proud of her leadership,” Hughes said. 

Taylor said she will take time to visit friends and family when her tenure as president and CEO is done. She loves the outdoors and might do some fishing. 

Of course, there's always writing – she earned an English degree from St. Mary's College before earning a master's degree from Indiana University – and reading.

“My house is full of books,” Taylor said. “I have at least three going on at the same time. I'm a little scared that will move to four.”

mleblanc@jg.net