Top Ohio foundation taps local leader

A longtime Cincinnati philanthropy leader will become the new leader at one of Ohio’s top private foundations.

After a national search to replace its highly revered leader who recently died of pancreatic cancer, the Toledo-based Stranahan Foundation named 25-year Mayerson Foundation veteran Breta Cooper as its executive director.

Breta Cooper

The appointment marks the second major local foundation leader in recent weeks to head out-of-town for a new leadership position, although the Stranahan search process said its new leader would only be required to spend five days a month in Toledo. In Ontario, Canada, the board of the Waterloo Region Community Foundation announced the appointment of Eric Avner as president and CEO of its newly merged organization.

The Stranahan Foundation, a fifth-generation family foundation founded in Toledo in 1944, tapped Cooper to succeed the late Pam Howell-Beach.

The Stranahan Foundation has assets in excess of $120 million, and last year awarded grants totaling approximately $6 million. There are over 230 living descendants of Frank and Robert Stranahan, who founded the Champion Spark Plug Co., whose product for years powered most Ford vehicles.

Stranahan family members, scattered across the U.S., recommend nonprofits within their individual communities to seek funding from the foundation through grant requests; therefore, the foundation’s grantees are located nationwide.

Cooper began her career in philanthropy at the Cincinnati-based Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation in 1996. Over the last 25 years she continued her professional development and education, and her career progressed through the organization becoming director of operations and new programs in 2002 and executive vice president in 2008. Prior to accepting this position, Cooper was executive director of the VIA Institute on Character, a global nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to advancing the science and practice of character.

Having a long history and broad set of experiences with nonprofits and multi-generational family foundations, Cooper will bring a wealth of insight, strategic and operational capabilities, and positive leadership to the Stranahan Foundation, said board president Patrick Stranahan.

“All of us at the foundation are very heartened and enthusiastic about having Breta join as our leader,” said Stranahan. “We eagerly anticipate her maintaining the enterprise with its time-tested values and practices, while innovating resources to take us onward to its future.”

Cooper holds an MBA from Xavier University and a bachelor’s in psychology from DePauw University.

“It’s an honor to be selected as the next leader of the Stranahan Foundation, which has a long history of generosity and thoughtful grantmaking,” said Cooper. “The Stranahan Foundation is an exceptional example of family philanthropy that has evolved over the years from focusing its grantmaking in the Toledo area to now reaching individuals, families, and communities across the country. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with the board, family, and staff to maintain a commitment to the values of previous generations while continuing to look to the future.”

In the coming months, Cooper will work with board leaders and staff to gain perspective and insight on the foundation’s key priorities including refining operational systems and processes, reviewing grantmaking strategies and engaging the more than 200 family members residing across the country. 

Howell-Beach had been in her role as CEO of the Stranahan Foundation through June 2021, when her condition was diagnosed. She had been CEO since 2004. From 1990-2004, she led the Toledo Community Foundation, growing it from $20 million to nearly $100 million in assets. She received the Ohio Philanthropy Award for lifetime achievement from Philanthropy Ohio, and was credited with putting Stranahan on a national platform with partnerships with more famous foundations bearing the names of Bezos, Gates and Buffett.

Stranahan is among the top 25 private foundations in Ohio, and among the state’s top 20 family foundations.

Avner had been vice president of another Ohio top 25 foundation, the Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation (2008-2022), where he oversaw the foundation’s community development grantmaking and impact investing, directing more than $45 million to strengthen Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods, a regional workforce and a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. Avner also founded and was CEO of People’s Liberty (2014-2019), a nationally-recognized philanthropic lab that explored a new role for foundations interested in investing in place by investing in people.

Eric Avner

Previously, Avner advised Cincinnati’s top CEOs on economic development and public policy issues as associate director of the Cincinnati Business Committee (2000-2008). During this period, he held prominent roles in the creation of a nationally recognized nonprofit development corporation, the bond issue campaign to remake all Cincinnati Public Schools’ facilities, the exploration of new funding models for the arts and culture sector and the disruption of the local media landscape by launching to focus on stories of economic and physical transformation in neighborhoods.

A Canadian native, Avner chaired an effort to convert an abandoned railroad bridge into the Purple People Bridge, a half-mile-long award-winning linear pedestrian park (1998-2000), and served in leadership roles for capital campaigns for Know Theater of Cincinnati, the 34-mile CROWN urban trail loop, American Sign Museum, and Findlay Kitchen food business incubator. He chaired the board of Cincinnati Development Fund – the region’s largest community development financial institution – and served on boards for Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, Philanthropy Ohio, Artworks Cincinnati, Catalytic Development Fund of Northern Kentucky, LISC Cincinnati and Represent OTR.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to return to Southwestern Ontario and to work with this dynamic community,” said Avner.

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