Cover Story: Community Spirit: 2005 Persons of the Year

Community Shares nurtures many of the area's most worthy causes

Feb 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm
2005 Persons of the Year

This is almost too easy — building a better community without going to meetings or collecting signatures. You don't even have to write a check.

Raise your hand if you care about the following:

· The friend of a friend who was date-raped when she was 15 and still is trying to deal with it;

· The 9-year-old on the other side of town who keeps missing school because his mother left her husband after he beat her up — again — and now they're staying at a shelter for a few weeks;

· The factory a few miles from your neighborhood that is spewing God-knows-what into the air.

What are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?

You know how everyone says Cincinnati is so conservative and straitlaced? There's a theater in Over-the-Rhine that offers plays about topics so controversial they've been picketed.

You know how everyone says they believe in equal opportunity? There's a group downtown that specializes in finding housing for people with serious disabilities — some of them are blind, some don't have arms or legs, but they're independent and quite able to make a living.

You know how everyone says you have to make a tradeoff between the amenities of urban life and the desire for a bit of green — some trees, some natural beauty?

Maybe you don't. Two groups in Cincinnati help neighborhoods develop their links to the natural world.

Would you be willing to pay $2 a week to help someone beat addiction and find a job? If you knew you could help fund a support group for families that have experienced suicide, would you offer $1 a week?

By making payroll deductions to Community Shares of Greater Cincinnati, thousands of people are helping local groups addressing root problems and — what matters most — finding effective, community-based solutions. It's the kind of grassroots activity that has passed beyond theoretical concept and actually makes a difference here.

For their contributions to making Greater Cincinnati a more tolerant and interconnected community, the people who make up Community Shares are CityBeat's 2005 Persons of the Year.

Paycheck power
There are too many of them to name, because while the staff of Community Shares is just three people — Jeniece Jones, the executive director; John Lucero-Criswell, campaign director; and Jane Rega, operations director — the organization's real identity lies in the collaboration of its 26 member organizations, groups as diverse as Planned Parenthood and the Civic Garden Center.

The name, of course, is a play on words: Community Shares is not so much a charity as it is an investment scheme, a way to, as Lucero-Criswell puts it, "build social and economic equity and a healthy environment."

Ponder now the power of payroll deduction, a tool so simple yet able to fuel mammoth social forces. It's how we pay for social security, the military and the space shuttle. It works well for major charities, too; they long ago pooled their fund-raising efforts and persuaded businesses to set up payroll deductions as an easy way to contribute.

What's new about Community Shares is that it puts this simple, powerful tool to work for causes and needs that are unlikely to generate support from groups as large and mainstream as United Way, let alone government. Community Shares enables working people to support groups that advocate for prison reform, lobby for stricter air pollution controls and monitor election procedures.

"These are groups doing cutting-edge, grassroots, community-based work," says Brewster Rhoads, a longtime political consultant in Cincinnati. "I'm sure my $50 or $100 will go a long way with these kinds of groups. It's like, 'Duh! Why didn't we do this a long time ago?' If Community Shares didn't exist, people would be thinking about how to create it."

Rhoads is a member of the board of Community Shares, and that's noteworthy because of his reputation as a community organizer who gets the job done. Widely credited with getting Cincinnati voters to pass school levies after they'd repeatedly said no, Rhoads has no shortage of requests for help with good causes. If he gets involved, he expects success.

"With Community Shares, my time can be used to help a lot of organizations at once," he says. "It's efficient from the point of view of a volunteer. It's just a bunch of people who have their hearts and minds in the right place. They're incredibly hardworking folks."

Jim Bliss knows the language of corporate finance, but he almost hesitates to use it. After retiring from Procter & Gamble, where he worked 32 years in sales management, promotion and professional relations until 2002, Bliss became executive director of Community Shares, a post he left at the end of 2005.

"Our product is our organizations," he says. "But don't put that in there. That sounds too corporate. Community Shares is a cooperative or partnership of its 26 member organizations. These organizations are doing some of the work that's really important to our community.

"Unfortunately these organizations are not covered by the big umbrella funds such as United Way or the Fine Arts Fund. They struggle for not having a mechanism to generate more public support. Community Shares is trying to be a conduit between people who are interested in improving our community and people who are doing something about it."

The 'D' word
Community Shares started in 1996 as a collaborative of five nonprofit groups. The first workplace campaign yielded $20,000, according to Lucero-Criswell.

Today 26 organizations belong to Community Shares. In 2004 the agency collected more than $383,000 to support their work, and in the past nine years Community Shares has raised more than $1.5 million.

You can characterize its member organizations with a number of terms that largely serve only to put off other people: "progressive," "liberal" or even "radical" — in the original meaning of the Latin word radix, or "root." (See the current list of members on this page.)

"For the benefit of marketing in the political arena, some labels have been given: 'liberal' or 'progressive.' It's more than that," Jones says. "Both progressives and conservatives — people are more complex than that. When you look at national trends, social and economic equity has been the issue forever. When you talk about the environment, it's had a progressive connotation in the past. But when you draw the nexus between the environment and national security, the message gets a lot broader."

Judy Green, chair of the Community Shares Ambassadors, a volunteer group, knows the terminology has both appeal and hazard.

"I don't want to use the word 'liberal,' because that's been politicized," she says. "We'll say 'progressive.' That's the aura we want to cultivate. We're grassroots. We're into the environment."

When Lucero-Criswell addresses employees at a workplace, urging them to contribute, questions about politics inevitably arise.

"From time to time it does come up because, since our member organizations are working on root problems, they take stands," he says.

The largest of the member organizations, and also the best known, is Planned Parenthood.

"Our biggest agency is Planned Parenthood," Green says. "There are a lot of people for whom that's a show-stopper right there."

But even the seemingly mainstream League of Women Voters has been the subject of pointed questions at a workplace Q&A.

"Someone wanted to know why they're a member organization," Lucero-Criswell says. "The answer is it's part of building social and economic equity and a healthy environment. As we've chewed on it over the years, that's what it really comes down to."

But Community Shares has a feature sure to appeal to more conservative minds, according to Jones. Everyone who agrees to make payroll deductions for Community Shares gets to pick which member organizations get their money.

"That's always conservative in nature — having the ultimate choice as an individual," Jones says.

Jim Lowenburg, who has been on the Community Shares board since its founding, calls it "the democratization of giving." Unlike some of the larger workplace-giving campaigns, Community Shares gives donors complete control over the causes and agencies that receive their money.

"We encourage donors to specify where they want their money to go," Lowenburg says. "Donor choice is really key for us. It's one of the things I would say to people who would say, 'I don't like one of these organizations.' I would say, 'Fine. Support the other 25.' "

That ability to individually earmark contributions made through payroll deduction is a big asset, Bliss says.

"We almost insist you designate which organizations you support," he says. "It's a critical differentiating point, something employees really appreciate. It's our biggest selling point. If there are organizations in the mix that you don't wish to support, nothing goes to them. It's a very democratic way to give."

Yet the progressive philosophy of the member organizations is, of course, the source of their appeal. Lowenburg says he hears more enthusiasm for Community Shares' social agenda than political objections.

"It's a strength that we are involved with organizations that are willing to get out and do the important work," he says. "I hear the converse. People feel strongly about particular organizations and want to support them. Once the workplace is opened up and materials are distributed, people say, 'Wow, check this out. I didn't know that anyone was doing what Imago or the Center for Peace Education are doing.' Or 'Man, I didn't know you could support these organizations through this mechanism.' Provide the option, and they will give."

All payroll deductions go directly to the designated member organizations, unless a donor wants to contribute to Community Shares' operating needs. Otherwise those are funded through grants, fundraising by the Ambassadors and such benefits as "Guys, Griddles and Grub" March 18 at the Syrian Temple in Mount Auburn.

A united sort of way
It's impossible to avoid contrasts between Community Shares and United Way, the largest local charity federation established at thousands of workplaces around the region and amply supported by media coverage during its annual campaign.

Both agencies rely on payroll deductions to support nonprofit organizations. But while almost everyone has heard of United Way, Community Shares is still struggling to make its existence known.

The official line at Community Shares is that it's not in competition with United Way.

"They're complementary organizations," Rhoads says. "The United Way organizations are the backbone of so many essential community and social services. But Community Shares has organizations that have unique, niche areas of impact that might be below the radar screen but are terribly important."

While some people associated with Community Shares acknowledge that the favor isn't always returned, the policy is to not badmouth the larger group.

"More and more we're trying not to be — how should I put this? — anti-United Way or the non-United Way," Green says.

Yet there are important reasons some nonprofit groups align themselves with Community Shares and not with the other guys.

"You can see a variety of reasons why our member organizations would not want to be a part of United Way," Lucero-Criswell says. "Typically they have not supported civic issues or civic engagement. Other organizations may be too controversial for United Way or just outside the purview of what they're doing.

"We just have a different style. At Community Shares, we really look for groups that are addressing the systemic issues that their clients face. We also encourage the donors to have control over where their funds go. When I see their allocation system, I find it very worthwhile. It's just different from ours."

That said, United Way is the first and the biggest, and its omnipresence makes it tough for an upstart such as Community Shares, intentionally or not.

"United Way has a lot of influence over workplaces, so it certainly is a challenge," Lowenburg says. "We think there's plenty of room for both. We are raising about $300,000 a year. United Way raises about $60 million."

Bliss sees the competition as an understandable challenge — and useful opportunity — for corporate managers.

"Many workplaces in the city are thinking, 'Gee whiz, we already do United Way and we do the Fine Arts Fund, and we just don't want to get involved beyond that.' I understand that thinking," Bliss says. "But at the same time, isn't one of the ways to honor employees to give them choices? We would like employers to consider the fact that their employees have a lot more interests than just those included in the two big umbrella organizations."

Then Bliss — who keeps saying he's no longer involved in Community Shares — almost unconsciously slips into sales mode, as though making a pitch to another company.

"We've got a turn-key operation that's very simple," he says. "We do most of the work for the employers."

Although retired and constantly pointing to Jones, his successor, Bliss is unable to hide his enthusiasm for Community Shares.

The agency's latest good news came last week, when AVOC signed on as a member organization.

"The reason I'm excited about AVOC is the work they've been doing, number one, and they have fairly good name recognition in the community," Bliss says. "AVOC gives us a higher-profile organization, and we give AVOC another way to support them, in payroll giving."

'A natural motivation'
Assistant Cincinnati Fire Chief Mike Kroeger encourages fellow firefighters to support Community Shares.

"Community Shares helps the people firefighters help every day," he says. "The Community Shares organizations give a hand up not just a hand out and are locally based, doing work for our community."

The city of Cincinnati has payroll deductions for Community Shares, as do some of the largest employers in the region: the federal government, the University of Cincinnati, the state of Ohio. But Community Shares has only 70 workplaces on board so far. The pursuit of more is a constant challenge.

"It's about relationship building, and it's year-round," Lucero-Criswell says.

Growth is the biggest challenge facing Jones, who became executive director in mid-January. About 2,300 people made payroll deductions to the agency last year.

"We're always looking for new workplaces," she says. "Anyone interested in adding Community Shares to their giving campaign should call me. I'll be happy to meet with anybody who wants to talk about it."

Talk is what Community Shares needs more than anything; only then will the money for its member organizations follow.

"The biggest obstacle is greater awareness of Community Shares," Lucero-Criswell says.

Bliss, who studied the issue when he started as executive director, concurs.

"Typical P&G, we did a fair amount of research to find out how Community Shares was perceived and learn better how to position ourselves," he says. "One of the things Community Shares struggles with is it's not as well known."

Additional expertise comes through Community Shares' membership in the National Alliance for Choice in Giving (visit and Community Shares USA (visit

As Community Shares approaches its 10th anniversary, it seems poised for the next step. Bliss brought the agency the benefit of corporate professionalism. Jones brings street credibility and easygoing gumption. She pretends it was no big deal for an African American growing up poor in West Virginia to become an attorney in Cincinnati.

"People make a bigger deal of it than it really is," Jones says. "To become an attorney, here's what you do: You go to school and you study. It's not as important as what you do with the knowledge."

After a few years in civil practice — real estate law, creditor-debtor issues, employment law — Jones decided to put her knowledge to work for the common good. In addition to her law degree, she has a master's degree in public administration, both from Northern Kentucky University.

"Ideally I wanted to put the two degrees together, and getting into the nonprofit sector helped me to do that," she says.

The development coordinator for Smart Money Community Services before taking her new position, she's a member of the board of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati and the NAACP Legal Redress Committee.

Volunteering at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where Jones worked with the development coordinator, gave her additional preparation for her new job.

Jones would never say it — she keeps reminding that she's held the job only a few weeks — but in many ways her curriculum vitae epitomizes the kind of work Community Shares is all about.

"We were poor in West Virginia, but we didn't know it until we got into junior high school," she says. "Being raised in a religious background, always giving was kind of bred into me. My upbringing had a lot to do with it: 'Don't get ahead of yourself. Be thankful. Do what you can for others.'

"One of the things that struck me when I became an attorney — to me, it seems a natural motivation on my part to think where I came from. I've always looked at whatever happens to me as an opportunity to move forward and try to be in a position to help others. For me, it's always been there and never gone away."

Jones is quick to credit the people who helped her along the way.

"I've been very fortunate," she says. "I've had a lot of mentors. Part of the African-American experience is to have mentors. I've had like a mentor chain. I've had a wealth of African-American role models in the city of Cincinnati, especially African-American attorneys. We mentor each other a lot."

That's the way this investment scheme works. That's how we build social and economic equity and a healthy environment. We do it ourselves, together, a few bucks out of each paycheck.

Jeniece Jones is ready to help you get the Community Shares option at your job.

"A lot of this is go-getter types, who want to get us in the door," she says. "Contact me and we can go from there. It's like a fringe benefit, the way I see it."

Previous Persons of the Year
2004: Jean-Robert de Cavel

The French chef has adopted Greater Cincinnati as his home, opening several successful restaurants downtown or in urban neighborhoods, dedicating himself to worthy local benefit causes and generally making the city a cooler, more cultured place.

2003: Citizens to Restore Fairness

The grassroots organization worked for a year to educate Cincinnatians about the unfairness and inequality behind Article 12 of the city charter. Article 12 subsequently was repealed by city voters in November 2004.

2002: Todd Portune

The Hamilton County Commissioner, locked in high-profile battles with two of the area's most powerful institutions — the county prosecutor's office and the Cincinnati Bengals — became the standard-bearer for local progressive causes.

2001: Angela Leisure

The mother of Timothy Thomas, who was killed by Cincinnati Police in April 2001, offered the African-American community poise and strength in the troubled days of violence following her son's death.

2000: Victoria Straughn

The HIV Early Intervention/Prevention Specialist at UC's Infectious Diseases Center was beginning to make a name for herself as a grassroots activist for political and social casues, a role she continues today.

1999: Sister Alice Gerdeman

The director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center was the calm, thoughtful spokesperson for Cincinnatians waking up to the crucial issues of world trade, corporate domination and individual rights after the high-profile WTO demonstrations in Seattle.

1998: Broadway Commons Supporters

Led by then-restaurant owner (and current city councilman) Jim Tarbell, a ragtag group of ordinary Cincinnatians pushed the concept that, because they paid the sales taxes to fund a new Reds stadium, they should have a say in where it was built. They preferred the site known as Broadway Commons, but the business community and the Reds instead built the stadium on the riverfront.

To learn more about Community Shares of Greater Cincinnati and its member organizations, visit To set up a Community Shares campaign at your workplace, call 513-475-0475.