Heritage Fund marks 4 decades as community catalyst, financial supporter

The largest local foundation has in many ways come full circle since its inception 40 years ago.

That’s one view of Tracy Souza, the fourth leader of the agency that ranks sixth in assets — at $65 million — among foundations statewide.

The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, gave one of its first major grants in 1984. The three-year, $40,000 gift helped build what is now IUPUC on the north side of Columbus. Last year, the fund provided a five-year, $100,000 grant for the college’s nursing program and its faculty retention effort.

Beth Sharer, division head of the IU School of Nursing at IUPUC, mentioned that Heritage Fund’s support along with help from the Community Education Coalition and the Custer-Nugent Foundation literally make the university’s local program possible. That’s especially significant considering a statewide, record nursing shortage plus a severe nursing faculty shortage.

“The Heritage Fund’s support therefore helps us sustain our overall program and also grow,” Sharer said.

“Near the beginning, we were helping build the building,” said Souza, Heritage Fund’s president and CEO, of the early IUPUC grant. “Now, we’re helping build a really important part of the program.”

As Bartholomew County has grown, so has the Heritage Fund, now with burgeoning financial assets in its role as a key catalyst to bring community problem solvers together.

Although the fund distributes money much like a generous and supportive parent, it also engages leaders from nearly segment of the area to highlight local problems and challenges.

Souza served as a Heritage Fund board member and president of The Cummins Foundation before she assumed the Heritage Fund helm in 2011, replacing Sherry Stark. Souza sees the Heritage Fund “as being the big, community dining room table where everyone can come together to talk and share, even if they don’t always agree with each other.”

The fund has supported a smorgasbord of issues, from creating a more welcoming community to rebuilding The Commons. It has pledged to help struggling families find financial stability while also highlighting early childhood education.

The Welcoming Community initiative, introduced in 2004 as a local questionnaire, spotlighted a desire in Bartholomew County to make new residents from various cultures and nations and those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to feel welcomed and accepted for their diversity and differences.

The project, which triggered a second phase in 2011, showed that these local groups’ discomfort sometimes resulted in their departure — also making it more difficult for local global firms such as Cummins Inc. to recruit top talent to work in Columbus when candidates have other employment options in more diverse cities.

And from an economic standpoint, community and business leaders have said firms will not locate in areas seen as close-minded or not in tune with racial, religious, sexual and other diversity.

The follow-up survey showed that more people in general felt welcome. But residents in the LGBT community felt the area was less open to differences than seven years earlier.

Today, Engage Columbus, a Heritage Fund program, is one outgrowth from welcoming study results. The Engage Columbus office, which opened last March, exists to connect people with information and resources to help them feel more welcome in Columbus. It is located in a former carriage house next to the Heritage building in downtown Columbus.

Foundation’s founding

Philanthropy in Bartholomew County was undergoing changes in the early 1970s, recalled Jim Henderson, then an executive with Cummins. Henderson, who also served as president of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce board and as a member of the Columbus/Bartholomew Bicentennial Corporation during that time, remembered leaders questioning whether the community could replace a high level of private giving.The bicentennial corporation was charged with creating projects with long-lasting impact, and ideas for a community foundation slowly began forming until that corporation became the Heritage Fund.“It was important to us that this not be simply a J. Irwin Miller enterprise,” Henderson said of the Cummins chairman and CEO and leading philanthropist at the time, who was approaching retirement.

Ed Sullivan, now living in Durham, North Carolina, came aboard as the Heritage Fund’s first executive director in 1979, arriving from a Chicago foundation heralded as one of the nation’s oldest and largest.

Sullivan mentioned that a great, local board made all the difference for the foundation’s early success in Columbus.

For example, a fundraising committee established in May 1981 consisted of community leaders Henderson, who later rose to become president and CEO of Cummins; Arvin Industries executive Gene Anderson; Robert N. Brown, chairman of local publisher Home News Enterprises; and David Kirr, a founder of the Kirr, Marbach & Co. asset management firm.

They were later joined by Barbara Stewart, a community leader who founded the Ethnic Expo ethnic festival, and Ross Crump, another city leader.

Their fundraising goal was $2.5 million, but the group raised $3.1 million by 1983.

“Probably the hardest to raise were the unrestricted funds,” said Sullivan, referring to money that can be used however leaders see fit and mentioning that many donors wanted to donate for specific community needs instead. “But Jim Henderson was already one of the best fundraisers in the country.”

The fund later would name its annual nonprofit fundraising award in honor of Henderson, who retired from Cummins in 1999.

Sullivan mentioned that a chunk of the fund’s real financial strength came near the 15- and 20-year marks, when bequests came through. A $5 million dollar bequest came its way when longtime philanthropist Millie Reeves died in 1998.

While the foundation’s assets have grown, so has its profile in a county with a dramatically altered local foundation base.

The Arvin Foundation disappeared after Columbus-based Arvin Inc. merged with Meritor Automotive Inc. of Troy, Michigan, in 2000 and began selling off its Bartholomew County assets in 2003.

The Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation, a charitable agency founded in 1952 by J. Irwin Miller’s family, poured more than $57 million into Bartholomew County before making its final major gift to the Heritage Fund two years ago. The foundation’s draw-down began following the death of J. Irwin Miller in 2004 and his wife Xenia in 2008.

But Henderson is confident that generous donors will continue to strengthen the foundation.

“You have to remember that when you ask people for money, you’re not asking for yourself,” Henderson said. “You’re asking on behalf of a community cause.”

In anticipation of the 40th anniversary year, Souza already was hearing people ask, “What are you doing to make sure the next 40 years are successful?”

Souza’s face lit up over the question.

For starters, the foundation will be reshaping its strategic plan this year. Plus, staff and board members continue to keep a finger on the pulse of community issues and needs. They’re doing that via personal involvement, attending meetings ranging from those strengthening and championing diversity so all can feel welcome in the county to finding ways to bridge economic gaps and bolstering the Columbus downtown.

“We can’t make a difference in absolutely everything, even when we become a $100 million foundation,” Souza said. “But if we can be clear about those areas that have the highest priority need, then we can continue to make a big difference.”

Henderson agreed and offered a reminder that the need for vision and practical and financial resources is as great as ever.

“We’ve got to keep going,” he said.

Through the years

When did Heritage Fund take on the longer name?

1976: Heritage Fund of Bartholomew County is created.

1977: Board chairman Lowell Engelking makes a $25,000 donation. Orphie Bridges, a retired executive from Arvin Industries, serves as a part-time volunteer director.

1979: Ed Sullivan hired as first executive director.

1981: Endowment Development Campaign launched with a goal of $2.5 million by end of December 1982.

1983: $3.1 million pledged for the Endowment Development Campaign.

1984: Heritage Fund began formal grant-making process.

1986: Barbara W. Stewart becomes first woman to serve as Heritage Fund Board chair.

1990: Heritage Fund office moved to 430 Second Street (Lincoln Square).

1992: Heritage Fund received $1 million anonymous gift in support of hospice services.

1997: Chuck Watson hired as executive director.

1998: Heritage Fund received largest bequest in its history, more than $5 million from estate of Millie Reeves.

1999: Sherry Stark hired as president/CEO.

2000: Heritage Fund’s Planned Giving Society was created with 35 founding members, to be later renamed The Bartholomew Society.

2001: Heritage Fund received $1 million bequest from Delora L. Lauther for a scholarship fund.

2002: Heritage Fund moved to its current home – 538 Franklin St. The gift of three properties at Franklin Square was from Xenia Miller and the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation.

2007: Heritage Fund and Community Education Coalition received $38 million in grants from Lilly Endowment Inc., to fund educational programs associated with advanced manufacturing, healthcare and tourism/hospitality in 10 counties in Southeast Indiana. This included initiatives such as Economic Opportunities Through Education by 2015 or EcO15.

2011: Tracy Souza hired as president and CEO.

Areas of initiative

Four areas have become the focus of the Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.


  • Working with all educational partners to support efforts to further learning for all residents and support programs aligned with workforce requirements while promoting degree attainment.


  • Providing the leadership focus to promote, educate and nurture an appreciation of diversity, including an understanding of and respect for differences.


  • Facilitating efforts to advance economic growth in Bartholomew County, with special efforts focused on downtown vitality and community pride. This includes arts and cultural efforts.


  • Building bridges to ensure that all people, regardless of economic backgrounds, can participate in community life. Promote access to programs that encourage self-sufficiency, strong neighborhoods and other efforts to help those in our community who need a hand up.

About the Heritage Fund

Founded: 1976.

Purpose: To identify and address a broad range of community needs, to promote visionary leadership and philanthropy, and to provide responsible stewardship of gifts to benefit broad purposes.

Current address: 538 Franklin St. in Columbus.

Total grants: $66.8 million, supporting initiatives from education to the arts.

Leadership: Tracy Souza, president and CEO. Kevina Schumaker, board chair.

Goal for 50th anniversary: $100 million in assets.

Information: 812-376-7772 or heritagefundbc.com.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.