Former Musician Ron Ancrum Now Hits High Notes with the Community Foundation
Growing up, Ron Ancrum wanted to be the next Quincy Jones. He was a skilled trumpet player, but liked writing music even more than performing it. He put aside those interests a quarter-century ago as he was shaping a career in higher education and the broad realm of philanthropy, which continues today as president of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. He’s not writing music in that position, but he is working to orchestrate progress for the Pioneer Valley.
Ron Ancrum says he fell in love with jazz — and discovered the trumpet — when he was in the 7th grade.
And by the time he graduated from Rippowam High School in Stamford, Conn., he was, by his own admission, quite good at the craft, which he honed while playing with such groups as the Silver Falcon Drum & Bugle Corp and the Stamford Young People’s Symphony Orchestra. He wasn’t alone in that opinion, either; he earned a mention in Downbeat magazine in 1967 as a promising up-and-coming jazz musician.
“I was a senior in high school at the time,” he recalled. “They [Downbeat] did these jazz competitions where the magazine would go to different cities and have different groups compete; we didn’t come in first, but we got a mention.”
But as much as he liked playing music, he enjoyed composing it even more, and majored in theory and composition at UConn.
“My dream was to be the next Quincy Jones — I wanted to write for motion pictures,” he told BusinessWest, noting quickly that, while he had some success in music — one of many bands he played with, ANKH (his nickname), opened for Gladys Knight and the Pips back in 1973 at the Bushnell in Hartford, and another jazz band, Quintessence, released an album in 1981 — his career has gone in a completely different direction (actually, several of them), mostly out of necessity, but also desire.
His current assignment, as president of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, carries with it some composition work of a different kind — in the realm of what’s known as ‘community leadership.’
Explaining the concept, Ancrum said it involves groups like the Community Foundation moving well beyond the work of managing funds and distributing grants to area nonprofits (although those are still important parts of the whole), and into efforts to address some of the many social and economic issues impacting the region — from school dropout rates to the creative economy to social entreprenuership.
This work has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the coordination of the first of what is expected to be several so-called ‘City to City’ tours — Springfield-area business and civic leaders visited Winston-Salem and Greensboro, N.C. last fall to learn how those communities have bounced back from adversity — to the funding of a new leadership-development program (see story, page 50). And more initiatives are in the formative stages, said Ancrum.
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest talked with Ancrum about jazz, philanthropy, and community responsibility, and how they all involve hitting the right notes at the right time.
Ancrum said his interest in jazz these days is confined mostly to listening to it — “picking up an instrument and playing is not what I’m interested in, although I would like to start writing again; that’s what I really enjoy.” But since he’s in Western Mass. at least five days a week (his permanent home is in Canton, Mass.), finding good listening can be challenging.
“I’m used to being in Boston, where there’s tons of jazz,” he explained. “There’s some here, but certainly not as much; there’s been a lot of good jazz at UMass through the Fine Arts Center, for example.”
He is putting his knowledge of the genre and the business to work as a member of the planning committee for the upcoming Hoop City Jazz & Art Festival, slated for July 8-10 at Court Square in downtown Springfield. “I found out that the person organizing it, John Osborn, is a UConn grad like myself, so we got together over lunch and I got involved,” he said, adding that his role is simply as adviser rather than band recruiter. “John’s more into smooth jazz, and I’m more into traditional jazz; I recommend people, but he doesn’t necessarily gravitate toward them.”
Ancrum thought he was destined for a career in music after UConn, where he ran the jazz band and was the arranger, French horn, and electric piano for a multimedia rock production of the Who’s Tommy, among other things. But the stars were simply not aligned for that eventuality.
“I actually took off for California right after graduating, but eventually turned around and came back,” he said, not wanting to go into details of that excursion. Instead of Hollywood, his next stop was a short stint in graduate school, studying music theory at UConn, while also finding different ways to remain active in the music business.
He wrote music and performed with the Voice of Freedom Gospel Choir, for example, and was leader, manager, arranger, and composer for Quintessence, which released an album with that same name in 1981 that has become a collector’s item of sorts.
“There’s a guy in New York who has it listed as a ‘rare-find album’ — he came up and purchased 200 of them from me,” said Ancrum, who found a copy for BusinessWest.
And while he continued to perform and compose until 1987, Ancrum was by that time well into a career in higher education. He started at UConn as a staff assistant in the Student Activities Department in 1972, and later became director of Admissions at Connecticut College. Next was a two-year stint as associate dean of Admissions at Colgate University in Upstate New York. “That’s one of the nicest places to work; it’s just in the wrong place,” he joked. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it snowed from Columbus Day to Easter.”
He then spent nearly a decade at UMass Boston as director of Undergraduate Admissions before starting his own consulting business in the Boston area, which provided services to numerous nonprofit organizations and higher-education instituitions. From there, he went to a Boston-based company called Third Sector New England, again providing consulting services to nonprofit organizations, and eventually on to a lengthy stint as president and CEO of Associated Grant Makers, a membership association for foundations and corporate-giving programs serving Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
During his tenure there, Mary Walachy, executive director of the Springfield-based Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and Kent Faerber, then-president of the Community Foundation, both served on the board of directors, providing him some insight into Springfield and the Pioneer Valley in the process.
Over time, Ancrum said he developed a desire to work at a foundation, rather than for them, and began looking for such a position around the time Faerber announced that he would be retiring from his post. Following conversations with Walachy and others about the job and the region, Ancrum decided to apply and was ultimately chosen.
Projects of Note
Ancrum said that, when he took the helm at the foundation, he knew little about Springfield other than what he’d learned from Walachy, Faerber, and other funders. He had read of the city’s deep financial problems, but also that they were mostly a thing of the past by the time he started moving into his office on the 23rd floor of Tower Square.
“When I came here, I saw a lot of opportunity to do something,” he said, acknowledging that this was an outsider’s perspective, although little has changed since he’s become an insider. “I thought this was a place ready to take off; it has a lot going for it. There’s clearly some strength in the quality educational institutions, and the health community is quite strong.
“There are assets here,” he continued, “and culturally, there’s a lot of potential; there’s music and art and some museums. This should become one of the places in the state that people come to visit. It’s a destination stop; however, it needs to be marketed better.”
But along with all this potential there are issues and challenges, not only in Springfield, but in communities across the three-county (Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire) area served by the Community Foundation, said Ancrum, noting, among things, a clear need to create new sources of jobs, efforts to replace lost manufacturing companies, and a need to rebuild what he called the “economic infrastructure.”
The sum of these challenges and the need for a coordinated response have been the primary motivators for the foundation taking big strides into the realm of community leadership, he continued, noting that this is now the third leg of the Community Foundation’s mission.
The first leg is essentially providing a vehicle for individual donors to engage in philanthropy, he said, adding that the foundation manages roughly 500 funds ranging in size from $10,000 to $12 million. The second leg is grant making, including the largest scholarship program in the region, awarding nearly $2 million in the most recent cycle.
There are also competitive grants, awarded in several cycles, that have recently totaled roughly $1.4 million. “We recently made 77 awards totaling $720,000,” he said of the most recent round, which featured 104 requests, one of the highest totals in recent years. Following the recent tornadoes, the foundation created a relief fund and directed $50,000 toward it, with other donations coming from a number of financial institutions and other area companies (see related story, page 28). At present, the fund now totals more than $125,000, and will be used to assist nonprofits directly impacted by the tornadoes (and there were several) or that provide assistance to victims.
The community-leadership component is part of a nationwide trend among community foundations, said Ancrum, adding that the agency’s board of directors approved a broad plan to move in this direction in late 2008, and a big part of his job description is carrying out that assignment.
There have been several manifestations of this initiative, he explained, many of them sparked by what he called “community conversations.”
“These are simple convenings where we invite our donors as a way of educating them, and we invite other people in the field who can contribute to the conversation,” he said of the sessions. “We basically try to figure out what the really hot issues are and bring in national, regional, and local speakers who we feel can add to the discussion and provide direction moving forward.”
One such conversation was about the controversial subject of dropout rates in inner-city schools.
“We took an angle that it’s not just an educational issue — it’s really an economic issue, and it’s really a public safety issue as well,” he explained. “So we had the sheriff there, the superintendent there, someone from the state who could talk about the research done on the subject … we brought people together who we thought would be good to have in the room for the kind of conversation that probably should happen.”
This was followed up by a session on the creative economy, he continued, adding that this featured speakers such as state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and others, who focused on the success achieved by North Adams and other communities as they have used the arts to stimulate economic development.
One of the most visible of the community-leadership initiatives was last fall’s City to City tour of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, this region’s first foray into a national program designed to let business and civic leaders in one area see, hear, and analyze how other urban areas of similar size and demographics have achieved progress with economic-development initiatives.
More than 50 representatives of area businesses, colleges, and nonprofit agencies spent three days in North Carolina, learning how the two cities had succeeded in revitalizing their downtowns, generating new sources of jobs, and making their cities safer and, overall, more livable.
Ancrum said he believes the program was a success on a number of levels, starting with how it brought a number of area leaders together for three days, giving them a chance to get to know one another, build relationships, discuss matters of importance, and analyze what they were seeing and hearing.
“We had people from the nonprofit sector talking with business leaders and also officials from the city,” he explained. “When you’re with people for several days like that, you can create relationships, and that makes it easier for people to pick up the phone later and talk with people and collaborate with them.”
The other obvious benefit was the rich learning experience, which yielded a number of potential takeaways, either in the form of projects to emulate or attitudes to embrace.
“Because we saw a baseball park in Greensboro, that doesn’t mean we need one here, necessarily,” he explained. “The lesson for me was that creating a venue that will bring families and individuals to the center of your city creates other business in that area that will help your economy overall; we need to create something like that, but it doesn’t have to be a ballfield.”
Another City to City tour is planned for late this fall, he explained, adding that trip organizers are currently researching several options, with Grand Rapids, Mich. and Jersey City, N.J. heading the list of possible destinations.
Meanwhile, the foundation continues to look for other ways to meet that stated commitment to community leadership.
A Major Hit
For $74.99, one can still obtain a copy of the Quintessence album. An outfit called Rarebro Records has it in stock, apparently.
Next to the item on the company’s Web site is a quick description and review of the album. “Recorded in 1980, the jazz arrangements here are soulful and full-bodied,” it reads, “with some nice texturing with the rhodes, saxophone, flute, trombone, flugelhorn, recorder, congas, bongos, bass, acoustic bass, handicaps, drums, and vocals by the lovely Kharmia.”
For this critic, at least, it appears that Ancrum was able to take a number of diverse elements (the flugelhorn?) and blend them into something distinct and meaningful. That’s not exactly his job description with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, but, given its new focus on community leadership, it would seem to fit.
He’s dying to start writing music again, but in the meantime, he’s helping to script some economic-development success stories.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]