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With its top-notch arts and entertainment industry, award-winning restaurants, and a population that deeply cares about one another, it is no surprise that Nashville is such a desired place to call home. And there is one organization that completely embodies the generous, creative character of our city: The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (CFMT). “We have chosen to be as entrepreneurial and creative as we can because that is the kind of community we live in,” says Ellen Lehman, Founder and President of the foundation.

In that spirit, this beloved nonprofit empowers a response to local needs and opportunities, and this month, the CFMT celebrates its 30th anniversary. As we reflect on three decades of providing solutions for individuals, families and companies to offer charitable contributions to the community, we take a closer look at the foundation’s remarkable impact and continued importance in Middle Tennessee.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee — check presentation with Ellen and Dolly

Dolly Parton presents a check from The Dollywood Foundation in 2016 to assist families rebuilding after devastating wildfires in East Tennessee in 2016 to partners Denine Torr of Dollar General and The Community Foundation’s Ellen Lehman (second from right).

The idea for a community foundation came together during a lunch with Ellen Lehman and Ida Cooney, the first executive director of the then-HCA Foundation, now known as the Frist Foundation. One month later, The Nashville Community Foundation, Inc., began in Ellen’s garage. The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (as it was renamed in 1998) began in 1990 thanks to a group of civic leaders, and the foundation secured 501(c)(3) status in 1991 to serve this objective of endowing the community with a lasting solution to charitable giving. The CFMT serves 43 counties in Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky and has given more than $1 billion to nonprofits since its inception. The foundation oversees more than 1,000 funds and supports organizations in health care, the arts, education, environment, youth development, housing and human services.

Ellen explains that in the beginning, goals or expectations were never discussed. “We never expected our work to be linear; we expected it to ebb and flow over time, and that’s what happened,” she explains. “We never talked about what the Community Foundation might one day accomplish; we never set bars. We just said thank you. Over the years, I am most grateful for the thousands of times each year I can say thank you.”

In celebrating three decades of generosity, we dip into the impact of the foundation’s giving and a few of the many times Ellen said thank you.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee — beginning team

Much has changed over the years — including the additions of funds, the giving of grants and the much-welcomed use of computers — but most of the original three staff members of the organization remain part of the team today. The original crew beyond Ellen Lehman, are (front row, from left): Amy Fair, Laundrea Lewis, Melisa Currey, Michael McDaniel (back row, left) and Maria Morris. Laundrea and Melisa were the first two hires, while Amy and Michael also remain with the organization — each of them in leadership roles.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee — Ellen Lehman

Ellen Lehman has led The Community Foundation for 30 years.

In 1994, The Women’s Fund was established to support programs promoting health, well-being, safety and economic self-sufficiency of women and girls. Although she relentlessly heard that this fund wouldn’t succeed in Nashville (and some went as far to call her idiotic!), The Women’s Fund provided $500 grants to eight organizations in its first year. Recalling those first momentous grants, Ellen remains proud of the money they gave. Now, The Women’s Fund has made grants totaling more than $1.6 million to 132 programs.

Fourteen years ago, nonprofit arts and entertainment guide was created to inform Nashvillians and visitors of the many happenings in our city. Instead of calling the ballet or the Ryman or Cheekwood, you could (and can) visit for a calendar of events and pertinent information. The website directly generates revenue for our city by inspiring travelers to book a hotel and/or a flight. As a charity, no one expects the foundation to be working on economic development, but the CFMT clearly defies expectations.

Exceeding expectations again, The Big Payback debuted in 2014 as a one-day online giving event designed to support local nonprofit organizations. During the first 24-hour period, the event raised $1.65 million for 525 nonprofits. Because The Community Foundation couldn’t financially support the hundreds of nonprofits in the city, they created this day of giving. Over seven years and only 168 hours, the foundation has raised nearly $21 million, which would be impossible without the creative and entrepreneurial approach and the foundation’s willingness to take risks.

Most recently, the community rallied around the CFMT’s efforts to support our local community following the destructive tornado. The first disaster response was created in 1993 after ice storms left families without electricity for weeks; since that time the foundation has raised more than $15 million in flood relief, as well as substantial funds following the Gatlinburg wildfires, Hurricane Katrina, and the Haiti earthquake, and nearly $12 million to aid in tornado recovery efforts. The disaster response funds, the Metro Nashville Disaster Response Fund and the Tennessee Emergency Response Fund, are two of our community’s most valuable funds.

Although Ellen proudly acknowledges the foundation’s milestones (including the start of these funds and the foundation’s $1 billion in giving), it is the mission of the foundation and the purpose of connecting generosity with need that she’d rather discuss.“We accept gifts of any size from anyone at any time,” Ellen clarifies. “It is not about who has the most money or who has the biggest need. We want to make giving comfortable, convenient, and cost-effective while customizing our work to fit our gracious donors’ intentions and make the world better for those in need.”

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee — The Big Payback

The Big Payback helps donors reach nearly 1,000 local charities through a one-day online giving event. This annual happening inspires the community to come together and show its support for the work of these nonprofit organizations.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee helped out after the Nashville flood, pictured here.

Following the heartbreaking damage of the Nashville flood, the CFMT awarded relief dollars through the Metro Nashville Disaster Response Fund and the Tennessee Emergency Response Fund to local organizations to help repair and rebuild our city.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee also helped out tremendously after the tornado in March 2020.

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee also helped tremendously after the tornado in March 2020. Now in its 30th year, the organization has pivoted to address the tornado as well as the pandemic. The efforts are evidence of the foundation’s dedication to connecting generosity with need.

The CMFT of today looks, at once, both similar and different from 30 years ago; it has changed and evolved alongside our city while continuing to add ways for locals to give back. Thanks to Ellen Lehman and the many gracious donors, the foundation will continue to be a shining example of what makes Nashville special.

To learn more about The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, its funds and how you can contribute, visit

This article is sponsored by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. All images provided by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

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