As the city's manufacturing base and population shrank, the Greater Baltimore Committee decided it needed to train leaders to replace the ones the region was losing — people energized to help with increasingly complex local problems.
That was 30 years ago. Today more than 1,200 people count themselves as graduates of the business and civic group's program, the Leadership, from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to T. Rowe Price Chairman Brian Rogers.
The GBC will mark the anniversary at an event Thursday and give an award for community service. It's also ramping up scholarship efforts, because the program isn't cheap.
The Leadership's 10-month training costs $7,250, a price that supporters realize can be a barrier for entrepreneurs and small organizations. Mark Furst, incoming co-chair of the Leadership board, said the group's fundraising efforts to expand aid have gone well.
"We're not ready to announce the results yet, but I can tell you, we're adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the scholarship pool," said Furst, who is CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland.
The nearly 60-year-old GBC was formed by business leaders to reverse the area's decline, and its leadership program is similarly focused on community problems. Each class sends participants to locations — including prisons and hospitals — that show how the region is handling crime, trauma and other challenges. The Sun is one of the sites the program visits annually.
Furst, a graduate of the 2005 class, vividly recalls a police ride-along he went on that included high speed and a body. He said his months in the program gave him a better understanding of why there is friction between residents and police, and what might be done about it, along with how regional engines such as the port of Baltimore work.
"It lets you see the assets and warts of the region in a fresh, compelling way," Furst said.
Trying to measure the program's success by problems solved would be a tricky endeavor. Donald C. Fry, the GBC's president, focuses on the Leadership's reach instead.
"If you just look around the city, you'll see people who have graduated from the program from all different walks of life who are integral parts of the business, nonprofit or government communities," he said.
The group draws participants from all three sectors — each class is two-thirds business, with nonprofit and government workers making up the rest — in hopes of sparking useful connections between people used to approaching problems in different ways.
Marty Brunk, now office managing partner in Baltimore for McGladrey, an accounting, tax and consulting firm, went through the Leadership in 1996 because he wanted to become more involved in the community and join some nonprofit boards. He has since served on several boards — including that of the Leadership, because he was impressed with the training.
The main lesson he took from the program is that so many of the region's challenges are interconnected, and that nothing is as simple as it seems at first glance. He learned to ask more questions and avoid snap decisions.
"What you hear on the surface typically isn't really what's happening," Brunk said.
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