The new counterculture lives in the middle.

Hal Cato: Meet the New Boss

Photo by Shannon Fontaine

Meet the New Boss

A conversation with Hal Cato, CEO of the Community Foundation

By Tommy Womack

Photo by Shannon Fontaine Photo by Shannon Fontaine

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“I ‘ve been drawn to working with people on the margins of our society for as long as I can remember. I think it’s because I grew up always feeling like an outsider who didn’t quite fit in anywhere I went. When I realized that you could build a career in that space, I was all in.”

Thus speaks Hal Cato, who has spun a quiet formative purgatory into the remarkable empathy that has defined his life. 

He’s an independent soul, Hal Cato. “What I’ve learned in every major transition in my life can be best summarized in six words: To thine own self be true,” he says. “Every time I follow my heart telling me who I am, I move 10 degrees closer to my ‘North Star.’ When I listen to the world telling me what they think I should do, or who I should be, I move 10 degrees away from it. The more any of us pivot away from our own North Star, the faster we find ourselves living an inauthentic life.”

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Most recently, Cato served as the CEO of Nashville nonprofit Thistle Farms, an organization that assists survivors of human trafficking, prostitution, and substance abuse. He founded Hands On Nashville, an organization that matches volunteers with more than 200 local nonprofit organizations that need help. Cato also led the nonprofit Oasis Center, an advocacy group that assists at-risk teens and young people in crisis. 

On the corporate side of the spectrum, Cato was founder and CEO of Zeumo, a Nashville-based software design company that created a platform allowing hospitals to communicate with other hospitals, doctors, nurses, records departments, etc. He’s also the former vice president of client and community services at Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

And the accolades keep stacking up. He has been named “Most Admired CEO” by the Nashville Business Journal; “Business Leader of the Year” by the LGBT Chamber of Commerce; “Community Leader of the Year” by the International Association of Business Communicators; he received the “Community Champion Award” from the Human Rights Campaign; was named “Nashvillian of the Year” by the Nashville Scene; and has been named to the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame. 

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In other words, Cato has the right combination of brains and mojo and experiences to step into Community Foundation founder Ellen Lehman’s considerable shoes. (Lehman founded the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee 30 years ago and until now has been its only CEO.)

Cato’s appointment at the Community Foundation answers a question that’s been circulating in the local halls of power ever since he announced in September that he had decided not to run for mayor of Nashville in 2023. Cato left Thistle Farms earlier this year, and spent months publicly exploring the possibility. His announcement that he would not run took supporters by surprise, and led to speculation as to what he would do instead. Now we know. 

“I feel like the community is calling this foundation to grow and become a more strategic player in helping us address some of our most pressing issues.”

– Hal Cato

So now that he’s ascending to the top of CFMT (Lehman will remain on board until the new year), where does he plan to start? What’s first? 

“You start with listening,” Cato says simply. 

“I feel like the community is calling this foundation to grow and become a more strategic player in helping us address some of our most pressing issues, whether it’s housing, homelessness, or economic advancement for individuals. There are a lot of challenges Middle Tennessee faces, and I’ll be listening intently to see how the Community Foundation can lead in galvanizing a philanthropic response. But I’m a big believer that before you get on the horse and get going, you’ve got to listen to where people are calling you to go.”

Discrimination and life as an underdog aren’t theoretical to Cato – he and his husband have experienced them firsthand. “I came out [as gay] in the ’90s, during the height of the AIDS crisis,” he says. “That was a hard period to come out, especially in the South. 

“The discrimination and challenges the LGBTQ community faces today are very different than they were when I came out 30+ years ago, but equally as harsh,” he says. “The culture wars, especially the demonization faced by our trans community, are heartbreaking. I will never understand why we so harshly judge anyone whose life we don’t understand. Fear of difference creates a very small and exclusive world, and in my mind that is the opposite of who God calls us to be.” 

In his free time (of which he has little) he fights the good fight to just get himself to chill out. “I have a hard time turning my mind off,” he says. “If I’m excited and on fire for what I am doing, I’m almost always in the saddle mentally. I go through periods in life when I see ideas and inspiration almost everywhere I look, and it shows if you were to scroll through my Evernote app.

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“As I’ve gotten older, I know that is not a sustainable way to live,” he adds. “I’ve learned how important it is to shut it down by doing the things I enjoy-preparing meals, seeing friends, working in my yard.”

But he’s certainly not slowing down. “My biggest fear is a wasted opportunity,” he says simply. “My greatest joy is feeling deeply connected to another person.” 

That, as much as anything else, could account for the decisions he’s made and the lifelong path he’s set himself on.

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For more information about the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, please visit cfmt.org

Connecting Generosity with Need

For more than three decades, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has been led by one person, founding philanthropist Ellen Lehman. 

She’ll be stepping down at the end of the year, and Nashville native Hal Cato has been tapped to fill her massive shoes, after a nationwide candidate search that ultimately led back to our own backyard.

The good news about the organization’s first-ever leadership shift is that things aren’t going to change all that much. Cato does want to put more energy toward helping lower-income renters, as the city’s few remaining affordable apartment complexes continue falling victim to wrecking balls and condo developers. But the essential goals and tenets of the powerful fund-funneling agency will continue in its mission, to connect people who have money with people who need it.

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has administered more than $1.1 billion since Lehman started it as the Nashville Community Foundation in 1990. (In her garage, no less.) In those 32 years, CFMT has grown from one unpaid position (Lehman) to 47 paid employees working in 40 Middle Tennessee counties and three in Kentucky. 

The CFMT is Nashville’s largest nonprofit, and its function is to funnel the money it takes in to other nonprofits, matching donors to groups whose missions align. Funds go toward grants, scholarships, food banks, housing needs, corporate employees unable to make ends meet, and many other aspects of lives all over Middle Tennessee. 

Aspiring philanthropists can donate to existing funds, or they can start their own, with the assistance of the foundation.

Four Community Foundations serve Tennessee: Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, and The East Tennessee Foundation, as well as our own. Between the four regions, more than 1,900 nonprofits have been served.

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