Veteran Leader Cato Replaces CFMT Founder Ellen Lehman, Who Grew Organization to Nashville’s Largest Nonprofit

The Board of Directors of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (CFMT) has selected Hal Cato, prominent Nashville community leader and nonprofit executive, as its new CEO, succeeding founder and longstanding President Ellen Lehman.

Lehman announced in August that she will retire from the organization at the end of 2022.

As Nashville’s largest nonprofit, CFMT is a philanthropic force that has donated more than $1.1 billion to charitable organizations across the nation. Cato, who was chosen following a national search led by former board chairs of The Community Foundation, will assume the role as its new leader on Nov. 14, 2022.

“We are honored to announce that Hal Cato will take the helm of The Community Foundation and build on our vital role of growing philanthropy by connecting donors with nonprofits and those they serve for the betterment of our community,” said Lyle Beasley, chairman of the board of CFMT.

“Hal, who is deeply committed to Nashville and Middle Tennessee, is the ideal person to take the reins of The Community Foundation and establish a vision for our next era of impact in Nashville during this time of tremendous growth and challenge across our region,” Beasley continued. “Hal is uniquely equipped to maximize our impact while staying true to our important legacy that is marked by compassion and effectiveness.”

Most recently the CEO of Nashville nonprofit Thistle Farms, Inc., Cato is a visionary and highly regarded community leader known for recognizing and executing bold and creative opportunities for organizational growth in the nonprofit and corporate sectors alike.

From his early career, Cato has been dedicated to serving and growing the impact of nonprofit groups. After graduating from college, Cato founded and expanded the nonprofit Hands On Nashville and later led and grew the nonprofit Oasis Center, while becoming widely recognized as an advocate for the community’s youth.

Cato also has significant corporate experience, including as the founder and CEO of Zeumo, Inc. and the former Vice President of Client and Community Services of Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

“The Community Foundation is a critical anchor institution of the Greater Nashville area that seeks to solve complex community issues through generosity while reminding us who we are when we’re at our best,” Cato said. “CFMT is intrinsically tied to the health and wealth and well-being of our region thanks to its incredible 30-plus-year history of innovation. 

“I am humbled by the opportunity to follow in Ellen’s enormous footsteps,” Cato continued, “and I look forward to working with our internal team and our many community partners to pursue Nashville’s greatest opportunities while addressing our most critical challenges.”

Cato has been widely recognized for his leadership, including being previously named “Most Admired CEO” by the Nashville Business Journal; “Business Leader of the Year” by LGBT Chamber of Commerce; “Community Leader of the Year” by International Association of Business Communicators; “Community Champion Award” by the Human Rights Campaign, and “Nashvillian of the Year” by the Nashville Scene. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, Hal Cato has been honored as a University of Mississippi Hall of Fame Member.

Ellen Lehman founded CFMT in her garage more than 30 years ago, recruited its inaugural Board of Directors and has over the decades raised its funds and steadfastly built The Community Foundation into a philanthropic powerhouse.

Today CFMT manages assets of more than $550 million and provides funding of programs to address a wide range of nonprofit needs in 40 Middle Tennessee counties and beyond. The organization has benefited significantly from the determination, leadership and creativity of Lehman, who has grown CFMT into an organization with significant and diverse community impact.

“I have known, respected and collaborated alongside Hal Cato for decades and am so proud and happy that he will be the new CEO of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee,” Lehman said.  “Hal and I share an abiding love for Nashville and a desire to help people make their own imprints on our city through heartfelt philanthropy and innate kindness.

“Our community is unlike any other, and it is exciting to look forward and anticipate such bright days for CFMT with Hal’s leadership working closely with our incredible team,” Lehman continued.

“Our goal has always been to make giving so comfortable, so convenient and so cost-effective for people that they can’t help but give,” Lehman explained. “I feel confident that Hal is the right person to protect the broad vision of The Community Foundation and its commitment to connecting generosity with need.”

In recognition of her vast and enduring contributions, the CFMT Board of Directors will honor Lehman with the prestigious Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award in 2023 and has named her a Lifetime Honorary Trustee and President Emeritus of the organization.

The CFMT administers seven different types of funds that reflect the priorities of its donors and also makes available grant funding to nonprofits, primarily those serving the Middle Tennessee community.

Additionally, the organization provides a number of direct services for Middle Tennessee, including: ChildcareTennessee,,® and Give Black, Give Back; administers more than 150 individual scholarships; and sponsors well-recognized annual fundraising events, including The Power of the Purse® Luncheon benefiting The Women’s Fund; the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award, and The Big Payback 24-online giving event. CFMT also serves as one of the core philanthropic funding organizations in time of need in our service area following disasters.