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Leader Profile:

Michelle Engler

Michelle (DeMunbrun) Engler was the founding chair of the board of the first Michigan Community Service Commission. As First Lady of the State of Michigan, Mrs.Engler (an accomplished attorney in her own right) raised awareness of giving and service while maintaining the Commission as a nonpartisan institution focused on improving the lives of Michigan citizens. She harnessed former Governor George Romney’s passion for service and launched creative efforts, not only to increase volunteering, but also to assure funding support for community-level volunteering would continue well into the future. A tireless worker, the First Lady was far more than a figurehead for the Commission. She worked to implement her ideas and extended her influence on national boards and commissions related to philanthropy and volunteering. In partnership with Governor Engler and Michigan’s philanthropic leaders, the permanent structures supporting giving and service in Michigan were changed, across the state, forever.

Leadership Highlights

Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about their careers in philanthropy.
  • First Lady Michelle Engler talks about how the Michigan Community Service Commission is not a political organization.
  • Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about their vision behind creating the Michigan Community Service Commission.
  • Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about the development of the ConnectMichigan Alliance.
  • Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about how Michigan has benefitted from the efforts of selfless leaders.
  • First Lady Michelle Engler talks about Michigan's long history of volunteerism and philanthropy.
  • Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about their careers in philanthropy.


Michelle (DeMunbrun) Engler graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Texas, and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas Law School (1).

Philanthropic Biography

Prior to her marriage to Governor John Engler in 1990, Michelle Engler was a partner in a Texas law firm.  After moving to Michigan and becoming First Lady in 1991, she served as Of Counsel for a law firm in Grand Rapids and became a member of the Michigan Bar Association.  During one of her first official meetings in office, First Lady Engler met with former Michigan Governor George Romney.  Inspired and encouraged by his vision for community and history of service, she dedicated herself to advancing Michigan volunteerism and philanthropy.

In 1994, her commitment to service took a different path following the birth of her and husband John’s triplet daughters. Michelle has helped her daughters and countless others recognize the value and importance of community service. By continuing to serve as a role model, she has demonstrated with her life what it means to be a servant of society.

In 1997, First Lady Engler was appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve on the board of America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, on which she has helped at-risk youth to live fulfilling lives. In 2000, she was appointed to the National Commission on Service-Learning, chaired by Senator John Glenn. During her time on the Commission, she promoted service-learning education in the K-12 curriculum.

In addition to these leadership roles, Michelle Engler has been recognized for service in various other areas.  She was awarded the Karmanos Cancer Institute Award for Leadership for her continuous advocacy of breast cancer awareness through the Michigan Department of Community Health, and has worked tirelessly with the private sector and the Michigan Department of Agriculture to promote the Michigan Harvest Gathering – an effort to support the Michigan Food Bank Council (2).

Contributions to the Field

Michelle Engler’s immediate commitment to Michigan volunteerism first revealed itself through the establishment of the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).  Early in her service as First Lady, she approached her husband, Governor John Engler, with an idea to strengthen the volunteer sector through the creation of a citizen commission.  Through an executive order, MCSC was established in 1991; First Lady Engler served as the founding chair for the next nine years. She envisioned that MCSC would build public/private partnerships to help volunteering thrive through many supports, including local centers.  During her tenure she helped to develop Michigan’s first AmeriCorps and Learn & Serve programs.  She also worked with the Michigan legislature to develop the nation’s first volunteer center endowment program (Volunteer Investment Grants) that leveraged millions in private and public sector funds to build local endowments for volunteer support efforts.

First Lady Engler knew the importance of creating these initiatives and public/private partnerships, but also stressed that government wasn’t always the most effective solution to community problems.  She helped MCSC become a truly nonpartisan organization that involved community citizens (rather than government alone) to address our society’s most vexing issues.

First Lady Engler’s vision for MCSC has endured; the state of Michigan maintains more than 2.2 million annual volunteers.  MCSC has empowered citizens to reach out in service to their communities and has served as a model for other states to engage citizens in volunteerism.  MCSC continues to be a significant player on the national scene, due in no small part to Michelle Engler’s leadership on the boards of national organizations including America’s Promise Alliance and the Points of Light Foundation.

“… [Volunteers] were already doing so many great things in their communities. Each community could decide what they needed in that community. We could provide the sort of support, whether it was from the public sector or leadership development or some other kind of support, for these volunteer networks that were already out there in Michigan and very strong and vibrant…”

Nearing the conclusion of her husband’s third term, First Lady Engler and members of the MCSC board proposed to Governor Engler the creation of a state-funded $10 million challenge grant, which would be matched 1:1 through public and private donations. Governor Engler accepted their proposal and worked with state legislature to obtain the needed funds. As a result, a permanent endowment totaling $20 million was created to ensure funding, in perpetuity, for service and volunteerism in Michigan. The campaign ultimately resulted in the establishment of the ConnectMichigan Alliance (CMA) in 2001.

First Lady Engler served on CMA’s inaugural board of directors; in 2007, CMA merged with the Michigan Nonprofit Association and its purpose and endowment proceeds are managed under MNA’s adept stewardship.  MNA is a partner of Our State of Generosity, and is a leading resource for volunteerism and service education in Michigan.


Michelle Engler was interviewed regarding her insights and experiences working with Michigan’s philanthropic community and the Our State of Generosity (OSoG) partners. The following are selected quotations from her interview specifically related to the five organizing themes of the OSoG project.

Servant Leadership in Michigan Philanthropy

[On philanthropic leaders while in office] “I think it was kind of a perfect storm of leadership in the state at that time with the Russ Mawbys and the Dottie Johnsons, and Joel Orosz and Rob Collier, Sam Singh, young people as well…. They provided so much leadership there and were so willing to be selfless about creating a structure, if you will, that would bring together all these folks and not have to take credit for one foundation, or one group or another. They all wanted to work together to promote volunteerism and philanthropy in the state of Michigan. It was a wonderful time to work with some, really, icons in the field of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan.”

Human, Financial, and Knowledge Resources

[On the creation of MCSC] “It was a way of really creating some public/private partnerships at a time when government was struggling with the budget. But also, even had it not been, government is not always the best and most effective answer. It often is people on the ground, just pitching in to help.”

National & Global Implications

“…as a newcomer to Michigan, I was very struck by the long history of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan. I think that’s almost unique to certainly the United States, but even in Michigan – it’s at a greater level, I think, than in other states… We started with a very strong base of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan and just tried to build on that history and make better organizations…”

Practical Wisdom

[On guiding her daughters to be community servants] “We have talked often about to whom much is given, much is expected… They understand their requirements. They understand what it takes to be a good citizen of this country and of this world, really… and that is giving back in whatever way you can.”


(1) “First Lady Michelle Engler Biography”. Michigan’s Former Governors. d. Web. 15 June 2016. Found here.


(2) “First Lady Michelle Engler Biography”. 15 June 2016.  Found here.

This profile was last updated: 10/28/2016