In 1940s movies, leading men such as Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy movies would get together with their pals to take on a complicated task. Rooney would exclaim with energetic optimism: “Let’s rent a barn and put on a play!” This phase typifies the “can-do,” “let’s get together and take a risk” attitude of leaders in the philanthropic sector.
Jim Collins, author of Built to Last, describes successful organizations as those that take on BHAG’s or “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.” Goals of scale. Goals that are complicated with no solid framework. Goals that others might think are foolish to even contemplate. Goals that challenge traditional wisdom.
Frequently in today’s society, we are anxious to measure instant progress. We want the quarterly profit, the Facebook nugget, or our 15 minutes in the spotlight. Instant gratification reigns and patience has fallen out of habit. However, strong leaders know that patience is often the only way to reach success. Whether it involves a combination of trial and error or simply waiting for others to come on board, patience can prove to be an effective tool for those in leadership.
In Michigan, the philanthropic community has taken on big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs) with confidence and courage. Projects and programs have been given time to mature and grow. Missteps have been tolerated. Risk has been rewarded. Outcomes have been substantial, long-term, and systemic. Patience paid off for Michigan’s philanthropic leaders.
Fearlessness in Practice
The leaders of Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure didn’t shy away from BHAGs. Through patience, the building of sustainable infrastructure, and consistent collaboration, they tackled huge goals head on, seemingly without fear. Each of the examples in this section show just how this mentality helped to create infrastructure organizations and programs in the state of Michigan.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the value of big vision and fearless leadership.
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Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP)
When Michigan community foundations met to consider how to grow their endowments, they decided, “Let’s cover the whole state with community foundation services!” In partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Council of Michigan Foundations fashioned a challenge that gave an initial $35 million (from 1991 to 1994) in endowment funds to community foundation, to be administered by teenagers, to be used to meet the needs of children and youth in their community. These were two audacious goals that had never been tackled before. Read more about this project.
Historical Document: Read the notes from a 1991 Council of Michigan Foundation’s board meeting where the trustees discussed the W.K. Kellogg Youth Project.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the development of community foundations in Michigan.
Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit
When the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit was implemented, the conversation was: “Let’s get a tax credit for small gifts to community foundations and then give access to the credit to every nonprofit in the state!” While tax credits existed for public broadcasting and public higher education, the Michigan community foundations got together through CMF and said, “Let’s go for it.” Read more about this project.
Historical Document: Read materials, from 1987, that provide a background for the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit from the leaders of the Council of Michigan Foundations.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit.
Michigan AIDS Fund
As the nation watched a little-understood and contagious disease grow, the connection of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) to alternative lifestyles added a level of embarrassment and political sensitivity to any efforts to stop the crisis. In Michigan, the grantmakers had no experience in funding in the area of AIDS, but knew they needed to respond. They said: “Let’s step up to the AIDS crisis that everyone is embarrassed to talk about! Let’s create a joint effort and share resources to meet this urgent need.” Read more about this project.
Historical Document: Read notes about the formation of the Michigan AIDS Fund from the Council of Michigan Foundations’ board meeting in 1990.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Michigan AIDS Fund.
A statewide organization of volunteer support centers, by definition, requires outside funding. When the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Michigan Community Service Commission realized that ongoing fundraising would divert their time from their other mission tasks, they proposed a high-risk endeavor to create a new joint venture organization, raise a $20 million endowment, and place/support the volunteer programs in the new organization. They decided to raise a $20 million endowment composed of half private and half governmental funds to support volunteerism – before the organization to be supported even existed! Read more about this project.
Historical Document: Read the case for support for the ConnectMichigan Alliance from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the fearless creation of the ConnectMichigan Alliance.
Michigan Community Service Commission
As the idea of formal support for volunteering and service was building across the country, Michigan had a community organizer, Frank Dirks, working in the state to pull together a coalition that would create a state commission on service, before federal legislation passed to fund volunteer programs. Michigan’s governor appointed the commission, and many of the lessons learned were then shared with other states after the federal National and Community Service Trust Act passed. The Michigan coalition said, “Let’s establish a commission to handle federal funding for service that will be coming to our state – oh, and the federal legislation hasn’t passed yet! Let’s help pass it!" Read more about this project.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the development of the Michigan Community Service Commission:
The Foundation Review
For a field based in knowledge and requiring higher order thinking, the foundation world has few structures for sharing lessons that have been learned directly from the field. In the middle of a major and lengthy economic recession, the decision was made to launch a new academic journal just for philanthropy — the only one of its kind. Michigan leaders decided to launch a new journal for grantmakers in the middle of the Great Recession!
The Grantmaking School
Foundation leaders often are family members, or hired professionals who are new to the role of grantmaker. Little investment is made to prepare people for the job of grantmaker. W.K. Kellogg program officer Dr. Joel J. Orosz recognized this gap from observing grantmakers from across the nation. Working with national foundation leaders, Dr. Orosz said: “Let’s create the first university-based program offering professional development for grantmaker services!”
Video: Watch Joel Orosz discuss The Grantmaking School:
Learning to Give
In working with youth grantmakers, the Council of Michigan Foundations realized that young people had no grounding in the theory, history, or role of organizations in the nonprofit sector. At the same time, a new body of knowledge was emerging that provided a more organized view, as well as publications and research about the nonprofit sector. Michigan leaders decided to infuse the academic content of philanthropy into the core academic curriculum of schools. They decided to translate the content of a university’s master’s degree in philanthropic studies into language and a format that could be infused into the core academic curriculum of K-12 schools. Read more about this project.
Historical Document: Read a case statement from the Council of Michigan Foundations for the K-12 Education in Philanthropy Project, also known as Learning to Give.
Video: See leaders discuss the mission of Learning to Give:
Governor’s Office of Foundation Liaison
Government and foundations are natural partners, yet few structures exist to facilitate understanding, discussion of ideas, and the launch of joint venture partnerships. In Michigan, philanthropy leaders decided that a formal partnership needed to be created. They said “Let’s put a foundation liaison in the Governor’s Office who attends cabinet meetings!” Read more about this project.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Governor’s Office of Foundation Liaison.
Michigan Community Foundations’ Computer Project
Personal computers were new, community foundations were growing rapidly, and decisions regarding best practices for the field were becoming more complicated. The pressure was on Michigan from outside of the state to lead the way as smaller communities across the country began developing their own community foundations. An initial solution to concerns about quality was to provide community foundations with computing tools to manage their tasks and to set a high bar for operational efficiency. Instead of each community foundation paying for custom designed software – or patching together various general consumer packages – Michigan’s foundations said, “Let’s get independent community foundations to use the same computer software!”
Video: Watch leaders discuss the implementation of the Foundation Information Management System.
The Branding Project (later renamed the Venture Products Fund)
The Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit and Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) provided an opportunity for development of a community foundation “brand.” Perceived competition from large financial institutions, such as Fidelity Investments which established charitable gift funds, fueled interest in creation of a common image. Other attempts had failed. Michigan leaders decided to define what a community foundation is and then launch a statewide branding and marketing effort to make them more visible and more effective. Read more about this project.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Branding Project.
Legal Definition of Community Foundations
As the number of community foundations grew, Michigan took seriously the need to define community foundations and to provide guidance for good practices. While discussions were starting nationally, Michigan leaders created standards for community foundation operations. Read more about this project.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the standardized definition of “community foundation.”
Great Lakes Environmental Collaborative
Industrial activity in the Great Lakes Basin during and post WWII created enormous wealth, but also left substantial pollution in and near the largest fresh water preserve in the world – the Great Lakes. Community foundations felt a fiduciary responsibility for the health of the lakes, but also did not know how industrial donors would feel about adding environmental grantmaking to their portfolio. Michigan community foundations serving lakeshore communities partnered with environmentalists, private foundation partners, and community foundations around the lakes (including Canada) and said: “Let’s encourage donors in a multi-national effort to give to permanent endowments to support environmental causes and preserve our Great Lakes!”
Historical Document: Read more about the Great Lakes initiative in these notes from a 1997 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting.
The pattern in Michigan has been first the perception of a problem, followed by a study of the problem, and then a scan to see who else had ideas for solving it. If a good idea had been proven elsewhere – then Michigan foundations modified and applied the solution. If, after investigation, no one had tried a solution – that didn’t stop progress. The attitude was: “Let’s get together and give ‘it’ a try! ‘It’ needs to be done! No one else has done ‘it’! No one else seems to want to do ‘it’(sometimes, everyone else thinks ‘it’ is a bad idea). Let’s try ‘it’ first in Michigan!”
There has been a high tolerance for ambiguity. The path doesn’t need to be familiar – Michigan philanthropic leaders continue to be comfortable breaking new ground, confronting mythology, and getting the work done. When things go wrong, as they invariably do, the issues are treated as lessons learned; the problem is fixed; and work goes on.
Strategy evolved as the project developed. Like good mechanics, everyone worked together to solve problems as they arose. With a clear vision of the goal, good tools, a working knowledge of systems, and time/talent/treasure, a pragmatic approach has proved extremely effective. The scale of the potential outcome completely justified the risk, and everyone was in it together. Advice, assistance, new ideas, and thoughtful critiques – the Michigan projects have inspired high and important goals.
Patience in Practice
Big ideas take time to move from concept to action… Time to introduce and refine an idea… Time to bring together stakeholders, to investigate any similar projects, to assess risk and reward… To articulate a common vision. Big ideas take time – lots of time – to demonstrate if the effort is to be successful. Time is needed to obtain funding; to act; to modify approaches; to evaluate; and to secure the investment beyond initial foundation support. Large, statewide, systemic projects can require decades before the results are known, and even then the ripple effect can make it difficult to judge the ultimate results. There are few short-term measurements of success, although progress points can be defined. Many of the Michigan projects required time, and not all of the outcomes will ever be known.
The philanthropic leaders in Michigan foundations have been patient in the development of ideas into projects. They have supported long-term interventions that have resulted in large systems change. The infrastructure organizations themselves have taken time to mature.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the value of patience.
The Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) developed over nearly 20 years. Original members of the Youth Advisory Committees (YACs) have grown and become donors and/or philanthropic leaders. These youth leaders will continue to be created as a result of support from a total of 86 permanent endowments in Michigan communities statewide.
In fact, by 2012 the first generation YACers began to emerge as adults in the state’s community foundations’ staffs and boards. Grantmaker visits to Washington continue annually – over a span of four decades. Achievement of mid-range goals is celebrated, while the Michigan leadership remains focused on achieving long-term outcomes.
Historical Document: Read more about the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) in these notes from a 1996 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the success of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP):
Commitment to Relevancy
The Michigan philanthropic efforts remain relevant because of the interaction of the members with on-the-ground knowledge – and leaders who listen.
Intergenerational issues are the subject of efforts both on the foundation and the nonprofit sides of the philanthropic community. Within the foundation family, substantial assistance is being provided to work with private family foundations regarding next generation grantmaker professional development; issues related to geographic dispersion of individuals in the foundation family; questions of spending out foundation assets; and managing divergent generational grantmaking interests, for example.
New organizations and the next generation of nonprofit leaders have been organized and supported in Michigan, seeking to encourage future philanthropic and nonprofit leadership. While Learning to Give is educating K-12 volunteers, the Johnson Center for Philanthropy (JCP) is providing guidance on how to manage retiree-aged volunteers in their “encore” careers.
Leadership on issues of diversity and inclusion in the charitable sector have been on the recent agenda for Michigan’s philanthropic organizations. Research, program design, and professional development are being pursued based on a deep commitment to resolve issues that arise from social, cultural, ethnic, racial, and community diversities.
As specialized funding groups have arisen in communities of interest, the Michigan philanthropic community has modified its approaches to include new ways of giving. The Michigan Women’s Foundation, specialized groups such as Grantmakers in Health, and other interests are recognized and their concerns folded into the broader state agenda. They are welcomed into the “family.”
The Michigan philanthropic community, especially its four infrastructure organizations, is fearless and patient. Big goals are motivating. Big success has resulted in moving the state forward in meeting the needs of its citizens. The system has evolved over 40 years and funders, nonprofits, and communities have been patient in pursuit of substantial goals.
Issues Involved in Being Fearless and Patient
Michigan’s fearlessness has, on more than one occasion, involved its philanthropic infrastructure organizations in controversy. All four of the partner organizations are members of national alliances of such organizations, and other members of those alliances — or the national offices of such alliances — have at times, in the past, felt that Michigan organizations were moving forward on certain topics too quickly, or without the sanction of their peer groups or the agreement of their national offices. A few specific examples will illustrate such frictions.
A common theme of the doubters and naysayers of Michigan’s fearless ventures has been the question “Who are you to…?” Who are you to believe that the experts are wrong about growing community foundations in small towns? Who are you to attempt an unprecedented joint venture that does not have the approval of the field? Who are you to think that you can write a curriculum of good practices for grantmakers?
The reply from Michigan has been, “What we are trying to do is important, and needed by the field. We have scanned the nation, and discovered that it is not being done by anyone. So, we are launching an experiment to see if it can be done. We invite anyone interested to join with us as partners. We will share what we learn — our failures as well as our successes — with all of you. We are not claiming that we know all, or saying that you must march to our tune. We are saying that someone has to make a good-faith effort to meet these needs, and since no one else has stepped forward, we will give it our best try.”
- During the MCFYP project, CMF was advised by national experts associated with its national alliance that several of the community foundations that were being established would fail because they were located in communities with populations too small to support a community foundation. CMF took the position that what mattered was not an arbitrary population cut-off, but rather the quality of the resources, both human and financial, that were committed to the new community foundation. As of 2015, not a single one of the community foundations established in “too small” communities has failed — and most are thriving.
- When MNA and MCSC considered forming a joint venture to administer some of their important, but hard-to-fund activities, and providing a $20 million endowment to fund these activities in perpetuity, many other members of their national alliances attempted to talk them out of the joint venture. It had never been done before; it would be impossible to secure a challenge grant of $10 million from the state of Michigan; a $10 million challenge grant from the state would never be matched by foundations and the private sector; and it would be difficult to administer a joint venture if it was started. All of these dire warnings proved false, CMA was successfully launched, and eventually merged with MNA, where to this day its $20 million endowment provides funding for the activities it was designed to support.
- When JCP was contemplating launching The Grantmaking School in 2004, neither its peer academic centers nor its foundation allies were enthusiastic. Its peer centers felt that academic centers did not have sufficient expertise in grantmaking. Foundations felt that there would not be sufficient demand for grantmaker professional education, especially not at the prices necessary to make The Grantmaking School a self-sustaining operation. As of 2015, The Grantmaking School begins its second successful decade of academically-based, field-led professional education for grantmakers.