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Ideas and Insights to Inspire Philanthropy

Toolkit Intro 5

The ideas shared here have been culled from Michigan’s history. They are, by no means, the only of such ideas. Certainly others will look at Michigan’s experience – and also the experiences of other great regions and states – and will have other examples that could be added to this list.

This is one state’s attempt to share the learning and to inspire the growth of philanthropy around the world. There are additional “states of generosity” that have insights to share. Our State of Generosity offers the following summary, not as the end of Michigan’s experience – but as a beginning of sharing the privilege to encourage private citizen action for the common good.

VideoVideo:  Leaders provide advice for building and maintaining a successful philanthropic culture.



Big Vision


Value All Philanthropy.

Michigan’s four infrastructure organizations, particularly the Council of Michigan Foundations, received considerable criticism from the broader philanthropic field for its adherence to the value of serving all of the state.

Wealthier community foundations serving large metropolitan regions nationwide worried that those small Michigan communities would not have the ability or scale to be effective. Over time, the measurement of success for a community foundation changed from scale to “best practices.” A community foundation’s quality is now defined by behavior, leadership, and service – not by its size.

The Michigan infrastructure organizations heard the concerns from others – and then continued to simply do the work to support philanthropy in every part of the state. Community foundations, United Ways, volunteer centers, service-learning schools, small college Campus Compact organizations, and other programs that support volunteering and philanthropy can be found in villages, large cities, rural outposts, as well as in downtown and/or Metro Detroit. Find out more about the movement to value all philanthropy in Chapter 1, Value All Philanthropy.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the movement to value all philanthropy.



Think Globally – Act Locally.

In the Michigan experience, increasing and improving philanthropy was addressed at the state level. The stakeholders all focused on building infrastructure for the state. The individual components – support of volunteering, growing the next generation of donors and citizens, understanding more about the field – had specific roles in achieving a common large state objective.

The activities to accomplish the state’s goal happened in local communities: through a local volunteer center, a local community foundation, a local United Way, and service-learning grants to local schools. Russ Mawby describes this as the level where “life is lived.” With a clear understanding of the larger statewide goal, the Michigan philanthropic network went to work, empowering local communities to support giving and service.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the national and global effects of Michigan’s philanthropy.



Michigan leaders focused their work on expanding and improving philanthropy itself in the broadest definition: systems for giving, serving, and taking action intended for the common good.

Specifically, this meant assisting grantmaking foundations and donors in their work; increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the nonprofit charitable sector; and providing structures to support volunteering. The assumption was that, by definition, the organizations of philanthropy (foundations, nonprofits, and volunteers) had a charitable intent and acted to improve the human condition. The core question was – how do we help them do the work better?

The organizing principle for the work was not determined by the missions or priorities of nonprofits, foundations, or volunteers. Rather, the underlying value was that all philanthropy is good for people and communities. Democracy guided the work, regardless of differences that existed among those who served.

Focusing on increasing and improving philanthropy provided a broad umbrella that allowed for a common task to be supported by almost anyone who wanted to work for a better world. This focus made it possible for foundations, nonprofits, and volunteers of widely divergent political perspectives, economic and social experience, religions, race and ethnic backgrounds, geographic locations, and rural/suburban/urban views to work together for a common cause.

In fact, a part of the fun of working in Michigan’s philanthropic community was the opportunity to engage in common tasks (work groups, seminars, committees, grant proposals, etc.) with people from all walks of life and across the geographic spectrum of a large state. People committed to improving the lives of others. They focused on solving problems, rather than winning arguments. When differences of opinion needed to be managed in order to achieve a specific program goal, returning to the common value of “increasing and improving philanthropy” provided a rational place to evaluate options and come to a consensus.


Importance of Connections and Networking


Be a Team Player.

Along with the personal relationships that have been developed among the leaders of Michigan’s charitable sector, there has been an ethic that values and supports partnership.

In a joint venture, each partner’s needs must be taken into consideration. If the solution to a problem doesn’t work for one of the partners, then it’s time to go back and look for a new solution. A critical skill in developing such trusting relationships is the ability to listen to the needs of each partner organization and to help navigate their interests and constraints, as well as your own.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the value of being a good listener.



Embrace a Philosophy of Abundance and Not Scarcity.

A philosophy of abundance is a mindset that the resources that are needed to accomplish a task are available. There is “enough.” A philosophy of scarcity assumes that resources are limited and must be carefully guarded because there isn’t “enough.”

In scarcity, people need to compete in order to accumulate enough resources to be successful. In abundance, people can move boldly knowing resources are created through synergy and sharing. The Michigan philanthropic community has always operated from a philosophy of optimism and abundance – that money would be attracted to good ideas, talent would be attracted to the freedom to be creative, and solutions could be found. Read an explanation of abundance and scarcity thinking.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the use of human, financial, and knowledge resources in Michigan’s philanthropy.



Build Life-Long Ladders for Service.

While not yet completed, the infrastructure leaders frequently discussed building a series of interrelated institutions that could support life-long philanthropy.

Learning to Give provided the academic content for understanding the nonprofit sector in lesson plans and teaching resources that could be integrated into the core curriculum of K-12 education. Academic service-learning grants to schools provided resources (both activities and money) to encourage teachers to use volunteer service as a hands-on learning tool for K-12 students.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss Learning to Give.


At the high school level, students could become involved with a community foundation’s youth advisory committee (YAC) – or write a grant to be funded by a YAC. Students who moved from high school into jobs in the community could take a year after graduation to serve with AmeriCorps or VISTA. Students who moved from high school to college could become engaged with Campus Compact and related projects such as a summer of service. After graduation, a person could be supported in their community leadership (by grants made from local community foundations, or through operating funds provided by United Way) through their work with organizations that serve the community. The area’s volunteer center would link and support the local volunteer efforts. In retirement, older citizens could participate in Senior Corps, VISTA, and/or Mentor Michigan.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss service opportunities in Michigan.


Students who wish to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector can obtain an undergraduate degree with an emphasis in nonprofit management, or a masters’ degree in nonprofit administration, philanthropy, or in a sector field such as hospital administration or environmental studies. Full schedules of professional development opportunities are offered across the state by a network of freestanding, yet collaborative, nonprofit management assistance organizations.

While the majority of the “pieces” have been put in place in Michigan, there still is not a smooth “hand off” from one level of support to the other at the individual, personal level. Also, the integrated nature and potential of these services performing as a “system” has not been totally realized. Work continues. In Michigan, there was action in the present related to specific tasks – with an awareness toward larger goals of support for the philanthropic sector across geographic space and into the future.


Build Community Capital and Serve the State.

Philanthropy, itself, was the purpose for working together. In working together, the philanthropic community built an ethic of civility, a network of relationships, and what would now be called a deep well of “community capital.”

There is no doubt that a part of the culture in Michigan’s philanthropic community was made possible by the establishment of a high level of trust among those who served, which was nurtured through the development of personal relationships over time. Michigan has benefited from senior mature leaders, in foundations and the infrastructure organizations, who remained in their jobs over several decades. These leaders had excellent working relationships. They also actively nurtured the development of young professionals and new people coming into the field of philanthropy. Learning to Give provides an essay on community capital. Find more about Robert Putnam’s essay, “Bowling Alone” at bowlingalone.com.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the value of mentoring the next generation of philanthropic leaders.


There was a high degree of candor between the grantmakers and the nonprofits engaged in the common work of building the sector. The foundation professionals were out of their offices and actively engaged in the field as advisors, board members, and champions. They used their foundation base of influence toward the common sector goals by, for example, chairing boards and committees, testifying on public policy, making calls to assist with fundraising, and bringing in intellectual resources and model programs from across the world to Michigan. The foundation program officers were not only extremely smart and experienced; they also were adept at negotiating the dual role of “cheerleader” for a project – and “program officer” for the foundation.

Although the state is large and the winter weather sometimes very difficult, the leaders of Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure organizations show up. They meet face-to-face for meals and discussion. They come together for common educational events. They talk by telephone. They good-naturedly tease one another and have some knowledge of one another’s families and interests. They genuinely like one another and are professional friends. There is a high degree of trust in the abilities, motives, values, and actions of the people in any one of the partner organizations.

While employees and leaders of the four infrastructure organizations worked hard to build and strengthen their own organizations, they also had a commitment to a larger mission and vision for the state and for philanthropy as a whole.

The professionals that were a part of this 40-year history viewed themselves as creating and implementing a series of common big and bold visions. A comment often repeated was that any staff member of one of the organizations could just as easily have been hired to be a staff member of one of the others. Their values aligned. The people cared about the success of the other organization as well as their own, because they were focused on the larger vision of serving philanthropy in the state – not on having their own organization “win.”

Then and now, this continues to mean that when things go wrong – and they always do – the partners consider the problem with a high degree of trust that their colleague(s) did the best they could do. There is no assumption of a larger political conspiracy. There is no suspicion of a hidden agenda. The problem is simply a problem to be solved together. Problems are addressed and not allowed to grow into institutional battlegrounds or lingering hard feelings. The people involved know each other, like each other, trust each other, and have fun doing very difficult work together. Find out more about Michigan’s value in collaboration in Chapter 1, Play Well with Others.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss “playing well with others.”



Partner with Government.

The Council of Michigan Foundations was launched in response to public policy. The Michigan Nonprofit Association began as a place to develop a common voice for a very disparate nonprofit sector. The Michigan Community Service Commission is a state appointed agency funding private voluntary activity. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy started as a place to transmit the traditions of giving and serving, and provides reliable, unbiased data for public policy decision making.

Joint ventures with government; educating public policy makers about the nonprofit sector; advocating on issues important to the health of the sector – these are critical components of Michigan’s experience that were accomplished in partnership with government for the citizens of the state.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss collaboration between the public and nonprofit sector.



Be Vigilant


Embrace Messiness and Multiple Models.

The majority of the problems being faced by volunteers and charitable organizations are very complicated, structural, long-term, and multifaceted. There are politics and history and prejudices and personality clashes – in other words, these are “messy” problems.

Additionally, there are usually many strategies and programs that can be applied to a problem or to facets of a problem. No one proven solution works in all situations. If problems were easy and the solutions obvious – the problems (poverty, healthcare, jobs) would already be solved. The best strategic plans frequently crash against the reality of a local situation. Michigan’s philanthropic community has been adept at considering problems with a “toolbox” that is filled with a variety of tools – and at creating new tools when needed.

Here are a few examples that actually happened:

Example 1: Two small communities didn’t trust one another because of decades of competition and couldn’t be asked to merge into one community foundation. It was essential to find a way for them both to “win,” and to be assured that gifts given for the benefit of their community would go to their community. The solution? A new model of a regional umbrella organization with designated sub-funds was created.

Example 2:  Local for-profit businesses were inspired by the “triple bottom-line,” but there was no legal way for them to operate.  The solution? Legislation was passed that created a new “B-Corporation” to support businesses that desired to engage in philanthropy.

Example 3Volunteer centers were unable to generate enough financial support to remain freestanding organizations. The solution? A merger was arranged that retained the volunteer center’s brand; a $20 million endowment was then created, providing support for all volunteer programs in the state.

VideoVideo:  Kyle Caldwell discusses the messy nature of the philanthropic sector.



Evaluate Progress and Create a Learning Environment.

Many Michigan initiatives began as new ideas or innovations. They evolved over time based on experience.

Useful to the creation and refinement of the projects was the partnership formed with outside evaluators. The evaluators came to the work as insightful informants, rather than as enforcers or judges. As evaluation information was gathered, the members of the evaluation teams would meet with the program managers to discuss each project’s progress. Frequently, mid-course corrections were implemented based on the suggestions from members of the evaluation team. Annual evaluations were shared with the advisory committees of projects and/or the boards of the organization leading the project.

Several major formative studies of Michigan’s projects helped to guide their development. A number of these studies continue to provide insight into the long-term effects of large-scale initiatives. For example, a sampling of the youth grantmakers involved in the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project have been followed in a 20+ year longitudinal study to assess the lifelong outcomes from their youth grantmaking experience.

Double blind studies of K-6 classrooms provided a quasi-experimental assessment of student learning related to the teaching of philanthropy in the classroom. Paired with independent reviews of student work and survey research, the Learning to Give project grew and changed based on the formative work of educational evaluators. The statewide philanthropic initiatives came to the work with a commitment to learning and the flexibility to change/modify direction based on information from evaluators who were viewed as partners.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Council of Michigan Foundations, Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project (MCFYP) Final Report.

VideoVideo:  Jim McHale discusses the process of project evaluation.



Honor the Wishes of the Donor.

If focusing on the health and development of the philanthropic sector itself is key to Michigan’s experience, the corollary of “honoring donor wishes” is equally true.

Sometimes advisors to potential donors can forget that the person wishing to establish a grantmaking foundation has many options regarding how they might use their money. The advisors all too often bring their own values and prejudices to the conversation. The Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) entered the conversation with donors by first asking how they wanted to be philanthropic. CMF listened with an open mind and remained focused on providing the information and technical assistance the donor required to decide and to implement THEIR decision – not the advisor’s.

From time to time, pressure was brought to bear on CMF to modify this policy. A family foundation was considered to be “too small” and outside commentators thought it would be “better” as a donor-advised fund, set up through a community foundation. Others suggested a community was “not sophisticated” and would not be able to manage a full service community foundation, or a corporate giving program was not “organized” in the way an observer thought it should be. There were lots of opinions about how to give away other people’s money.

CMF navigated these objections, comments, and advice by always focusing on serving the donor and the donor’s interests. If what the donor wanted to do was legal and it helped communities or individuals, then CMF was there to help them accomplish their goals through philanthropy. Outside opinions remained outside.


Commit to High-Quality Performance Standards.

Each of the four infrastructure organizations initiated and/or advocated for new standards of practice for their area of work.

The Council of Michigan Foundations was an early creator and adopter of “best practices” for family foundations, and initiated the national work on standards for community foundations. Learning to Give researched and implemented the most current theories of teaching and learning to design the requirements for each of the philanthropy-teaching units. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy worked with national peer institutions to create curricular guidelines for the teaching of philanthropy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Michigan Community Service Commission started prior to the Corporation for National and Community Service and provided a model for other states interested in creating a similar organization. While a separate professional organization, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, guided by chair Dr. John Lore from Michigan, led the development and implementation of professional standards for the fundraising field.

The underlying belief to the process of defining what is “good practice” was that individuals and organizations in this particular part of life’s endeavors want to do the right thing. By defining good practice, the infrastructure organizations were able to then design training, provide consultation, and mobilize peer pressure to create stronger foundations and nonprofit organizations. The people involved wanted to accomplish good work – in the right way.

VideoVideo:  John Lore discusses the development of national standards for fundraisers.



Establish clear, inspirational, and aggressive goals; allow for local innovation in how to meet those goals.

There is a long-told parable about a test in physics that goes something like this: A professor asks his student to “determine the height of a building using only a barometer and a string.” The student comes up with several alternative methods. Each answer gives the height of the building, but none are accomplished through traditional and expected methods using a physics formula. The parable illustrates there are multiple ways to reach a correct answer; the possibilities are often limited only by one’s creativity.

Michigan’s projects have often exhibited this same quality. The goals were clear. As in the parable above, the method for reaching those goals was left to the local circumstances and ingenuity of the people involved. This strategy of providing a framework and concrete goals, then allowing for creativity in implementation, has worked well for Michigan’s philanthropy. This approach to statewide programs implies trust in local people and a willingness to accept their solutions to their problems without imposing only one solution from outside. Read the full parable.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the importance of trusting local leadership.



Towards the Future


Be an Engineer, Not a Theoretician.

There is a point when a problem can be “over” planned. While Michigan’s philanthropic leaders set ambitious and difficult goals for the field and searched for existing examples outside of Michigan that could inform their planning, there was a fearlessness about just jumping in and taking action.

No other entity was asked for permission. There was a confidence that the problems that would inevitably arise could be solved. Efforts in Michigan were pragmatic, grassroots, hands-on, and required adjusting as the project was being implemented. No one was ever discouraged by someone from outside of Michigan who said a project “hasn’t been done” or “shouldn’t be done.” Such caution often made it seem even more important for Michigan’s philanthropic leaders to simply do it.

A part of the reason for this confidence to tackle complicated problems in new ways was the assurance by major foundation funders that honest errors would be considered lessons learned. Like scientists, the failed experiment, well executed, would be a success in discovering what didn’t work. Well-considered program strategies designed prior to launch could be modified when experience in the field demonstrated an unanticipated consequence or flaw. Because the program officers were partners and not judges, honest conversation about real-time implementation occurred frequently.

Michigan’s charitable sector had a very hands-on, pragmatic, “get it done” quality. Members of the Michigan family often typify the field as the mechanic, with her hat on backward, under the hood of the car, tinkering with the engine through innovation, creativity, skill, and building some of her own tools “on the fly.”

There certainly was research, strategic planning, long grant request documents, outside evaluation, regular reports, and all the appropriate steps taken toward embarking on a new venture. But, there were also plans written on napkins with circles and arrows, informal conversations in the back of a conference hall, and a great deal of peer consultation to achieve concrete results in a messy world. Find out more about this approach to problems in Chapter 1, Be Fearless, Be Patient.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the value of big vision and fearless leadership.



Think Across Space (Philanthropy Across Geography).

The major initiatives in Michigan were designed to build philanthropic strength deep in communities across a large and very diverse state.

From major metropolitan cities, to suburbs, to small and mid-sized towns, to vast stretches of rural woods and farms, there is a geographic awareness of serving the whole state by encouraging services at the local level. Volunteer centers are located throughout the state. Community foundations serve every resident of every county. Academic service-learning grants were given to schools across the state. Campus Compact colleges and universities are in small private colleges and major public universities in all regions. Youth advisory committees serve every county. In some states, the support associations focused on large metropolitan areas; in Michigan, the level of analysis and service was provided to the state as a whole, with assistance given even at the community level.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss the development of community foundations in Michigan.


Think Across Time (Philanthropy Across Time).

Part of the overall strategy for Michigan was the awareness that philanthropy – and formal organized charitable activities, in particular – are learned behaviors.

Historically, families and religious institutions taught the values and activities of giving and serving. In the modern world, additional support is needed to continue this critical sector of U.S. democracy. The philanthropic community consciously decided to work within systems that educate the next generation in order to assure the future health of the sector. There is always the awareness of time – of building institutions and educating the next generation for the future.

VideoVideo:  Leaders discuss permanent endowments.