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Garner Support for Charitable Infrastructure Organizations

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The Michigan network of philanthropic and nonprofit support organizations – Council of Michigan Foundations, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, Michigan Community Service Commission, and Michigan Nonprofit Association – have all grown and benefited from the long-term investment of substantial money, talent, and knowledge (in other words, resources).

At the time when these institutions were developed, a small group of foundations made a commitment to the field of philanthropy itself. These national foundations partnered with community foundations and family foundations to increase the amount of volunteering and giving; to improve the implementation of activities in the sector; and to shape public policy to support giving and service. Due to the forming of this partnership, garnering resources had a different trajectory than is the typical experience of the stand-alone charitable nonprofit.

To implement aspects of the Michigan experience in other nations, states, or communities requires a different resourcing strategy than normal fundraising. To learn more about the power of resources and how it helped to shape Michigan’s philanthropic sector, see Chapter 2.



Identify a Small Group of Foundations or Potential Donors

Development of the infrastructure in Michigan was led by individuals and institutions with resources and power who understood, rightly, that they had both a moral and organizational self-interest in a strong charitable sector. In Michigan’s case, these individuals were leaders of large private foundations, donor families of smaller foundations, board and staff members of large community foundations, and respected governors of the state of Michigan.

It is critically important to find at least one key leader in the sector who can be your ally and advocate. It is best if it is someone who can speak to fellow trustees and donors as a peer, but it can also be a CEO of a strong grantmaking foundation. An executive of a nonprofit or regional association of grantmakers (RAG) can’t take the lead — it has to be someone on the volunteer, donor, or professional side. That person can then partner with the nonprofit or regional association of grantmakers CEO and board members.


Make the Case for Investment in the Charitable Sector

While every foundation exists for the purpose of improving our society, delivering a needed service that is unprofitable or advocating for those without a political voice can present quite a challenge. After all, very few foundations, donors, or units of government have an explicit mission to increase and improve the charitable sector. This means securing investments of financial, human, and knowledge resources to improve philanthropy itself is going to require a strong and well-considered case statement.

The case statement has to make the point that foundations and donors must invest in their own business. Just as the Ford Motor Company has to care about the quality and strength of its dealers, foundations need to care about the nonprofits that deliver their programs and the RAGs that facilitate effective philanthropy and protection from unreasonable regulations. The other thing that must be done is to show how every organization fits into an interdependent ecosystem — that foundations and donors can’t be healthy unless nonprofits and RAGs are also healthy. As articulated by one of Michigan’s most effective philanthropic leaders, Russell Mawby, the givers and the doers need each other to fulfill their missions.

“So you have the resources – the givers, if you please – but the most important players in philanthropy are the doers. Those who are making things happen in the lives of people, wherever that mission is serving, so we need to collaborate…” –Russ Mawby


Bring Together a Small Group of Visionary Philanthropists

Find a champion who is in a position to bring together a small group of philanthropic leaders. This group should include professional leaders of large private or corporate foundations, donors to private foundations, and staff and/or board members of selected community foundations. Choose leaders who have the capacity to influence the agenda of their respective organizations. If the members of the group don’t know one another, allow time to become acquainted. The size of the group, at this stage, is not as important as the composition.


Begin a Process of Orientation and Discussion

Creation of a common agenda and expectations for investing money, staff talent, and knowledge to encourage philanthropy takes discussion – and a bit of time. An initial “planning” investment from interested funders is recommended to provide staff support to develop the coalition. In Michigan, Sophia Gorham was the first staff member – a part-time, loaned executive from the Dyer-Ives Foundation. Ms. Gorham was followed by a part-time, paid staff member working for the organization.

With a talented leader, the group can continue to grow in the number of people involved – and in the clarity of the mission to invest in philanthropy.


Provide Common Education

While the group is being formed, exposure to common information, models, and ongoing discussion should be encouraged. The goal is to create a funders group that is:

  • Clear about the goals to improve and increase philanthropy, with a shared vision of what the nation, state, and region will look like when the goals are accomplished.
  • Committed to invest money, staff, leadership, and knowledge over an extended period of time (start with a time frame of 20 years).
  • Dedicated to providing annual operating support for their RAGs and statewide associations of nonprofits. It is important for the funders group to understand the important role these infrastructure support organizations play in the sector.
  • In agreement about the values and principles that will guide the work (for example, valuing all philanthropy without regard to its size).