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Increase and Improve Philanthropy at the Community Level

Toolkit Intro 2-2

Because communities vary in size and sophistication, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to increasing and improving philanthropy that will work in all cases.  Each approach has to be tailored to include the distinctive philanthropic assets that each community possesses.


Key Questions to Consider

While efforts outside of Michigan will progress according to their own ecology, here are five questions that should be answered as a part of your strategy development. Michigan’s answers to these questions are offered as examples.  The answers for your community may be quite different.

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1. What structures do we need at the community level to increase and improve philanthropy?

 In Michigans case, some of the answers to this question were:

  • A United Way, or similar organization serving every community, to assist nonprofits with operating support.
  • A community foundation serving every citizen to provide modest support to nonprofits for innovations and ongoing support, and to provide donors with a flexible vehicle for giving in perpetuity.
  • A volunteer center serving all volunteers to advocate for volunteering and provide support for this service within the community.

2. How do we encourage giving?

In Michigans case, some of the answers to this question were:

  • Through changes in tax policy that provided incentives for new donors, smaller donations, and for permanent gifts.
  • By working with advisors to individuals and families of wealth (accountants, attorneys, insurance agents, bankers, and investment advisors), providing the resources they needed to talk with potential donors about giving.
  • By leveraging challenge grants from private foundations that offered a story and an incentive for new giving.
  • Through a permanent statewide endowment that continues to support volunteer efforts, raised by a challenge grant from the state that was matched by giving from foundations, corporations, and individuals.
  • By providing easily accessed and ongoing technical assistance and consultation to individuals interested in giving, and leaders of foundations and nonprofits

3. What are the structures needed to support giving and volunteering at the national, state, or regional level?

In Michigan, the organizations are:

  • A membership association supporting grantmaking foundations.
  • A membership association supporting nonprofit charitable organizations.
  • A state commission established to funnel federal funds to voluntary service.
  • An academic center for philanthropy at a public university supporting research, academics, and professional education.
  • A set of joint venture projects to support public policy partnerships with government: a caucus in the legislature; a liaison in the governors office; and an advisor in the attorney generals office.

4. How can we transmit the philanthropic tradition to the next generation, in an organized fashion, to ensure a commitment to philanthropy continues?

In Michigan, a series of programs were instituted for this very purpose:

  • Learning to Give a K-12 project to integrate teaching of the academic content of philanthropy deep into the core curriculum of schools
  • Learn and Serve grants mini-grants and professional development for K-12 teachers to use service-learning as an instructional tool
  • Michigan Community Foundations Youth Project and its Youth Advisory Committees empowerment of young people in local communities as grantmakers and affecting change in state legislation so youth can now serve on nonprofit boards with a vote
  • Campus Outreach Opportunity League, alternative spring breaks, college-level service-learning, and Campus Compact college campus structures to engage college students in volunteering
  • Volunteer Center support for non-college bound young adults to volunteer
  • AmeriCorps and VISTA post-college and non-college alternative early career opportunities

5. How do we build a culture of collaboration among these structures to rein in competition, maximize resources, and benefit from synergy?

In Michigan the answers were:

  • Active participation of foundations and donors in the work of building a strong infrastructure.
  • A culture of collaboration was expected by funders; this behavior was modeled and successful joint ventures were rewarded.
  • Hands-on leadership was provided by foundation leaders in serving on boards and committees, raising money, advising, and working as a partner with those charged with implementing the tasks.
  • Credit was shared widely public endorsement of the infrastructure organizations was provided in tangible ways by state, foundation, and governmental leaders such as serving as keynote speakers at conferences, giving awards (for service for example), testifying on public policy issues, visiting local communities, showing up at camps held for youth grantmakers, and being active participants as well as funders.
  • Adequate funding was provided, with an expectation that if goals were met and results achieved, the funder would commit for longer than a single three-year grant cycle (critical energy did not need to be spent because of a chronic shortfall of operating funds).
  • Established big, aspiring joint goals that everyone agreed needed to be achieved, but no one organization could do on their own.
  • Formed a clear mission and engaged in conversation about natural mission creep; Each organization had a specific role to fill for all of Michigan to achieve its larger goals.
    • Served on each others boards. Board members, staff members, and funders should serve on one anothers boards of trustees in varying combinations. Duties of loyalty and fiduciary responsibility require board members to look out for both the organization they serve and the organization on whose board they serve.  By sitting on one anothers boards, there is also a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by the other   
    • All participants worked at developing real relationships trust and personal ties between organizations.

The Michigan experience is only one of the ways to increase and improve philanthropy. The people who were involved are happy to share their experiences and lessons learned with anyone that has an interest in similar efforts in their part of the world.