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Leader Profile:

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson was the Lilly Endowment's vice president for development in Indianapolis, Indiana. In relation to Michigan’s philanthropic history, Johnson served as a volunteer member of the board of trustees of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project, and helped shape early policy, approve grants, and review progress. Johnson was involved in creating and funding the Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT) initiative that had similar goals to MCFYP.

Leadership Highlights

Mr. Charles Johnson talks about the history of The Lilly Endowment and its relationship with Michigan foundations.
Mr. Charles Johnson talks about his career in philanthropy.
Mr. Charles Johnson talks about the growth of academic centers on philanthropy.
Mr. Charles Johnson talks about the remarkable leadership of Russ Mawby and Dottie Johnson.
Mr. Charles Johnson talks about the relationship between the states of Michigan and Indiana.


Charles Johnson attended Earlham College, a Quaker college on the east side of Indiana, and participated in a work-study program. Johnson was assigned to drive the college’s president to various speaking engagements throughout the state, thereby indirectly gaining exposure to the world of college trustees and public relations. These experiences became a driving force behind a desire to work for a non-secular educational institution, and about a year after graduation from Earlham College, Johnson entered Hartford Seminary to obtain a theological degree.

Philanthropic Biography

In attendance at Johnson’s graduation from Hartford Seminary was the president of Earlham College, who extended a job offer to work for the college as the vice president of development; thus, beginning a lifelong career in philanthropy and fundraising. In reflecting on his career in this field, Johnson recalls, “that really just led from one thing to another. To me, I can’t think of anything that I would rather have done.”

Johnson worked as the vice president of development for Earlham College from 1970 until 1973, then took the position of director of development with Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. In 1976, Johnson was offered the position of vice president of development at Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, Ind., and worked until retirement in 1994. The Lilly Endowment is a large private grantmaking foundation that focuses its giving in the state of Indiana.

Philanthropy had very much become a part of who Johnson was as a person. He remembered learning the importance of sharing with others as a young boy:

“We lived in a little tiny town in Indiana that was really a rural community and the little town was made up of retired farmers and shopkeepers and the like, but we lived there and my mother, to supplement the family income, made cottage cheese. We kept a cow outside the town and my older brothers milked it and she made this cottage cheese, which I would peddle around town when I was in grade school and I remember it absolutely. I got 10 cents a pint and 5 cents went to my mother and 5 cents to me but before anything was done with that money, one tenth was taken out and put aside to give to the church. I have heard this kind of story from many people, where they learned the importance of sharing and we didn’t call it philanthropy but that is what it was.”

These values were instilled in Johnson as a young boy and reinforced throughout the duration of his career and into retirement.

Contributions to the Field

After a few years of working at the Lilly Endowment, Johnson began to ask, “How might some of the endowment resources be used to strengthen the independent sector?” Johnson found that many nonprofits were under-budgeted and understaffed and therefore did not have the necessary resources to adequately train and develop their staff in fundraising, grant writing, and philanthropy. Johnson learned about Henry Rosso’s The Fund Raising School®, which provided seminars throughout the country. After attending one of these seminars and speaking with those in attendance, Johnson began a relationship with Rosso. Johnson knew that Rosso had a product that could be of great value to the independent sector and that Rosso needed additional resources. The Lilly Endowment extended a grant to Rosso for The Fund Raising School®, to expand the number of people working there.

Over time, Johnson, Rosso, and Eugene Tempel, a development officer for the Indianapolis branch of Indiana University, discussed the idea of Indiana University adopting this program. The initial funding would come through the Lilly Endowment, with Indiana University increasingly taking responsibility for the program. Through collaboration of chief development officers and a faculty committee at Indiana University, the financial support of Lilly Endowment and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Johnson, Rosso, Tempel, and others helped to create the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, and brought The Fund Raising School® under the center’s umbrella.

Throughout his career, Johnson fostered collaborative efforts and symbiotic relationships with Michigan philanthropy leaders such as Russell Mawby and Dorothy A. Johnson, as well as with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Johnson recalled that, “Michigan and Indiana, without any formal relationships, sort of continued that effort and we were supportive of each other.” Johnson served on the advisory committee for the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project reviewing community foundation grant requests including organizational and fundraising development plans. He returned to Indiana with this idea and helped launch the Lilly Endowment-funded Indiana GIFT initiative. This multi-million dollar, multi-year effort helped to create community foundation services for every citizen in the state of Indiana.

Johnson has been recognized and honored for major contributions to the field of philanthropy throughout his career. In addition to being a founding member of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, he was a founding member of the National Committee of Planned Giving (now called the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning) and organized the Indiana chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives (now Association of Fundraising Professionals). Johnson was responsible for initiating a program to provide ongoing training for Indiana private college presidents, board members, and fundraising personnel through the Independent Colleges of Indiana Foundation. In 1995, Johnson received the Henry A. Rosso Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Ethical Fundraising, and in 1998, was awarded with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Indiana University.

For many years, Johnson continued to serve on the board for the Center on Philanthropy at IU, but stepped down from this service to create room and opportunities for new pioneers in the field. Johnson served as a board member for the community foundation for the southern Arizona community in which he resided before his death in March, 2016.

We remember Charles Johnson for outstanding leadership in promoting philanthropy. He was a friend, a trusted colleague, and will be greatly missed. His work in philanthropy will live on as a tribute to his values and life. We are honored to have known and worked with him.


Johnson was interviewed regarding his insights and experiences in working with Michigan’s philanthropic community and the Our State of Generosity (OSoG) partners. The following quotes relate to the five organizing themes of the OSoG project.

National & Global Implications

“… I felt that Michigan and Indiana, without any kind of formal relationship, sort of continued that effort and we were supportive of each other. But again without any specifics — there was no contract between parties in the two states.”

Practical Wisdom

“There might be foundations in a given community who might work together to help with some project that was community-wide and beneficial but it’s pretty difficult for foundations to collaborate on issues that aren’t well-defined because you have different thoughts and ways of doing things. It isn’t that they are unwilling to work together, it is just pretty hard to go through the process of developing a program and working it up through for support going to the board.”


IPA Blog. (2016, March 30). Remembering Charles Johnson, the Johnny Applesee of community foundations. https://www.inphilanthropy.org/news/remembering-charles-johnson-johnny-appleseed-community-foundations

This profile was last updated: 03/03/2020