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Leader Profile:

David Egner

David (Dave) Egner served at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation when the Michigan Nonprofit Association and the Michigan Community Service Commission were founded, and during the early implementation of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project at the Council of Michigan Foundations. Egner was the second director of MNA, leading it through transformation from the Michigan Nonprofit Forum and recovery from bankruptcy. Egner is a long-time leader in Michigan’s philanthropic community and a practitioner who is partially responsible for bringing a number of Michigan’s key institutions to life.

Leadership Highlights

Dave Egner describes the incredible leadership of Russ Mawby and Dottie Johnson.
Dave Egner redefines "entrepreneur" and discusses the implications of this new definition for philanthropic work.
Dave Egner talks about Russ Mawby's remarkable leadership.
Dave Egner talks about the remarkable leadership of Dottie Johnson.
Dave Egner talks about how the nonprofit sector "fills out the equation" for the public and private sectors of society.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the mission and founding of the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the importance of "having supper together."
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the need for organizations to "invent, reinvent, and be nimble" in order to stay relevant and achieve the most good.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about Russ Mawby and Dottie Johnson's leadership and how "they didn't care who got the credit."
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the founding of the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA).
Mr. Dave Egner talks about how the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) thrived thanks to Russ Mawby and Dottie Johnson's leadership.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the importance of identifying assets, needs, and champions in order to effect change.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about his career in philanthropy.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about the mission and development of the New Economy Initiative in Detroit, MI.
Mr. Dave Egner talks about Russ Mawby's ability to run a successful meeting by reading the room and valuing every one present.


David Egner earned a Bachelor of Arts at Westminster College in Mo., and a Master of Business Administration from Western Michigan University.

Philanthropic Biography

While a sophomore in high school, Egner was introduced to Terence Jarchow, who ran Junior Achievement in St. Louis, Missouri. Egner identified Jarchow as one of the premiere mentors in his life, and his earliest career coach.

Perhaps the most influential period in Egner’s career was time spent as Russ Mawby’s executive assistant at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Egner was recruited by Peter Ellis, a program director at the Kellogg Foundation, and while initially reluctant to leave Junior Achievement, Egner claims that “after spending a day with Russ Mawby, I knew I needed to be in this business.” This position was incredibly formative for Egner, introducing him not only to the role of foundations in philanthropy, but also to significant mentors, Mawby and Dorothy A. Johnson.

When asked what he had learned from Mawby, Egner responded, “I learned I couldn’t look at any single issue from one side, that every issue had multiple sides. I also learned that there was no one solution to any problem,” and “I learned you focused on people first. Don’t bet on institutions, bet on people.” Egner was quick to point out that there were many more lessons learned from Mawby, and that these are just a few examples. On the topic of Mawby and Johnson’s leadership styles, Egner said:

“Dottie and Russ both have a unique set of abilities to empower everyone around them. As a result of that, they didn’t need to be strong in the use of power in any way. People would feel valued, empowered, and included. They both have incredible integrity. There was never a moment where you thought there was anything less than a transparent discussion. I have not known a lot of people who have known Russ or have known Dottie that would say they wouldn’t run through a wall for them for that very reason. You knew what they represented was the right thing, there was great integrity. They didn’t care who got the credit. That was the whole other thing, they gave credit to everyone. As a result of that, they were extremely effective.”

Contributions to the Field

In 1993, Egner left the Kellogg Foundation to become the second executive director at (then-named) Michigan Nonprofit Forum (MNF), following the initial director’s resignation. At that time, MNF was bankrupt, which provided Egner with both a challenge and an opportunity. By implementing and overseeing plans left by Ellis (who was to be MNF’s first executive director, but who died suddenly before assuming the post), Egner and his staff lifted the organization out of bankruptcy, expanded its offerings, and refocused its goals. During Egner’s tenure, the MNF became the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) and focused on convening and sponsoring roundtables and other discussion and research-based events, disseminating information, and affecting public policy. This position also drew Egner into a partnership with the Michigan Community Service Commission through its relationship with the Volunteer Centers of Michigan, which had merged with MNA.

“I think when you look at both CMF and MNA, which are the two things I am closest to, it’s not being static. It is being able to invent, reinvent, and be nimble, and not being afraid to take on some larger special projects and needs as they come forward where others would shy away and say that’s not core mission. That whole notion of being flexible is critical. Both organizations evolved tremendously over their lifetime; they didn’t just become that one thing.”

Egner testified for the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF)and others about the community foundation tax credit and served on its public policy committee. He returned to CMF’s board in 2002 and rejoined the public policy committee. Egner served as chair of the advisory committee for the governor’s Office of Foundation Liaison, the first office of its kind in the nation.

After leaving MNA in 1997, Egner became the president of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, succeeding Gilbert Hudson. The Hudson-Webber Foundation was established in 1943 with a focus on improving life in Detroit. Under Egner’s leadership, the foundation focused on bringing college-educated innovators under the age of 35 to Detroit, specifically attempting to attract 15,000 members of that demographic by 2015. To achieve this goal, the Hudson-Webber Foundation took on a facilitator or convener role, using their objective as a way to bring together a variety of nonprofits in the region to spur conversation and collaboration.

One outcome of this push in collaboration surrounding Detroit was the New Economy Initiative (NEI), an economic development initiative seeking to support entrepreneurs in Detroit. Egner served as executive director of NEI concurrently as leader with the Hudson-Webber Foundation until 2015. NEI was formed in 2008 by 10 national and local foundations, including the Hudson-Webber Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. These foundations committed a combined $100 million to be invested over an eight-year period.

“Philanthropy is a beneficiary of the success of a number of great entrepreneurs and business people. So if the private sector isn’t working, nothing works because there is no tax money and there is no philanthropic money. But without the nonprofit sector, you cannot complete the story… that the universities are nonprofit, the healthcare systems are nonprofit, our library system is nonprofit, arts and culture, nonprofit. It is the fabric of civil society that would be lost if we didn’t invest in it.”

In 2016, Egner was appointed president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, a $1.2 billion foundation spending down by 2035 that supports children and youth, economic growth, caregiving, and healthy communities in Southeastern Michigan and Western New York.

Egner has continued to be involved in a variety of volunteer positions in the Detroit area. Egner chaired the Leadership Detroit board, and was appointed by Gov. Granholm as a member of the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs. Egner’s dedication to the Detroit region was recognized in 2009 by Crain’s Detroit Business, which named him a newsmaker of the year. The nonprofit sector of Detroit, as well as across the state, has benefitted from Egner’s actions as a spokesperson, and as a connector and facilitator.


Egner was interviewed regarding 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.

Servant Leadership in Michigan Philanthropy

“I always say that Dottie has an incredible ability to get a firm grip with a velvet glove. She absolutely saw what she needed to get and along the way she made sure that everybody owned it, felt like it was theirs, and they felt stroked and valued. She was able to move mountains by being aggressive, and at the same time she brought people along. You get caught up in Dottie’s wake and you were going to work to make everything happen. It was a tremendous style, one that valued everybody and everything.”

“Philanthropy is transforming. Where else, in any other job, do you have the opportunity to empower others to solve problems or to improve the quality of life? The first thing I learned from Russ Mawby was if you are in philanthropy you really don’t do anything, which was a bit of an overstatement, but what he was saying is we are in the business of empowering others to do.”

“What I am seeing in the generation 35 and younger, is an advocacy, a return to meaningful service that I think my generation missed. They care deeply about direction and not about making a buck in the same way. I have watched a lot of talented people under 35 give up successful, lucrative careers to engage in service or in community building. I think the sector is in good hands moving forward but again it will be collective.”

“Success has many parents and failure is an orphan, so we need to keep giving credit, not taking it. I am a funder, so the bottom line is the work is done by people whom we fund and while we might be helpful and might make connections, I don’t think we can take full credit for what they do. We will get credit, people will know where we were but we shouldn’t seek it. I am convinced of that. I am also convinced that we give away our power if we try to. The real power is in connecting and slowly fading into the background. You get far more done if you don’t care who gets credit for the outcomes than if you insist upon getting credit.

“This [Michigan] is an incredible place to live. Unfortunately, we have defined ourselves over the years by our deficits, not by our assets and if we would start defining ourselves by our assets we could make a big difference. We could turn a lot faster.”

Practical Wisdom

“I have had three great mentors that changed my life and Russ [Mawby] is one of them. I went in a very green, young, 20-something and in the process of traveling with Russ and watching him in meetings, I learned I couldn’t look at any single issue from one side, that every issue had multiple sides. I also learned that there was no one solution to any problem. Which I think when you look at the weaknesses of institutions that is what they do — it is this way, we have to solve it this way. Instead, it is dozens of solutions and you have to embrace them all until the market and the structure can determine which ones will work en route. I learned that from Russ. I learned you focus on people first. Don’t bet on institutions, bet on people. So when you look at the CMF and MNA and the Commission and the Johnson Center, it was the leadership that made them work because they focused on people.”

“I think when you look at the organization around the nonprofits and philanthropy, we didn’t forget how to have supper together. A lot of the things that were creative and continue to be created were done because people could sit around the table and have a conversation about how to work together, what common visions were, and in many respects, we rode a set of small momentums to a common vision, then to inclusion. Typically, when you look at the world, we tend to do that backwards: inclusion, vision and then we get to the issue of trying to make momentum. We didn’t forget to have supper together, we didn’t forget how to informally relate to each other, and that made a huge difference. I think because of that, the organizational structures continue to be in place to permit needed activities but there are still a lot of organic pieces that continue to grow. It allows us to focus and be nimble in ways that if we weren’t having dinner together, we couldn’t be.”


Hudson-Webber Foundation. https://hudson-webber.org/who-we-are/trustees-staff/


New Economy Initiative. (2010, June 21). Business Accelerator Network. https://neweconomyinitiative.org/business-accelerator-network/


Reindl, J. C. (2015, July 22). Late NFL owner aims part of $1.2B to SE Michigan causes. Detroit Free Press. https://www.freep.com/story/money/2015/07/22/ralph-wilson-foundation-new-details-detroit-money/30534995/

This profile was last updated: 02/23/2020