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Leader Profile:

Dorothy A. Johnson

Dorothy A. Johnson committed her extraordinary talents to increasing the effectiveness of Michigan’s philanthropy and to building additional philanthropic resources for the state and nation. As the long-time president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, Johnson grew the organization into a national leader. The history of the major philanthropic institutions in Michigan finds her as a critical and seminal leader in their creation and growth. Most importantly, Johnson’s personal ethics and model of servant leadership have helped to establish the positive tone and culture of Michigan’s philanthropic community.

Leadership Highlights

Dottie Johnson discusses CMF's stance on public policy and their involvement in RAGS on the Hill.
Dottie Johnsondescribes the founding of Learning to Give, an organization promoting philanthropy education in K-12 schools.
Dottie Johnson discusses the value of servant leadership.
Dottie Johnson talks about the founding of the Council of Michigan Foundations.
Dottie Johnson discusses wearing multiple hats in servant leadership.
Ms. Dottie Johnson provides advice on how to become a servant leader.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the development of the Michigan Community Foundations Tax Credit.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how successful leadership requires relying on a combination of human, financial, and knowledge resources.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how Michigan collaborated to get philanthropic work done and had a good time doing it.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about her work with Governor George Romney in developing the Volunteer Centers of Michigan.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the importance of sharing your knowledge and listening to the knowledge of others.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the founding of the ConnectMichigan Alliance (CMA).
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the history of university centers for philanthropy, in particular the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the founding of Michigan Campus Compact, an organization promoting collegiate volunteerism.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how the Michigan Community Foundations' Youth Project (MCFYP) grew out of the Kellogg Foundation's challenge grant.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how the Michigan Community Foundations' Youth Project (MCFYP) fit in with the larger goals of CMF.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the development of Michigan's first grantmaker/grankseeker conference.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the founding of the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA).
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about Michigan's culture of servant leadership.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how nonprofit boards work best when true collaboration and a willingness to listen takes place between members.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the founding of the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about her career in philanthropy.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about how the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) served as an incubator for many widely influential projects.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the development of the Michigan AIDS Fund.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the growth of a project from idea to implementation.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the development of the Foundation Information Management System (FIMS).
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about CMF's involvement with the Exxon Energy Initiative.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about her appointment to the Corporation for National and Community Service by President Bill Clinton.
Ms. Dottie Johnson talks about the collaborative branding project that took place among community foundations in Michigan.


Dorothy (Dottie) Johnson earned a degree in speech from the University of California at Berkley. Johnson then attended the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration as a member of its final class before women were admitted into the Harvard Business School.

Philanthropic Biography

Dorothy Johnson grew up in California in a family that valued giving back to the community. Her mother was involved with Community Chest, which would later become the United Way, as well as the parent–teacher association at Johnson’s school. In an interview with Kathryn Agard of the Our State of Generosity project, Johnson recalls her first philanthropic experience in the third grade — convincing friends to bring in an extra penny each to help pay for a required harmonica for a fellow student whose family couldn’t afford it.

This commitment to community continued at the University of California at Berkley where Johnson was elected vice president of the student body. She was surprised to learn after earning the position, that she would be paid $85 a month and have a secretary.

Johnson met her husband, F. Martin Johnson, while attending graduate school. The couple moved to New York, where Dottie worked at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency firm as a media space buyer analyzing demographics and working with clients. She continued to volunteer while in New York, including with an organization named Lighthouse that engaged volunteers in reading to the blind, among other services.

“There’s all kinds of leaders. There are the tyrants and there are the servant leaders and sometimes both factions are needed within the same meeting or certainly the same organization. But what I learned? You don’t declare yourself leader. Just go do the work and it will evolve.”

After two years, they moved to Grand Haven, Michigan where Martin’s family owned a business. Upon arrival, Johnson once again threw herself into volunteering, and served on the boards of the local Girl Scouts, the statewide United Way, the Arts Council, and her church. She was one of the first women on the Grand Haven Area Planning Commission.

In 1971, local leaders Vin Erickson and Miller Sherwood created the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, and asked Johnson to become a member. She was then asked to serve as a board member, and later became the third president of the foundation. As a trustee, in 1972, Johnson attended the first meeting of the Conference of Michigan Foundations, where she was asked to join its steering committee. In 1975, the Conference of Michigan Foundations was restructured as a membership organization under the name of Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), and Johnson volunteered to become the executive secretary, succeeding Sophia Gorham, a departing part-time secretary. The title of the position was later changed to executive director, quickly followed by president and CEO.

Contributions to the Field

Johnson’s contributions to the field of philanthropy are too numerous to adequately enumerate. At a time of the rapid growth and maturation of philanthropic organizations and expansion of knowledge about giving and service, Johnson was at the forefront in leading many of the national, and virtually all of the Michigan, initiatives to improve and increase the practice of philanthropy. From volunteer service on the board of a community foundation serving a small Michigan community, to appointment by U.S. Presidents to the board of the Corporation of National and Community Service, she participated in or launched dozens of successful institutions and initiatives.

Council of Michigan Foundations

Johnson served as executive director of CMF for 25 years, and provided leadership and guidance for a number of significant initiatives across the state. Some of the initiatives included RAGs (Regional Associations of Grantmakers) on the Hill, the Grantmaker/Grantseeker Conference, the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit, the Michigan AIDS Fund, the Exxon Energy Initiative, the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP), the founding of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and the Learning to Give initiative.

Shortly after stepping into the leadership position at CMF, Johnson organized a delegation that traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with 10 congressmen to discuss the high payout requirements and excise tax imposed on private foundations. This first trip was organized in 1977, and CMF was the first RAG to conduct such policy work. Johnson, seeing the value in educating policy makers, worked tirelessly to involve other RAGs. As a result, the initiative, now renamed Foundations on the Hill, became a partnership that includes the Council on Foundations, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers (now United Philanthropy Forum), and the Alliance for Charitable Reform. Johnson set a precedent for creating and bringing fact sheets that showed the impact and reach of the foundations. In 2014, Foundations on the Hill featured more than 150 visits by over 200 grantmakers from across the United States.

“It is interesting that the seeds of these projects that the Council of Michigan Foundations undertook, several of them have become national, if not international, efforts. That wasn’t our intent in the beginning, but with the other regional associations and the national associations, the Council on Foundations, there was just interest. Frankly, we learned from them too and used many of their fine ideas, but they say the greatest sense of flattery is when you take an idea from someone else — and that’s in fact what happened.”

In 1988, Peter Ellis, a senior program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, approached Johnson to discuss the need for a better understanding of the tensions between grantmakers and grantseekers. Ellis then took a yearlong executive study leave to work with Johnson and CMF on researching this relationship. In May of 1989, they hosted the first Grantmaker/Grantseeker Conference, co-sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation and chaired by Russ Mawby. Johnson directed conference staff for the first two years, after which time the Grantmaker/Grantseeker Conference became a partnership with the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

During the 1980s, Johnson reacted in innovative ways to growing concern about the AIDS crisis, and responded to the urgency raised by William White, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, by organizing a collaboration of interested funders to create the Michigan AIDS Fund Committee of CMF. Starting with a leadership grant from the Mott Foundation of $50,000, the AIDS Fund served as a collaborative funding pool that would allow donors to anonymously give gifts and grants that could then be distributed among the early projects and organizations responding to the AIDS epidemic. Johnson convened the group, assisted in raising the funds, managed the project, supported the volunteers, and oversaw its transformation into the more autonomous Michigan AIDS Fund, which served as a supporting organization of CMF. In 2002, the Michigan AIDS Fund became an independent nonprofit organization, and served the citizens of Michigan under the auspices of the Michigan AIDS Coalition following its merger with the Michigan AIDS Prevention Project in 2009.

The year 1986 saw one of the earliest partnerships of state government and CMF in the creation of the Community Foundation Energy Initiative. This initiative distributed a portion of the Exxon Corporation’s court-mandated restitution settlement to CMF, which then distributed grants to community foundations to assist nonprofits and programs in being more energy efficient. Additionally, CMF received $350,000 to fund energy efficient programs in areas of the state not served by community foundations. Both sets of state funds required a dollar-to-dollar match by the recipients. Johnson led this effort with a committee of community foundation leaders from the CMF board. Their success represents the first time that CMF was used as a joint funding vehicle by its members.

Perhaps one of boldest programs that occurred at CMF during Johnson’s tenure was the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP). Following Jack Hopkins’ (president of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation at the time) assertion that growing community foundations around the state would require funds for technical assistance, a large challenge grant to motivate new gifts, and a tax credit for contributions to the community foundations, Johnson headed a delegation to the Kellogg Foundation to discuss this grand vision. It was there that Russ Mawby suggested the inclusion of a youth component, which aligned the request more closely to the Kellogg Foundation’s mission. The community foundations revised their request, leading to a 2:1 challenge grant by the Kellogg Foundation, as a pilot project to gain some understanding of how and whether such a challenge grant would help the community foundations grow.

Johnson wrote the first grant request to the Kellogg Foundation outlining the initial concept for MCFYP before hiring Kathy Agard, who would further develop and implement the program over the following eight years. A companion grant was received from the Mott Foundation to assist with further developing MCFYP by funding technical assistance resources for the community foundations. The pilot project — $2 million over three years — began in 1988 with Ellis as program director. His unexpected death in 1989 brought in Joel Orosz as MCFYP’s new Kellogg program director, a role he fulfilled until 2001. As the first challenge was being completed, the community foundations aspired to a larger vision — to assure that every donor and nonprofit in any community in the state would have access to a community foundation.

“Because [MCFYP] was a major piece, because it got the attention of legislators and community leaders throughout the state, there were wrinkles that happened along the way. Again, the Kellogg Foundation, particularly Joel Orosz, who was our program director, was very open to listening to the issues. He challenged us on how to do things, how to make permanent what we were doing, how to involve the right people, and again, the spirit was very healthy. Our board consisted of people from CEOs to program directors, sort of up and down the food chain of philanthropy and certainly donors. No one played the card of, ‘I have a superior position to another.’ It was always, ‘let’s just get this done.’ People were very proud of this initiative, which continues today. We have given back all the money that Kellogg ever granted and there have been more than 2,000 young people that have gone through this program.”

Orosz championed a major investment challenge grant of $35 million, and, in 1991, received approval from the Kellogg Foundation, and ongoing technical assistance funding from the Mott Foundation. Participating communities could earn $1 million by raising $2 million, either to strengthen an existing community foundation, or to establish a new one in a community where none existed. The $1 million challenge grant had to be endowed in a youth field-of-interest fund, but the $2 million in community match could be endowed by the community foundation for any charitable purpose. Kathy Agard led the successful implementation of MCFYP, and recruited James McHale to create and lead the youth advisory component of the project.

The inclusion of Youth Advisory Committees (YACs) as a requirement for the challenge grants, and including youth as beneficiaries of the endowed youth field-of-interest fund, gave young people the ability to act as grantmakers and empowered them to solve issues faced by their communities, while educating them on the role and process of formal philanthropy. It also endowed the YACs in perpetuity, assuring the continuation of youth philanthropy programs. MCFYP succeeded in reaching its goals by the time of its formal conclusion in 2006. Every Michigan community now has access to a community foundation and 86 YACs continue to operate across the state. The project has become a model for youth grantmaking across the world. Johnson’s leadership made this rallying of funders and participants possible.

While MCFYP was implemented, it was realized that “many of the youth we really had hoped would be involved in the project hardly knew what the word philanthropy meant. They hardly knew what the word meant and consequently we could see the need to educate.” Thus began the push for the Learning to Give (LTG) initiative, which was initially called the K-12 Education in Philanthropy Project. The vision behind Learning to Give was that all youth could understand philanthropy, how it affects their community, and how they can become involved in it. This was pursued by creating lesson plans that incorporated a focus on philanthropy into topics that teachers were already required to teach, thus getting the philanthropic lessons to students without creating new requirements for already overburdened teachers. These lesson plans were created by teachers, for teachers, and are available online today as a free download.

Johnson identified this project as a personal passion during an interview with Agard for the Our State of Generosity project. Johnson worked closely with Orosz to build the advisory committee and further develop the concept. Agard had been involved as a member of the project development committee and wrote a grant request to the Kellogg Foundation which Orosz then funded. Agard served as executive director of the initiative and as CEO once it became a supporting organization to CMF. She led the development of Learning to Give from its inception through preparation for national launch. Johnson served on the board of LTG since it became independent, and offered her time and talents as co-chair.

Michigan Nonprofit Association

By the late 1980s, it became apparent that nonprofit organizations needed their own statewide association in Michigan. Similar organizations existed in Minnesota and North Carolina. CMF members funded a study with Russ Mawby as chair of the Improving Philanthropy Committee. Based on the study, the committee recommended that CMF help develop a separate organization to represent the interests of all charitable organizations in Michigan. In 1988, the Kellogg Foundation funded the convening of representatives from 10 leading nonprofit organizations in Michigan to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by the state’s nonprofit sector as a whole, and to discuss the possible benefits of mutual cooperation. Johnson and CMF provided all of the leadership for the convening and staff support to move the idea from its early brainstorming to the launch of the new Michigan Nonprofit Forum (later reorganized as the Michigan Nonprofit Association)

Less than two months later, the group met again, under the facilitation of Ellis at the Kellogg Foundation, to discuss the launch of the nonprofit association. The idea was that the Nonprofit Forum would not establish a set of bylaws or structure, but act as a network to encourage collaboration and discussion on issues impacting nonprofits statewide, with an early focus on legislation and regulation. Upon approval, the Michigan Nonprofit Forum was created and awarded a three-year start-up grant from the Kellogg Foundation (Orosz, program director), as well as support from the original members. However, the Forum’s loose structure and limited staffing hindered its effectiveness, and in 1995, it was restructured as an established membership organization that offered nonprofit services under the name Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Mawby chaired the board during this transition, and to assure the new organization’s success, dispatched his executive assistant, David Egner, to provide leadership to the new MNA.

Johnson organized the initial convening, provided the staff support, and served on the steering committee as acting chair during MNA’s creation. She served on many of the early committees and then served as a member of its board of trustees from 1990 to 2000. Johnson is proud of the essential infrastructure organization that MNA has become, and is particularly thrilled about the level of collaboration between MNA and CMF. Such collaborations have increased communication between foundations and nonprofit organizations (such as through the Grantmaker/Grantseeker Conference) and has increased their capacity to fund and conduct research and to engage in public policy work.

“I have speculated as time goes on why CMF and MNA, and frankly the whole state, collaborated so well with our members in philanthropy. I think part of it was the time in history, but I also think there was similar passions among people. We were all going in the same direction, we weren’t pulling apart, there was mutual respect for all points of view, and listening. But we all knew how to bring closure, to strike a deal, get it done and move on. There was recognition that every organization has something in it that we could benefit from and that everyone could succeed. I would also say that overlapping board service was very important.”

Michigan Community Service Commission

In 1991, the federal government passed the Community and National Service Act, which distributed federal service funds through statewide commissions. Anticipating the new legislation, Michigan launched a statewide effort to jumpstart such a commission. The Kellogg Foundation (through Orosz who was then serving as coordinator for philanthropy and volunteerism programming), provided funding for a grassroots community organizer to gather key stakeholders and develop the commission. The Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC) was created by the state government under the Gov. John Engler administration, with Michelle Engler (first lady) serving as its chair.

Johnson and CMF had played a major supporting role throughout this process. Johnson joined Orosz as a founding commissioner, appointed by the Governor, and served from 1991 to 2000. Johnson was also appointed by President Bill Clinton to the board of the new national organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and reappointed by President George W. Bush, serving for almost 10 years. Johnson believes that “it wasn’t me personally. It was the fact that Michigan had such a model program. They were interested in learning more about that, how it worked, what our issues were, how we solve them, which we did. So it went hand-in-hand and I was very proud to represent Michigan.”

Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership

Another area of interest of the CMF’s Improving Philanthropy Committee was promoting philanthropy in higher education. After several stages of research and discussion, the recommendation was made to support the creation of one or more academic centers focused on the charitable sector in colleges and universities in Michigan. The Kellogg Foundation funded a meeting, which was convened and facilitated by CMF, for the presidents of all of Michigan’s four-year education institutions, both private and public. This meeting was called to invite proposals for the creation of one or more academic centers, following the successful creation of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (now the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy). Johnson managed the logistics for the meeting, and gave a presentation on the need for research within the nonprofit sector, as well as the different forms that research could take.

Arend (Don) Lubbers, president of Grand Valley State University (GVSU), grasped the benefits of such a center and agreed to commit significant university funds to match the Kellogg Foundation’s grant 1:1. Thus in 1992, the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership was formed. In 1999, following Johnson’s retirement as president and CEO of CMF, the center was renamed as the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership as a tribute to her national philanthropic leadership. The newly named Johnson Center received a gift of CMF’s large philanthropic library, and an endowment for its maintenance.

Other Contributions

Beyond her commitments to Michigan’s infrastructure organizations, Johnson gave time and talent to a variety of local and national boards. She served on the board of trustees for the Kellogg Foundation for 32 years, including a term as chair, the first woman to hold that position. She was appointed by Gov. John Engler to the board of trustees for GVSU, serving from 1995 to 2011, including a term as board chair from 2001 to 2004. She was a member of the board of directors of the Kellogg Company, elected in 1998. Johnson served as a trustee for nonprofit organizations including the Lilly Family School for Philanthropy at Indiana University, Citizens Research Council, the Council on Foundations, the National Charities Information Bureau, the National Center on Family Philanthropy, the Foundation Center, the Presbyterian Foundation, and the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. Additionally, Johnson served on the boards of the Princeton Theological Seminary, the GVU Foundation, and the Grand Rapids Symphony. She is the founding co-chair of the board of Learning to Give, organized as a supporting organization of the Council of Michigan Foundations.

This tireless commitment to community and Michigan’s nonprofit sector did not go unrecognized. Johnson received the Distinguished Grantmaker of the Year award from the national Council on Foundations in 2000, received the lifetime achievement award from the Grand Rapids Economic Club, was inducted into GVSU’s Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate. She was named a Woman of Achievement by the Michigan Women’s Foundation, recognized as Counterpoint’s Woman of the Year, and in 2014 was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the leadership of Dorothy A. Johnson.



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

Servant Leadership in Michigan Philanthropy

“The philanthropic sector in the state of Michigan represents servant leadership in its best example.”

Human, Financial, and Knowledge Resources

“… but it wasn’t just the financial resources. It was the brainpower. It was the willingness to talk to me at ten o’clock at night about an idea. It was willing to get up at five in the morning to catch a plane to go testify in Washington for the day. It was the willingness to cancel a vacation, all of which our members did as we worked together. They also, if I had a problem, they would put me in touch with someone that they knew who could be very helpful in the thinking. They also funded the research that needed to be done in order to take a stand. And then, frankly, with their involvement, it made the collective whole stronger and we were able to get whatever it might be, accomplished.”

Philanthropy and Public Policy

“CMF approached public policy in the beginning from really self-interest. It was telling the story. It was maintaining the payout for private foundations at a reasonable level, keeping the excise tax as low as feasible. It partnered with community foundations to get the tax credit. So from a self-interest standpoint, most everyone was on the train and wanted to participate. When we got into some specific issues regarding state politics, that became a bit stickier, but CMF has never taken positions on individual ballot issues … when we were involved, CMF would, whatever the public policy issue might be, we did not take a stand on it, but we would provide information, written information. We would have people speak at a conference or workshop and we would, if appropriate, do research for that point of view, and in each case, individual members made their own decisions on those kind of subject public policy issues.”

Practical Wisdom

“Now, you have to be opportunistic, when it comes time to write the paper, take the notes. The power of the pen is terrific. You can propose ideas. Today with the Internet, follow-up is very strong. Be a person of your word and that will naturally take over. Bring consensus, and that is not always easy. Walking the middle of the road, which I have my entire career, I am moderate, politically. I have voted both sides of the aisle, but you cannot express that when you’re working with people. You just have to bring consensus on whatever the topic might be.”

“When I look at the common characteristics [of great board members] and now particularly when I talk to young people who are building a career, I’ve shared these. I think the first characteristic is to listen. A good board member listens. A good board member is a generalist, they don’t have a single point of view that they hammer, but they are a generalist and well-informed, not that we all can’t learn more about a lot of things.”

“I would also say that they will always be open to every point of view. That says to listen, but you have to be open to it too, your body language or whatever. Understanding finance is crucial. It is crucial. Being able to read a balance sheet. Now you don’t have to be an accountant, but it doesn’t hurt to understand the premises. Then you need to understand programming. Whether it’s the nonprofit organization you are part of or a grantmaking institution, you need to understand what really makes it work. I think you have to help the entity focus and then, of course, you have to attend all board meetings whenever possible. If it’s a nonprofit organization, you have to contribute and you have to be willing to ask others to support it.”

“You’ve got to give away the credit consistently, always. Sometimes it kind of pulls the strings, but you give away the credit and take pride in what has been accomplished. It will come back to be good for everyone. Secondly, something I actually learned early in my career was homework before help. Don’t just come in with a problem. I tried to do it with my board if I had a problem. I would come in with an analysis and some potential solutions. When working with staff, it was that way. Working with an individual member, I would give them that advice because we all would get frustrated once in a while, but it works.”

This profile was last updated: 03/10/2020