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Leader Profile:

Michelle Engler

Michelle (DeMunbrun) Engler was the founding chair of the board of the first Michigan Community Service Commission. As Michigan's First Lady, Engler (an accomplished attorney) raised awareness of giving and service while maintaining the Commission as a nonpartisan institution focused on improving the lives of citizens. Engler harnessed former Gov. George Romney’s passion for service and launched creative efforts, not only to increase volunteering, but also to assure funding support for community-level volunteering would continue well into the future. A tireless worker, Engler was far more than a figurehead for the Commission and worked to implement ideas and influenced national boards and commissions related to philanthropy and volunteering. In partnership with Gov. Engler and philanthropic leaders, the permanent structures supporting giving and service in Michigan were changed, across the state, forever.

Leadership Highlights

First Lady Michelle Engler talks about how the Michigan Community Service Commission is not a political organization.
Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about their vision behind creating the Michigan Community Service Commission.
Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about the development of the ConnectMichigan Alliance.
Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about how Michigan has benefitted from the efforts of selfless leaders.
First Lady Michelle Engler talks about Michigan's long history of volunteerism and philanthropy.
Governor John and First Lady Michelle Engler talk about their careers in philanthropy.


Michelle (DeMunbrun) Engler graduated with a Bachelor’s in government from the University of Texas, and a law degree from the University of Texas Law School.

Philanthropic Biography

Prior to marrying Gov. John Engler in 1990, Michelle Engler was a partner in a Texas law firm. After moving to Michigan and becoming First Lady in 1991, Engler served as Of Counsel for a law firm in Grand Rapids and became a member of the Michigan Bar Association. During one of her first official meetings in office, Engler met with former Michigan Gov. George Romney. Inspired and encouraged by Romney’s vision for community and history of service, Engler became dedicated to advancing Michigan volunteerism and philanthropy.

In 1994, that commitment to service took a different path following the birth of triplet daughters. Engler has helped her daughters and countless others recognize the value and importance of community service. By continuing to serve as a role model, Engler demonstrated what it means to be a servant of society.

In 1997, Engler was appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve on the board of America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, and help at-risk youth to live fulfilling lives. In 2000, Engler was appointed to the National Commission on Service-Learning, chaired by Senator John Glenn. During this time on the Commission, Engler promoted service-learning education in the K-12 curriculum.

In addition to these leadership roles, Engler was recognized for service and awarded the Karmanos Cancer Institute Award for Leadership for continuous advocacy of breast cancer awareness through the Michigan Department of Community Health. Engler worked tirelessly with the private sector and the Michigan Department of Agriculture to promote the Michigan Harvest Gathering – an effort to support the Michigan Food Bank Council.

Contributions to the Field

Engler’s commitment to Michigan volunteerism first revealed itself through the establishment of the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC). Early in service as First Lady, Engler approached her husband, Gov. Engler, with an idea to strengthen the volunteer sector through the creation of a citizen commission. Through an executive order, MCSC was established in 1991; with Engler serving as the founding chair for the next nine years. Engler envisioned that MCSC would build public/private partnerships to help volunteering thrive through many supports, including local centers. During this time Engler helped develop Michigan’s first AmeriCorps and Learn & Serve programs. Engler worked with the Michigan legislature to develop the nation’s first volunteer center endowment program (Volunteer Investment Grants) that leveraged millions in private and public sector funds to build local endowments for volunteer support efforts.

Engler knew the importance of creating these initiatives and public/private partnerships, but also stressed that government wasn’t always the most effective solution to community problems. She helped MCSC become a truly nonpartisan organization that involved community citizens (rather than government alone) to address our society’s most vexing issues.

Engler’s vision for MCSC has endured; the state of Michigan maintains more than 2.2 million annual volunteers.  MCSC has empowered citizens to reach out in service to their communities and has served as a model for other states to engage citizens in volunteerism. MCSC continues to be a significant player on the national scene, due in no small part to Engler’s leadership on the boards of national organizations including America’s Promise Alliance and the Points of Light Foundation.

“… [Volunteers] were already doing so many great things in their communities. Each community could decide what they needed in that community. We could provide the sort of support, whether it was from the public sector or leadership development or some other kind of support, for these volunteer networks that were already out there in Michigan and very strong and vibrant…”

Nearing the conclusion of Gov. Engler’s third term, First Lady Engler and members of the MCSC board proposed the creation of a state-funded $10 million challenge grant, which would be matched 1:1 through public and private donations. The governor accepted their proposal and worked with state legislature to obtain the needed funds. As a result, a permanent endowment totaling $20 million was created to ensure funding, in perpetuity, for service and volunteerism in Michigan. The campaign ultimately resulted in the establishment of the ConnectMichigan Alliance (CMA) in 2001.

Engler served on CMA’s inaugural board of directors; in 2007, CMA merged with the Michigan Nonprofit Association and its purpose and endowment proceeds are managed under MNA’s adept stewardship. MNA is a partner of Our State of Generosity, and is a leading resource for volunteerism and service education in Michigan.


Michelle Engler was interviewed regarding insights and experiences 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

[On philanthropic leaders while in office] “I think it was kind of a perfect storm of leadership in the state at that time with the Russ Mawbys and the Dottie Johnsons, and Joel Orosz and Rob Collier, Sam Singh, young people as well…. They provided so much leadership there and were so willing to be selfless about creating a structure, if you will, that would bring together all these folks and not have to take credit for one foundation, or one group or another. They all wanted to work together to promote volunteerism and philanthropy in the state of Michigan. It was a wonderful time to work with some, really, icons in the field of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan.”

Human, Financial, and Knowledge Resources

[On the creation of MCSC] “It was a way of really creating some public/private partnerships at a time when government was struggling with the budget. But also, even had it not been, government is not always the best and most effective answer. It often is people on the ground, just pitching in to help.”

National & Global Implications

“…as a newcomer to Michigan, I was very struck by the long history of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan. I think that’s almost unique to certainly the United States, but even in Michigan – it’s at a greater level, I think, than in other states… We started with a very strong base of volunteerism and philanthropy in Michigan and just tried to build on that history and make better organizations…”

Practical Wisdom

[On guiding her daughters to be community servants] “We have talked often about to whom much is given, much is expected… They understand their requirements. They understand what it takes to be a good citizen of this country and of this world, really… and that is giving back in whatever way you can.”


Michigan.gov. (2020). First Lady Michelle Engler biography: Michigan’s former governors. https://www.michigan.gov/formergovernors/0,4584,7-212-96477_31303-2274–,00.html

This profile was last updated: 02/20/2020