Sam Singh graduated from Michigan State University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Sam Singh graduated from Michigan State University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
In the 1960’s, Sam Singh’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from India where their families had been involved in local politics. They often discussed the issues facing their community, state, and country with Singh and his brother, and instilled the idea of “giving back to the country that provided you this opportunity” as immigrants.
Singh initially attended Michigan State University with the intention of going to law school, however in an interview with Kathy Agard, he identified two experiences that caused him to change focus and instead enter the nonprofit sector.
The first of these experiences occurred after he became involved with Into the Streets, a program started by a larger organization called the Campus Opportunity Outreach League (COOL), and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Singh’s involvement with Into the Streets brought him to Camp Miniwanca to talk about transforming service at a Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) youth leadership camp. This camp introduced him to the work of the Council of Michigan Foundations and MCFYP, and demonstrated to him how philanthropy can be institutionalized and systematic.
“I think that the nonprofit leaders that I had the opportunity to work with, one, were very collaborative in nature. I think part of that was because a lot of our institutions were influenced by great stalwarts of the state — the George Romneys of the world, the Russ Mawbys of the world, the Dottie Johnsons. Because they were involved in a lot of the development of these organizations, we all worked together as the staff. So that kind of collaborative nature was, I think, not necessarily unique to Michigan, but it was the thing that actually allowed us to do things at a much more rapid space and time than I think other places around the country.”
The second eye opening experience occurred during an alternative spring break program in which Singh joined a group of volunteers from Michigan State University and helped to rebuild homes near Homestead, Florida, following the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew. Singh remembers that while his group was helping one family to rebuild their home, the father of that family still volunteered and helped an older family down the road when he could. Singh was surprised at the man’s willingness to help others while he was still rebuilding his own home, and inquired about it. He recalls the father saying that “because he had so much still, with his health and his family being safe, that he felt he had to help others.”
This newfound interest in the nonprofit sector led Singh to become a Youth Engaged in Service (YES) ambassador with the Points of Light Foundation in 1993. According to Campus Compact, the YES program “places community-minded young people between the ages of 18–25 with statewide partner organizations for one year to provide technical assistance, training, advocacy, and program development around youth service, service learning, and youth leadership.” YES placed Singh at the Michigan Community Service Commission, where he helped to develop and implement the first Governor’s Service Awards, and assisted in implementing AmeriCorps during its first year in Michigan alongside Kyle Caldwell who was then serving as a governor’s management intern.
After finishing a yearlong commitment to the YES program at MCSC, Singh was asked to become the executive director of Volunteer Centers of Michigan, an organization housed at the Michigan Nonprofit Forum (later the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA)). In 1997, David Egner left MNA as president and CEO, and Singh, at 26 years of age, was asked to take Egner’s position.
For ten years, Singh served as president and CEO of MNA, and oversaw many significant changes to the organization. Under his leadership, the membership of MNA increased from 464 member organizations in May of 1998 to over 1,000 by 2007. Singh also helped to build the public policy advocacy capacity of Michigan’s nonprofit sector by partnering with the Council of Michigan Foundations to create the Michigan Public Policy Initiative (MPPI). MPPI was created to educate newly elected legislators on the nonprofit sector, as well as to educate nonprofits on how to become engaged effectively in public policy.
“Michigan was starting with term limits and we wanted to make sure these new term-limited legislators understood the nonprofit sector. So we created a number of programs. We called them Issues in Brief. We would do them at the Capitol, and to help not only train the new staff that was coming in to work for these legislators, but to inform legislators these are the policies that are impacting human services or the environment [or] education. We created those programs to kind of move the sector forward.”
One major change that occurred during Singh’s tenure was the creation of the ConnectMichigan Alliance (CMA), and its later merger into MNA. This movement was in response to a growing concern that Michigan’s nonprofit sector would struggle without a robust network of volunteers and an infrastructure to manage it. Many key leaders realized that such a network’s success would be greatly dependent on consistent public and private funding, which was uncertain at the time. This uncertainty was compounded by the impending conclusion of Gov. John Engler’s administration, and a campaign began to create a permanent endowment to support and promote volunteerism. Gov. Engler championed the creation of a $10 million, 1-for-1 challenge grant. After the successful completion of the challenge grant, it was decided that a separate infrastructure organization should exist with a focus on volunteerism.
CMA formed in 2001 with John Lore at its helm and $20 million of endowed public and private funds. CMA housed many initiatives focused on supporting volunteerism, including Volunteer Centers of Michigan, Michigan Campus Compact, and America’s Promise, which were previously supported by MNA. Kyle Caldwell succeeded Lore as executive director of CMA in 2004.
As both MNA and CMA grew and developed, it became clear that the organizations were filling similar roles in the sector. This sparked a discussion of a possible merger of the two organizations, which was supported by both Caldwell and Singh. When the merger took place in 2007, both leaders backed giving MNA’s board the ability to choose the new president and CEO of the newly strengthened MNA. At this point, Singh was approaching his tenth year of leadership at MNA and expressed a willingness to step away from the organization. Thus, Caldwell was asked by MNA’s board to fill the role.
This departure from MNA allowed Singh to pursue a lifelong dream of traveling the world and he visited all seven continents and over 45 countries during a 16-month period. Singh used this trip not only to expand his cultural horizons, but also to become involved with nonprofits across the globe to see how they operated differently than those in Michigan, and to gain a greater understanding of the issues the international community faces.
“I think there’s a lot to learn but at the same time in the end every country is different. Every community across this world is different. You really have to tailor-make whatever best practice that you’ve seen in America or some other country to your community. When I worked with international nonprofits, I was very careful not to come in and say, ‘This is what we did in Michigan or this is what we did in the United States,’ because I do think every place is so unique. I do think there are some best practices, especially in these partnerships between NGOs and government and how those can really help move things forward. I think we should be able to take that opportunity to learn and to share, but then each group and each community has to really make it their own.”
After returning to Michigan during the summer of 2009, Singh joined New Economy Initiative, led by Dave Egner, as a senior consultant. In this position, Singh used his public policy experience to help create a policy framework and to build collaboration between the government and the nonprofit sector for Detroit’s revitalization.
Outside of a career in the nonprofit sector, Singh has held a variety of positions in state government. In 1995, he was elected to the East Lansing City Council at the age of 24, and served until 2005 when he was elected mayor of East Lansing. In 2012, Singh was elected as a representative in the Michigan House of Representatives for the Lansing area (District 69). This mixture of nonprofit and government experience puts Singh in an extraordinary position to facilitate collaboration between the sectors, and gives him an exceptional perspective from which to assess the history of Michigan’s nonprofit sector.
Sam Singh 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 specifically relate to the five organizing themes of the OSoG project.
Philanthropy and Public Policy
“One of the things as I started with the Michigan Nonprofit Association, we always had a strong public policy committee and we did strong public policy work but we knew for us to be stronger that we needed to have our members actively involved in public policy. Then as we began to talk to our local members and their boards, there was oftentimes a reluctance to get involved in lobbying on an issue or a change in the tax code or for a program that they would want funded and so forth. We struggled with that because oftentimes there was misinformation by board members or they would have an attorney or a lawyer that’s not maybe an expert in nonprofit law but they’d say, “Oh, you probably shouldn’t get involved in this type of activity.” You know the IRS Code is very clear. Nonprofit organizations can advocate and lobby. What they can’t do is electioneer. They can’t choose Republicans or Democrats or support candidates, but they can do everything else as it deals with policies at the Capitol, and so we’ve created a program called the Michigan Public Policy Initiative, MPPI. It was a joint effort between the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Michigan Nonprofit Association to educate nonprofits across the state about what their role was in public policy and advocacy.”
“One of the things that I wanted to do as a legislator as I work with these groups is really help them think through the entire process. Because I was on the nonprofit side, and now on the legislative side I could say, “Hey, you should really now think about the next steps after you meet with me. Okay, how do we work through the different committees? How should you be looking at that?” So I’m trying to take some of my nonprofit experience and now my legislative experience to kind of help people through that process, my fellow nonprofit groups that are coming to us. It’s been fun. It’s been, at times, challenging because you know why they’re here and what they need to do and if we could find that extra money, the great work that they can do, but we’re still in some challenging budget times.”
“I think, those organizations that actually do the research, that come in with data, they say, “Okay, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing.” If they’re coming in for appropriations, you know, the question is about leverage. What are you doing that is pulling down the state resources and then what does that mean to real life? What does this mean to your clients? What does this mean to the people in your community? Can you quantify that? Can you quantify why we’re using state or sometimes federal resources that are coming through the state for your types of projects? The groups that I have been most impressed with are the ones that come in and they show that they can leverage state and federal resources five times over, 10 times over because of the work that they’re doing with their regular philanthropy and their regular volunteers. It’s that type of partnership.”
Campus Compact. (n.d.). Youth engaged in service (YES) ambassador program.https://compact.org/resource-posts/youth-engaged-in-service-yes-ambassador-program/