A project of the Council of Michigan Foundations
The Branding Project, later known as the Venture Products Fund, began in 1995 when community foundation members of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) saw the need to establish a common identity. Even nationally, there was concern over the relative lack of awareness about what community foundations were and what they could deliver. In the years leading up to the Branding Project, the growth of charitable giving services at national firms such as Fidelity Investments became a major competitor for the donor-advised funds of the community foundations. The foundations realized that the field of philanthropy was rapidly changing, and that local fundraising needed to become a crucial part of their work — but first, they had to effectively promote and communicate their value to prospective donors.
A second motivating factor was the passage of the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit in 1988, which offered donors the opportunity to give tax advantaged endowment gifts to a local community foundation. With the advent of this new tax policy, it became important to specifically identify which organizations qualified for tax deductible gifts. The need for a common brand for these foundations was therefore created.
CMF, steward of the Branding Project, facilitated discussions among the Michigan community foundations about the state-wide donor awareness campaign. Seven large community foundations that served on CMF’s Community Foundation Committee — Kalamazoo, Southeast Michigan, Flint, Battle Creek, Fremont, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon — took the lead on the project, and met with representatives from the Academy of Educational Development, now known as FHI 360, to put together a creative brief that outlined what they wanted to accomplish and who their target audience would be. The brief was used to outline key goals and outcomes for future work with advertising agencies and to educate community foundation board members and staff.
In the late 1990s, a search began for an advertising agency that would truly understand the work of community foundations and their value. After several failed attempts at working with national marketing consultants, CMF’s Community Foundation Committee turned to a regional advertising agency based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Williams Marketing Services (now known as Williams Group). Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and chair of the committee (from 1997 to 2000), led the project from Grand Rapids and built a strong relationship with Williams Group that still exists today.
Around the same time, the Branding Project was renamed the Venture Products Fund (VPF). From 1999 to 2001, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted funding to CMF for VPF. CMF made a three-year commitment to fund the various activities of VPF, collect and assess research, and develop tools to build relationships with existing and prospective donors and professional advisors. In 2000, VPF became the primary project of the newly named Michigan Community Foundations’ Ventures (MCFV). MCVF was the successor initiative that repositioned the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) after its challenge grant activities were completed. MCFYP, called MCFV during this period, is a supporting organization of CMF. When Ohio and Illinois joined in MCFV’s efforts in 2006, it was renamed Midwest Community Foundations’ Ventures. In 2008, Indiana’s regional association of grantmakers also joined MCFV.
Bob Tobin, principal of Williams Marketing Services, had a strong vision for Michigan community foundations and their “brand” identity, and he worked with the various community foundations to consider strategic changes that would ultimately serve their common interests. He encouraged the eight community foundations that did not have the word “community” in their names, to consider adding it. Additionally, WMS developed the tagline, “For Good. For Ever.” This tagline emphasized the enduring role of community foundations in serving their communities. Though there was some initial resistance to changing foundation names and logos that had been established for 50+ years, most community foundations recognized the power of visibility and brand recognition by sharing a unified brand, and so the joint marketing efforts began.
For the first phase of the project, VPF toolkits were provided to every community foundation in Michigan at CMF’s 1999 annual conference. The toolkits included a graphic of the tagline (i.e., For Good. For Ever.), a video on branding and marketing, and a PowerPoint presentation that was easily customized to the individual foundations titled, “What is a Community Foundation?” In February 2000, CMF shipped the video on branding and the PowerPoint presentation (with a licensing agreement) to each Regional Association of Grantmakers, the Council on Foundations’ Community Foundation Leadership team, and any interested community foundation ($50 per set) outside of Michigan.
The second phase focused on effective outreach to professional advisors such as lawyers, estate planners, financial advisors, and insurance agents, as a way to connect to prospective donors. Beginning in fall 2000, VPF launched a promotional campaign targeting these professional advisors. The campaign included state-wide advertisements, the development of a common website for Michigan community foundations (www.forgoodforever.org), and local activities to build relationships with professional advisors in each community foundation’s region. To promote accountability, community foundations were eligible to participate in the program if they met organizational standards developed by the Community Foundations Committee and enforced by MCFV. A “Building Foundations” training and capacity development program was also implemented to train community foundation staff for this new campaign.
In 2001 and 2002, the work of VPF continued as part of the Community Foundation Research and Development Incubator, overseen by a national advisory committee that included Michigan community foundations. Even after it became a national project, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and Michigan community foundations continued to fund its efforts. By 2004, the tagline for community foundations received a federal trademark, and was even in use internationally.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the history of the Venture Products Fund: