There is a willingness to move theory into practice, and to take actions that build theory. The Michigan philanthropic leadership for the past 40 years has been both inventive and pragmatic.
There’s a problem – fix it. There’s a hurdle – jump it or remove it. There are skeptics – reach out, listen, and make them friends. There’s a failure – acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on. Never, ever, give up.
The term knowledge has a somewhat ethereal quality to it, as if divorced from reality. Even when there has been a lack of knowledge, Michigan leaders have continued to fearlessly pursue shared goals for the sector. If something hadn’t been done before, that was no excuse to not move forward.
This is not to say that the projects were launched without due diligence. The Michigan projects were based on white papers and research. They were vigorously evaluated. Michigan leaders relied on their own research and analysis, but also sought expert advice to inform their decision making. While they listened to advice from others in the field, they did not back away when individuals or groups outside of the state criticized a course of action because it had “never been done.”
“How to” publications were written and published without asking permission from anyone else. Leading thinkers and doers were brought to Michigan to present their ideas at workshops and conferences. There was no attempt to “dumb down” complex ideas and issues. When information, models, and knowledge were required, study groups were formed to investigate the current thinking. Hands-on technical assistance, training, and support were offered to members of the communities who needed help to master a new idea, skill, or technology. Michigan had created what is now called a “learning community.”
Video: Leaders discuss the value of data in philanthropic planning.
Little was definitively known about HIV/AIDS when the Michigan AIDS Fund was established. The foundations realized they, individually, did not have the requisite expertise. The interested foundations formed a collaborative group under the auspices of the Council of Michigan Foundations and began exploration of the topic. What was known? What needed to be done? Who was working on the issue? Where were there holes in the responses? Where could the Michigan funders make a difference?
Historical Document:Notes from a 1990 Council of Michigan Foundation’s board meeting where the trustees discussed the formation of the Michigan AIDS Fund.
Video: Leaders discuss the Michigan AIDS Fund.
The Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit began with a case statement – a white paper describing the tax credit. How would it work? What was the projected cost to the state? Who would be eligible? How would it affect the rest of the nonprofit field? Why would the tax credit apply only to community foundations and not to other charities?
Historical Document: 1987 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting with background notes about the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit.
Video: See leaders discuss the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit.
Learning to Give was based on two years of research. CMF simply wanted to find the best K-12 philanthropy education program in the nation and bring it to Michigan. When the research found there was no such program, the decision was then made to create a model.
Historical Document: History of Learning to Give and a project progress report from 2001.
Video: Leaders discuss the mission of Learning to Give.
In case after case, the first step following a decision to pursue an idea with merit was to gather as much knowledge as possible about the issue, idea, or program.
As a part of each project, the funding community required formal outside evaluation. The scale and complexity of the evaluations were geared to the size and nature of the grant. All projects had a summative component with measurable objectives that told what happened as a result of the project and why it happened in that way. New knowledge emerged from the formative analysis of how the project had unfolded, whether it was successful or not.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation encouraged evaluation and learning by requiring the appropriate level of analysis from their grantees and providing additional funds (over and above the cost of the project) to cover the cost of the evaluation.
The Michigan Association for Evaluation brings together evaluators, those who use evaluation, and those who fund evaluation in order to learn and improve their practice. As a part of this learning community, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the Council of Michigan Foundations, and the Michigan Association for Evaluation cosponsored a joint learning conference in 2003.
By teaming up with evaluators (rather than being judged by evaluators), the project managers and foundation program officers were able to use the results of formative evaluation to make informed adjustments during the implementation of a project. Evaluation results also assisted in revising the projects between the seed money/planning stage and the submission of funding requests for larger implementation programs.
During the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project initial grant (1988-1991), some of the community foundations decided to spend all of their grant funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation rather than place the funds in endowments. This was a surprise. But the endowment aspect for the Kellogg money was not in the award letter, and there was a sincere misunderstanding of “the rules.” In the following series of major grants (1991-2006), the rules for the challenge grant were changed to clarify that 100% of the Kellogg challenge grants were to be endowed in a youth field-of-interest within the participating community foundations. The matching funds raised by each community foundation, however, could be endowed in any fund with a charitable purpose.
Historical Document:Notes from a 1996 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting with an overview of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project.
Video: Jim McHale discusses the process of project evaluation.
As the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit was being implemented, it became clear that quasi-governmental foundations (referring to themselves as “civic” foundations – ones that were focused on assisting local government) were recasting themselves as community foundations for the purpose of using the Tax Credit. A civic foundation, for example, might have a board of trustees made up of the local elected city council that planned to hold a local fish fry in order to buy a new fire truck. This is different from a nonprofit organization that serves a specific community, is organized to manage long-term endowments, and awards grants for a variety of purposes. Some grants, for example, might be awarded to support a local soup kitchen; this is not something that is normally funded by a civic foundation.
Rather than squelch this enthusiasm, the Council of Michigan Foundations encouraged these foundations to actually become community foundations, or to merge with actual community foundations. At the same time – and for the first time – the Michigan philanthropic community defined, in clear structural and behavioral terms, what constitutes a community foundation.
Video: See leaders discuss the standardized definition of “community foundation.”
No one authorized Michigan philanthropic leaders to define community foundations. Michigan did not claim to define community foundations for other states or the nation. There was a specific problem; organizations were adding the name “community” to their title in order to qualify for the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit. In response, CMF devised a pragmatic solution for the state of Michigan by partnering with the Michigan Department of Treasury to define what constitutes a community foundation. As a result, Michigan’s definition became the basis for defining community foundations nationally. For more about the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit, see Chapter 1: Be Fearless.
Because the W.K. Kellogg Foundation challenge grant encouraged communities to start community foundations, a large learning curve resulted. Community foundations in Michigan and those observing the Michigan initiative expressed concern that the communities starting community foundations didn’t know how to run and manage a strong foundation.
Instead of putting up barriers to local philanthropy, CMF provided the new foundations with substantial hands-on technical assistance. The technical assistance provided was supported with sustained grant support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The community foundation leaders came together and began to develop standards of behavior that would guide the development of the community foundations. For more about the national standards for community foundations, see Community Foundations National Standards Board.
Historical Document: Notes from a 1988 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting where trustees discussed community foundation grants received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Video: See leaders discuss national standards for community foundations.
In the course of providing technical assistance, CMF staff wrote several books and manuals to help community foundation staff and board members do their work. A third party did not authorize these publications; CMF simply wrote and published them.
The Council of Michigan Foundations conferences offered a range of experiences that inspired, educated, and challenged participants’ thinking. Civic leader John Gardner, actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, first lady and naturalist Roslyn Carter, economists, scientists, demographers, social workers, business leaders, Pulitzer Prize winners, community activists, educators, and Nobel laureates have made the trip to Michigan to discuss their work. In speeches, on panels, in conference workshops, and in private conversations, the nonprofit and philanthropic community continues to welcome individuals to come to Michigan and share their expertise and knowledge. This does not mean they always agree. It does mean they listen and evaluate information from highly-respected thinkers who are leaders in their field.
Video: Dave Campbell discusses the value of a common exposure to ideas.
As the Michigan Nonprofit Association and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy developed, they also created conferences and seminars that provided Michigan foundations and nonprofits with access to the latest thinking on issues of interest to the charitable sector. From large venues with nationally-known speakers to small “brown bag” luncheon discussions, there is a commitment to learning that is alive and well in Michigan.
Some speeches launched new programs in the state, almost immediately. Eugene Lang from the I Have a Dream Foundation discussed his program and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County implemented the Let Education Advance Our Dreams (LEAD) program. LEAD was modeled on the I Have a Dream program, with modifications based on the lessons that were learned.
Former Gov. George Romney returned to Michigan from his service in President Richard Nixon’s Cabinet to strongly advocate for the support of individual volunteers. His enthusiasm and energy almost single-handedly resulted in the establishment of a network of volunteer centers serving communities across Michigan.
Historical Document: An overview of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan’s programs and services.
Video: Leaders discuss the leadership of Governor Romney.
Mary Fisher, AIDS activist, keynote speaker at the 1992 National Republican Convention, and daughter of Michigan philanthropist Max Fisher, personalized the AIDS epidemic through her speech at the 1993 CMF Conference. Her courage and advocacy greatly raised AIDS awareness and increased support of the Michigan AIDS Fund.
Video: Julie Fisher-Cummings discusses Mary Fisher’s speech at the National Republican Convention.
The implementation of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project involved substantial on-site technical assistance that evolved over time. Initially, this technical assistance took the form of “one track” for all of the community foundation CEOs. Then, due to a wide divergence in organizational complexity and CEO experience, multiple tracks were developed to meet all of the community foundation professional development needs. Over time, specialized sessions for program officers, financial officers, trustees, and development staff were created. As the body of knowledge and needs became more standardized, the Council of Michigan Foundations moved to creation of online technical assistance – a format utilized later by CMF’s Venture Products Initiative. These adjustments were made in close consultation with the ongoing formative evaluation that provided a system for gathering data from the field.
In Michigan, knowledge and expert testimony are sought out to inform its foundations and nonprofits. Effective work in the charitable sector requires advice from a variety of professionals with specific knowledge and expertise. Every nonprofit and foundation needs a good general practice lawyer. They need an accountant with experience in fund accounting. Unless there is unusual staff expertise, they will need computer support. As they engage in more sophisticated fundraising, they may need the assistance of planned giving, trusts and estate specialists, or tax attorneys. They need to deal with insurance for their organization, for donations, and for their staff. If they have significant assets, they will need investment counselors and bankers.
Video: Leaders discuss technical assistance in philanthropy.
As a part of a systemic and statewide strategy, CMF, the Michigan Nonprofit Association,the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, and the Michigan Community Service Commission have organized and worked with the professional associations of these various professions. The professional associations themselves are nonprofit associations; many are members of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. MNA, CMF, MCSC, and Johnson Center have access to their nonprofit and foundation clients. Together, the infrastructure organizations, the professionals, and their associations reinforce the knowledge resources needed to support a strong nonprofit and charitable sector.
Finally, knowledge in Michigan is shared through hands-on technical assistance and ongoing support. For each major initiative, there is a team available that can help each local community solve its problems. In many cases, the technical assistance is simply to provide a trained staff member who can discuss the issues and offer guidance. In other cases, very technical resources are delivered, such as legal, accounting, computer programs, or strategic planning.
In order to build local organizational strength and to assure that the technical assistance organization does not compete with local professionals, every effort is made to work through local advisors to the nonprofit or foundation. On a technical legal question, for example, the technical assistance organization might provide a lawyer with specific expertise in the area in question. That lawyer would work with the local counsel to the nonprofit or foundation, leaving in place expertise at the local level.
Technical assistance includes: telephone calls, web-based resources, on-site visits, board and staff workshops and seminars, online consultation, original publications, access to professional resources with specific technical knowledge, webinars, speeches, letters, and virtually any effort needed to support, and to work with, foundations and nonprofits to increase their efficiency and effectiveness.
Much has been written about the emergence of the knowledge economy. In many ways the philanthropic sector has always operated in this milieu. What are the needs? What do we know? What do we need to know? How will we measure success? What have we learned?
There are various kinds of knowledge resources harnessed to achieve the goals of the philanthropic sector. Knowledge has been garnered by other groups who are working in the same areas of interest. New theory is advocated by very smart people with deep, informed opinions and experiences. Knowledge can be harvested through group discussions and investigation of ideas from other fields. Knowledge is often organized into “white papers” and shared through direct experience. There is technical knowledge and training, such as how to use a new computerized accounting system; and professional knowledge, such as how to file a 990 PF. There are myriad ways to advance knowledge-based action. Michigan’s projects have benefited from operating in a knowledge ecosystem.
Do Michigan’s charitable organizations and foundations always agree? No, of course not. Do they normally listen to one another and discuss common pathways forward? Yes, they do – in almost every instance. During the 40-year period of the development of Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure, knowledge was not politicized. Few political or propaganda spins were placed on information. Discussions began with agreed upon and politically neutral facts.
When there might be differences in approach, the foundations and nonprofits were free to “opt out” of any specific initiative without any future repercussions to their involvement in the next initiative. Michigan’s social advances have always come about as a result of the creation and management of “coalitions of the willing, “based on the best thinking and experience available.