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Chapter 5: Insights

Be Vigilant

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Chapter 5-2

Embrace messiness and multiple models.

The majority of the problems faced by volunteers and charitable organizations are complicated, structural, long-term, and multifaceted.

There are politics, history, prejudices, and personality clashes – in other words, these are “messy” problems.

Additionally, there are usually many strategies and programs that can be applied to a problem or to facets of a problem. No one proven solution works in all situations. If problems were easy and the solutions obvious – the problems (poverty, healthcare, jobs) would already be solved. The best strategic plans frequently crash against the reality of a local situation. Michigan’s philanthropic community has been adept at considering problems with a “toolbox” that is filled with a variety of tools – and at creating new tools when needed.

Here are a few examples that actually happened:

Example 1: Two small communities didn’t trust one another because of decades of competition and couldn’t be asked to merge into one community foundation. It was essential to find a way for them both to “win,” and to be assured that gifts given for the benefit of their community would go to their community. The solution? A new model of a regional umbrella organization with designated sub-funds was created.

Example 2:  Local for-profit businesses were inspired by the “triple bottom-line,” but there was no legal way for them to operate.  The solution? Legislation was passed that created a new “B-Corporation” to support businesses that desired to engage in philanthropy.

Example 3Volunteer centers were unable to generate enough financial support to remain freestanding organizations. The solution? A merger was arranged that retained the volunteer center’s brand; a $20 million endowment was then created, providing support for all volunteer programs in the state.

VideoVideo: Kyle Caldwell discusses the messy nature of the philanthropic sector.


Evaluate progress and create a learning environment.

Many Michigan initiatives began as new ideas or innovations. They evolved over time based on experience.

Useful to the creation and refinement of the projects was the partnership formed with outside evaluators. The evaluators came to the work as insightful informants, rather than as enforcers or judges. As evaluation information was gathered, the members of the evaluation teams would meet with the program managers to discuss each project’s progress. Frequently, mid-course corrections were implemented based on the suggestions from members of the evaluation team. Annual evaluations were shared with the advisory committees of projects and/or the boards of the organization leading the project.

Several major formative studies of Michigan’s projects helped to guide their development. A number of these studies continue to provide insight into the long-term effects of large-scale initiatives. For example, a sampling of the youth grantmakers involved in the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project have been followed in a 20+ year longitudinal study to assess the lifelong outcomes from their youth grantmaking experience.

Double blind studies of K-6 classrooms provided a quasi-experimental assessment of student learning related to the teaching of philanthropy in the classroom. Paired with independent reviews of student work and survey research, the Learning to Give project grew and changed based on the formative work of educational evaluators. The statewide philanthropic initiatives came to the work with a commitment to learning and the flexibility to change/modify direction based on information from evaluators who were viewed as partners.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Council of Michigan Foundations, Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project (MCFYP) Final Report.

VideoVideo: Jim McHale discusses the process of project evaluation.


Honor the wishes of the donor.

If focusing on the health and development of the philanthropic sector itself is key to Michigan’s experience, the corollary of “honoring donor wishes” is equally true.

Sometimes advisors to potential donors can forget that the person wishing to establish a grantmaking foundation has many options regarding how they might use their money. The advisors all too often bring their own values and prejudices to the conversation. The Council of Michigan Foundations entered the conversation with donors by first asking how they wanted to be philanthropic. CMF listened with an open mind and remained focused on providing the information and technical assistance the donor required to decide and to implement THEIR decision – not the advisor’s.

From time to time, pressure was brought to bear on CMF to modify this policy. A family foundation was considered to be “too small” and outside commentators thought it would be “better” as a donor-advised fund, set up through a community foundation. Others suggested a community was “not sophisticated” and would not be able to manage a full service community foundation, or a corporate giving program was not “organized” in the way an observer thought it should be. There were lots of opinions about how to give away other people’s money.

CMF navigated these objections, comments, and advice by always focusing on serving the donor and the donor’s interests. If what the donor wanted to do was legal and it helped communities or individuals, then CMF was there to help them accomplish their goals through philanthropy. Outside opinions remained outside.

Commit to high-quality performance standards.

Each of the four infrastructure organizations initiated and/or advocated for new standards of practice for their area of work.

CMF was an early creator and adopter of “best practices” for family foundations, and initiated the national work on standards for community foundations. Learning to Give researched and implemented the most current theories of teaching and learning to design the requirements for each of the philanthropy-teaching units. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy worked with national peer institutions to create curricular guidelines for the teaching of philanthropy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Michigan Community Service Commission started prior to the Corporation for National and Community Service and provided a model for other states interested in creating a similar organization. While a separate professional organization, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, guided by chair John Lore from Michigan, led the development and implementation of professional standards for the fundraising field.

The underlying belief to the process of defining what is “good practice” was that individuals and organizations in this particular part of life’s endeavors want to do the right thing. By defining good practice, the infrastructure organizations were able to then design training, provide consultation, and mobilize peer pressure to create stronger foundations and nonprofit organizations. The people involved wanted to accomplish good work – in the right way.

VideoVideo: John Lore discusses the development of national standards for fundraisers.


Establish clear, inspirational, and aggressive goals; allow for local innovation in how to meet those goals.

There is a long-told parable about a test in physics that goes something like this: A professor asked his student to “determine the height of a building using only a barometer and a string.” The student came up with several alternative methods. Each answer gave the height of the building, but none were accomplished through traditional and expected methods using a physics formula. The parable illustrated that there are multiple ways to reach a correct answer; the possibilities are often limited only by one’s creativity.

Michigan’s projects have often exhibited this same quality. The goals were clear. As in the parable above, the method for reaching those goals was left to the local circumstances and ingenuity of the people involved. This strategy of providing a framework and concrete goals, then allowing for creativity in implementation, has worked well for Michigan’s philanthropy. This approach to statewide programs implies trust in local people and a willingness to accept their solutions to their problems without imposing only one solution from outside. Read the full parable.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the importance of trusting local leadership.


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