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Chapter 1: Servant Leadership

Listen, Trust, Empower Local Leaders

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listen and empower

Philanthropic efforts in Michigan were built on the premise that individuals closest to a problem need to be engaged as partners in seeking the solution … their opinions honored … their actions empowered and supported.

One key to the successful development of a strong philanthropic culture in Michigan has been the respect for engagement of people closest to the problem at hand. In Michigan, this respect for local leadership resulted in:

teamworkExamples of this philosophy abound. When launching an effort to solve a problem, project leaders routinely discussed who should be a part of the initial discussions. Foundation funding included both proactive grants made to meet a foundation’s strategic goals, and grants in response to interests raised by communities that fell within the foundations’ general areas of concern.

There was no preset agenda imposed on local communities. The goal was always to work as partners to achieve commonly agreed-upon objectives. As servant leaders, the approach to local communities and volunteers was to provide resources and structures to empower and financially support philanthropic activities. These activities were led by the communities themselves and focused upon meeting the communities’ own goals.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the importance of trusting local leadership.


While many examples can be given of specific projects that relied on local intelligence and initiative, in Michigan the philanthropic community went a step further. Over the past 40 years, a strategic decision was made and implemented to create, strengthen, and support the charitable sector in each local Michigan community. Still underway, this effort has three dimensions – comprehensive geographic coverage of the state, preservation of wealth, and life-long giving and serving.

In Michigan, the community infrastructure includes local United Ways (operating), community foundations (venture investing and preservation of capital), and volunteer centers (human capital). It also includes pathways to encourage and support life-long volunteering, activism, and service from the kindergarten classroom into an active retirement. The network of local philanthropy provides a system that enables large foundations and government-assisted volunteerism programs to approach major initiatives as partners to assure decisions and actions are grounded both in local wisdom and leadership.

Building Michigan’s Comprehensive Geographic Coverage of Statewide Giving

michiganThe most strategic implementation of this philosophy was the focused, intentional effort to build overlapping and complimentary statewide networks composed of local philanthropic (grantmaker and volunteer) organizations.

Michigan Association of United Ways

A statewide system of United Way agencies was already mature during the building of the Michigan programs. The United Way had also developed a locally based network of organizations across the state. One of the United Way roles, at that time, was to provide ongoing operational support for the critical charitable organizations in their area. The statewide organization, United Way of Michigan, contributed to the state philanthropic landscape through its partnerships with, and membership in, the Michigan Nonprofit Association. Their role was mainly in partnerships at the local level, and as permanent board members of the MNA board.

Community Foundations

In 1988, the Council of Michigan Foundations initiated a three-year pilot project to test the feasibility of building community foundation capacity to serve every individual in the state. This was funded by a $2,000,000 grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The success of this pilot project led to a formal program, the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project which operated from 1991 through 2006, and whose successor organization, Midwest Community Foundation Ventures continues today. This was funded by a series of additional grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation totaling another $64 million, plus grants for technical assistance from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation totaling $600,000.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Read an overview of the Kellogg Youth Project from the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: View the notes from the 1988 Council of Michigan Foundations board meeting where they discussed community foundation grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Mott.

Challenge grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, helped to create new community foundations to serve previously unserved areas, and also helped existing community foundations to grow to meet community needs. Technical assistance support, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, provided the wherewithal to offer intensive specialized organizational development to the community foundations in Michigan. Moreover, the challenge grants created 83 endowed Youth Advisory Committees – at least one for each community foundation – which empowered young people to become grantmakers.

VideoVideo:  Watch leaders discuss the development of community foundations in Michigan.


Community Volunteer Support

The Michigan Nonprofit Association developed an affiliated relationship with the Volunteer Centers of Michigan to create a statewide network of local volunteer centers.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Get an overview of services provided by the Volunteer Centers of Michigan.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: View the history, mission, purpose, programs, and services of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan.

The Volunteer Centers support the recruitment, training, and recognition of the human (volunteer) resources needed by the charitable sector. The Volunteer Centers and the programs at the Michigan Community Service Commission with AmeriCorps, VISTA, and Mentor Michigan, encourage individuals to volunteer their time, adding to the pool of human capital available in local communities.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the Volunteer Centers of Michigan.


Together, charitable organizations and philanthropically spirited individuals in every community in Michigan can apply for funding to cover operational expenses through United Way; for venture capital funding for new ideas through their community foundation; they can seek volunteer human resources through their volunteer center, as well as additional volunteer support from individuals committed to a volunteer engagement through AmeriCorps, VISTA, and the Senior Volunteer Corps; and they can obtain local data to help make informed program decisions. To create this access, state philanthropic leaders partnered with local civic leaders. Together they built, nurtured, and grew community-based institutions for the purpose of providing ongoing financial and human resources for charitable action at the local level.

Preserving Local Wealth in Michigan

wealth2The state of Michigan is known for its “boom and bust” economic cycles. Furs, fishing, and mining gave way to the logging industry. The logging industry gave way to heavy manufacturing. Manufacturing grew into a robust auto industry. With each wave of economic growth, entrepreneurs used the natural resources and human talent in Michigan and created tremendous individual wealth. Over the years, this wealth would dissipate through the natural process of family expansion, or as succeeding generations moved out of the state.

During the years of development of the Michigan philanthropic infrastructure, research from the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, led by Paul Schervish, predicted the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history would take place within the first half of the 21st century.

The long United States economic expansion post World War II, including the late 1940s until 2007, created wealth that even now is in the process of transference to heirs. Michigan philanthropic leaders were concerned about how to capture a portion of this wealth before people retired to warmer climates and took their assets out of the state. Differences in tax treatment had already started to attract Michigan wealth to the state of Florida.

VideoVideo: Watch Julie Fisher Cummings discuss family foundations.


The creation of endowed funds at community foundations was viewed as a way to capture philanthropic dollars that were generated in a community for future investment in the welfare of that community. Large, international private foundations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation recognized their interests were better served if local philanthropic resources were also committed over time to issues of common concern.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss permanent endowments.


Special efforts at the Council of Michigan Foundations were focused on encouraging families of means to establish either family foundations, donor-advised funds, or supporting organizations at their local community foundation. Technical assistance continues to be provided at each stage of the family foundation’s development – from early conversations about the idea of a foundation, to assistance in supporting donor transitions, to the next generation of the family. Another major special focus was the support of corporate philanthropy either through formal corporate giving programs or establishing a corporate foundation.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss corporate philanthropy.


A comprehensive strategy was designed and implemented to reach the professional advisors for individuals and families of wealth. Senior level accountants, investment advisors, bankers, and estate planning professionals received information regarding how to talk with their clients about their philanthropic interests.

The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy is home to the Frey Foundation Chair in Family Foundations and Philanthropy, the first endowed family foundation academic chair in the nation. Working with the Council of Michigan Foundations and other philanthropic service organizations focused on families, the Frey Chair is developing research and support capacity to assist the continued growth and effectiveness of family giving through foundations. Their work, along with public policy initiatives such as the Michigan tax credit for gifts to community foundations and ongoing studies related to the ramifications of a required pay-out from endowed foundations, all encourage and support lifelong giving in the state of Michigan.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit.


Building Future Generations’ Commitment to Lifelong Giving and Serving

Along with the vision of comprehensive geographic coverage, Michigan’s philanthropic leaders imagined the development of an organized outreach across generations. This generational strategy was designed to assure that citizens in the future would have an understanding of, and experience with, the voluntary sector – forging a life-long commitment to service and giving. Growing out of the youth empowerment/youth as assets philosophy of the 1980s, Michigan established a path for life-long service and giving.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: View a 2013 magazine article, a MNA publication, with a list of all civic engagement programs available in the state of Michigan.

The continuum in Michigan grew from Kindergarten (Learning to Give), up to the college level (Campus Compact), and further yet into the supportive structures for professionals in the nonprofit field and volunteers in the community.

In School – Grades K-12: Learning about Philanthropy

K - 12 LearningBased on experience with youth grantmakers and observing firsthand their lack of knowledge about the charitable sector, the Council of Michigan Foundations launched the “K-12 Education in Philanthropy Project” (later renamed “Learning to Give”).

Learning to Give is based in the formal K-12 school system because schools reach every child in the nation and the public nature assures transparency regarding the curriculum. Integrated into the academic content of schools, LTG is designed to teach children the knowledge of philanthropy, and there is an optional experiential component that introduces the student to “hands-on” volunteering.

Practicing classroom teachers were partnered with philanthropy scholars. The scholars, based on national research and scholarship, helped to identify the content to be taught. K-12 classroom teachers created the curriculum and classroom lessons based on their professional training and experience for age-appropriate introduction of the philanthropy learning goals.

Faculty members in several academic centers on philanthropy, including Grand Valley State University, supported by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, engaged their undergraduate and graduate students in nonprofit management to write “briefing papers” supportive of the teachers engaged in Learning to Give. The GVSU College of Education provided space and support for summer teacher institutes and reached future teachers through discussions of philanthropy education as a part of their formal teacher preparation. Still in the process of expansion globally, LTG has enough experience to warrant continued implementation to ensure all children receive philanthropy education. LTG provides a pathway to service and understanding philanthropy for children ages 5 – 18.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the mission of Learning to Give.


Experience with Service

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation invested and led a parallel program on service-learning called: Learning in Deed.” This national program helped to institutionalize the pedagogy of service-learning in Michigan and across the nation. Michigan’s philanthropic leaders championed the cause of academic service-learning very early on in its introduction to education. Efforts began informally prior to the advent of the Corporation for National and Community Service, led by the Michigan Community Service Commission. When federal funding became available, “Learn and Serve – Michigan” was established to advocate and provide support for the integration of service-learning as a teaching strategy in Michigan schools.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: View the 1991 Executive Order from Governor Engler to establish the Michigan Community Service Commission.

Experience in Grantmaking

A component of the Council of Michigan Foundation’s effort to grow community foundation services was the engagement of young people, under the age of 21, in significant grantmaking through a formal advisory committee to their local community foundation. Through the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project, local foundations were eligible to receive up to $1 million restricted for endowment in their youth field-of-interest fund to support the ongoing activities of their Youth Advisory Council – if they were able to raise $2 million from local sources, which they could endow for any charitable purpose of the foundation. Indeed, many Michigan community foundations raised the required matching funds and received the full grant, establishing sustainable councils where young people continue to gain experience in making significant grants for youth needs in their community, now and for generations to come.

YAC v 3

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the mission of the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project.


Young Adulthood

Beginning at age 18, young adults have a number of options to continue their life-long service. If they are moving directly into work, they can go to the local volunteer center and obtain ideas on volunteer placements and support for their field of giving. If they are college bound, they can look for a college or university that has a Campus Compact program. Designed to engage the university and college populations, Michigan was among the first states in the nation to develop a network of Campus Compact college members. While other opportunities existed for national and international volunteering at that time, Campus Compact integrated the concept of service deeply into Michigan colleges and universities.

College bound students who have an interest in a career in the third sector can also find academic programs (both graduate and undergraduate) in nonprofit leadership at Grand Valley State University with specific opportunities at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

Beyond College

Students not ready to move into the world of work or to college can take a year or two between high school and their next step by working as an AmeriCorps volunteer, or to international work through the Peace Corps. Students who choose this path gain experience in the nonprofit sector, serve the state, and earn money that can be used toward future college tuition.

In adulthood, volunteering and service is supported through the volunteer centers, the United Way, and community foundations. Adults can also work as VISTA volunteers. Ongoing professional development is provided. For individuals who become involved in foundations, the Council of Michigan Foundations provides ongoing educational opportunities, consultation, and support. For those who become involved with charitable work, the Michigan Nonprofit Association provides similar ongoing education, consultation, and support. The Johnson Center provides workshops and seminars for volunteers and professionals (often in conjunction with MNA) and internationally delivers specialized programs specifically designed for grantmakers (often in conjunction with CMF). As a person ages, they might then enter the Senior Volunteer Corps in retirement.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss service opportunities in Michigan.


Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Read an overview of the National Community Service Act of 1993.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Read a progress report for improving philanthropy focus projects from a 1988 Council of Michigan Foundations board book.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: View the history, mission, programs, grants, and services of the Michigan Campus Compact.

VideoVideo:  Watch leaders discuss Campus Compact.


Michigan’s Academic Center for Philanthropy is Formed

In 1992, through a challenge grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a center for the study and support of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations was created at Grand Valley State University. Utilizing this academic resource, local leaders moved quickly to implement data-based decision-making and formed an understanding of community issues grounded in consistently accurate information. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and other foundations in Grand Rapids created and now sustain the research and development institute that provides up-to-date information on social issues. Originally called The Direction Center, this data-based decision-making effort was replaced in 2000 by the Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute, now the Community Data and Research Lab.

VideoVideo: Watch leaders discuss the Johnson Center and CRI.


Issues Involved with Listening, Trusting, and Empowering Local Leaders

Overall, the philosophy and the actions focused on increasing and improving philanthropy have proved extremely successful for Michigan. In particular the synergy of establishing statewide access to strong community foundations, United Ways, and volunteer centers in every community, paired with systems supporting life-long giving and service is extraordinary.

United Way Change and Community Foundation Expansion

At times during the process of building this dynamic network of local resources, issues would arise. One tension felt, not only in Michigan but nationwide, was the potential conflict of mission and identity between local United Ways and their respective community foundation. Founded at about the same time in history, United Ways and community foundations had always historically coexisted in harmony with one another. United Ways frequently led the development of the local community foundation. Community foundations often provided funding for United Ways. United Ways had focused on supplying annual operating support through a combined community giving campaign that provided financing for a selected group of identified nonprofit organizations. Community foundations had focused on creating community endowment funds and making grants to nonprofits, often for new and innovative ideas. The recipients for community foundation grants were often a broader group of nonprofits which included emerging social activist groups and environmental groups, for example. While theoretically complementary rather than competitive, the boundaries between the two organizations’ activities were not always clear. Competition often occurred; sometimes even outright conflict.

These historical tensions were exacerbated in 2000, during the period of expansion of philanthropic resources in Michigan, when the national and most local United Ways changed their mission and funding model to become more inclusive of a broader range of organizations and to fund new initiatives and community leadership projects. There were many environmental pressures on the United Way to make this change. The result was an inevitable move into what had originally been the role of community foundations.

There was also a movement that encouraged the development of comprehensive community needs assessments and related community-wide strategies. These community reports helped define the agenda for the philanthropic and governmental activity in a community. Both United Ways and community foundations felt ownership of this agenda-setting and leadership function.

As community foundations gained popularity and actively began to fundraise to grow their endowments, and because of challenge grant and program partnership opportunities with national foundations, some United Ways felt their local community foundations were stepping into their long claimed area of annual giving.

Where there has been tension at the local level, local volunteer leaders have encouraged dialogue and collaboration. An exemplary local effort is the collaboration between the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek United Way, wherein the Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Council is operated jointly with the United Way, and is even named the Kalamazoo Youth United Way. At the state of Michigan level, the Michigan Association of United Ways has become a member of the Michigan Nonprofit Association with a permanent seat on the board. In the majority of cases, time and experience has mitigated the tensions of this era and the local United Ways and community foundations are again partnering in local support of nonprofit organizations and volunteer activities.

Every Donor and Nonprofit Served by a Community Foundation

As the Council of Michigan Foundations worked to assure that every donor and nonprofit organization in the state of Michigan had access to a community foundation vehicle, this mission was often abbreviated by those skeptical of the initiative, “Every community will have a community foundation.” While the goal was geographic coverage and access, there was never an agenda to have hundreds of individual community foundations serving every municipality in the state.

Michigan leaders received considerable criticism, particularly from very large, old, and metropolitan community foundations, that this goal was the wrong goal – and would be impossible to achieve. Leaders in Michigan listened to the substance of the argument, but ignored the prescriptive nature of the form a community foundation “must” take. The link between size and quality was never accepted. There was a deep commitment to assure quality services, regardless of the size of the foundation or the community it served.

As a result of the Michigan initiatives, every individual, donor, and nonprofit organization in Michigan now has access to a community foundation. There are a variety of organizational models working to assure this access (partnerships, regional foundations, umbrella organizations) and many creative paths to reach the goal to increase and improve philanthropy in communities.

There are also a variety of technical assistance tools and strategies that were developed in Michigan. These organizational development tools were created as a result of working deeply in partnership at the community level to solve problems to accomplish a common goal that serves the whole state.

Finally, the following efforts have assisted the national field of community foundation philanthropy:

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Read a document that provides a background for the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit from 1987.

Lifelong Support for Giving and Service

While the aspirational goal and the component organizations are in place in Michigan, there is still work to be completed in reaching every community and every citizen in the state with the structures to support giving and service. Not every school has adopted the Learning to Give curriculum. Not every school uses service-learning as a teaching methodology. Not every student is involved as a volunteer, or gives a year of service to Americorps/Vista or the Peace Corps. Not every college and university is home to Campus Compact, nor is every community yet served by a volunteer center.

Work remains to be done to continue the vision of creating a lifelong support system for giving and service, and to implement these systems statewide. This is an issue of time and resources, not of commitment to the goal.

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