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Chapter 1: Servant Leadership

Play Well with Others

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When individuals aren’t competing for attention or credit, amazing results can be achieved.

The credit can be spread. Appreciation for accomplishment is not a “zero-sum” game. Credit generates credit, enthusiasm, and participation. A “good deal,” “good partnership,” and “collaboration,” require that each participating partner look out for the best interest of the other — there is no intent to exploit or compete.

The culture in Michigan’s philanthropic community has been to include all those who have an interest – and to give credit to all those who have been a part of any initiative. Often times it’s difficult to tell who had the original idea for a project, or which of the many ideas for implementation came from what individual or organization. Projects evolve and grow organically without undue concern over who gets the credit.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss “playing well with others.”


A specific example of this culture is the lack of concern about copyright and the open sharing of materials. One of the great compliments felt by professionals in Michigan is to see something the person wrote for their organization “cut and pasted” into a document of one of the other partners. Because the work is supported by philanthropic dollars, the culture in Michigan is that all of the products should be shared openly. They are gifts! The lack of concern for “ownership” or pride of authorship results in a multiplier effect for philanthropic dollars. Work does not need to be repeated because it is shared.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the value of sharing in philanthropic leadership.


There are many examples of how the collegiality of the four partner organizations led to successful initiatives across the state. Initiatives such as joint funding programs, collective branding initiatives, shared committees, and discussions of program locations helped these organizations build a holistic infrastructure to support all of Michigan’s foundations, nonprofits, and volunteers.

Sharing Responsibility in Joint Funding

Over a 40-year period, which started with the founding of the Council of Michigan Foundations in 1972, the Michigan foundation community has pitched in together on numerous joint ventures. The “ownership” of the lead foundation’s interest is acknowledged, but is not allowed to become a barrier to participation. Other foundations jump in and help toward a common vision. Sometimes one foundation invests substantial funds for an initiative of particular interest to them, while the others provide lesser, or more targeted, support. The focus is on the initiative – not on who gets credit.

Examples of jointly funded programs include: The Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project, funded by challenge grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; technical assistance grants from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; and local matching grants from family, corporate, and other private foundations to help meet the challenge at the community level.

Along the way, the community foundations came together to accept a common accounting and information management system. They successfully lobbied for a special state Tax Credit for gifts to community foundations.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the Michigan Community Foundation Tax Credit.


The community foundations experimented with the first endowed funds for the environment, specifically to support the health of the Great Lakes.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the Great Lakes Community Foundation Environmental Collaborative.


They agreed on a common branding and marketing initiative, and created quality standards that assume every community foundation will grow toward excellence.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the Branding Project.


When foundations became concerned about the AIDS epidemic, they realized that none of their staff members had adequate expertise to address an obvious and critically important public health issue. In response, program officers from interested foundations got together to form the Michigan AIDS Fund.

AIDS Red RibbonGrants of various sizes were made to the fund from a variety of foundations with different levels of assets. But the Michigan AIDS Fund board operated as a group of equals and all received the credit for their leadership.

The fund changed and evolved and grew and changed, just as the epidemic changed and evolved and grew and changed, and I think that was the beauty of the collaborative effort that we put together. . . We had all kinds of participants. We had Rotary Charities which was a public charitable entity. We had private foundations. We had corporate foundations. Whirlpool was an early supporter and eventually the state of Michigan was a huge supporter. – Barbara Getz


VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the Michigan AIDS Fund.


Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Notes about the formation of the Michigan AIDS Fund from the Council of Michigan Foundation’s board meeting in 1990.

Michigan is home to four of the nation’s larger grantmaking foundations: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Kellogg and Mott have international grantmaking interests.

Michigan is also home to private family foundations, independent private foundations, organized corporate giving programs, and community foundations. Each foundation has its own grantmaking interests, but they also have joint interests that combine in different ways on different projects over time.

Looking at any list of funders for major projects in Michigan will find various combinations of investors – more often than not, it is difficult to tell which foundation first had the idea. All, however, share in the credit.

Collaborating Toward a Common Vision

Over the past 40 years, an expectation was set by the Michigan funders for the nonprofit community – that sharing the credit is rewarded. Grant requests that demonstrate collaboration between two nonprofits received a more favorable funding response than either organization might receive alone. Program officers universally asked the questions, “how are you working with (another organization)?” or “isn’t this service in competition with (another organization)?”

Concern over duplication and isolation of nonprofits and foundations into silos provided part of the motivation and energy leading to the development of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and related statewide infrastructure organizations. These statewide support institutions were encouraged to work together toward a common vision for the state.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the value of collaboration.


Use of Committees and Advisory Boards

Virtually all of the Michigan infrastructure projects began with an initial informal conversation about an idea. Key stakeholders, funders, nonprofit leaders, and government officials (when appropriate) came together to discuss the problem and to brainstorm possible solutions. A respected state leader was asked to chair the assembly and discussion. While the participation was free flowing, there was always an agenda and some preliminary thinking about a plan of action. In other words, the initial meetings had structure and some pre-thinking, but also allowed for the participants to begin to shape the next steps. There was an organic nature to the group formation – supported by research and an initial action proposal that was still open to creative thinking and change. Every participant was there for a reason. Each person’s opinions were heard and valued.

Michigan funders were “at the table” for any big statewide initiative idea. Their presence had many positive results. First, the program officers or foundation CEOs brought their individual expertise, network of contacts, and experience with related programs to the discussion of problems and potential solutions. During initial exploration of ideas, program officers did not “sit back” and judge. They were active participants in bringing their intellectual resources to the discussion of the project. Nor were they bullies. Their role was as equal participants.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the importance of being a good listener.


Second, by being engaged at the beginning, the foundation leaders could anticipate any duplication or competition among the infrastructure organizations and deftly guide the program design. Early in the process, care was given to be sure that a project had a distinctive focus and a viable purpose.

Third, the foundation leaders, at the time, were particularly skilled at diminishing the natural power imbalance that occurs between those who have the money to fund projects and those who need the money to achieve their goals. This ability to reduce the barriers between grantee and funder appears to be based in the culture of sincere respect that the foundation leaders had for the nonprofit managers who were responsible for implementing any project ideas. There was a sense of “team.” Russ Mawby, CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation at the time, often described this dimension as the partnership between the “funders” and the “doers,” each needing one another to succeed.

Fourth, the foundation leaders could both participate and observe. This duality of function provided them the opportunity for a deeper understanding of a complex statewide project – before they ever read the formal grant request. By the time the proposal was drafted, the individuals and organizations involved were no longer strangers. The foundation leader had a good understanding of the capabilities and experience of both the people involved in implementing the project and the strengths of their organization.

The final outcome from the engagement of foundation leaders as members of the design committee was to solidify the sense of being on the same “team.” Credit for ideas, credit for actions, credit for leadership, and credit for active participation was spread widely among the committee members. Group leaders publicly recognized members of the group for their contributions. Committee members’ names were listed on documents related to the projects. Everyone involved had a significant role to play in the project.

Finding the Right Home for Programs

A notable and unusual characteristic among the infrastructure support organizations in Michigan is the ability to create programs and then to “give them away” to whatever is deemed to be the appropriate home.

When nonprofit organizations — the “doers” in Russ Mawby’s phrase — asked to join the Council of Michigan Foundations, the CMF Board did not want to give up the privacy and the ability to talk as peers about grantmaking issues that they held by being CMF members. They could easily have simply said no. Instead, they listened to the voices of the nonprofits and in 1989 established a new program called “Grantmaker-Grantseeker.” This annual conference mirrored the CMF annual meeting, but brought together the nonprofit community and the foundations as equal partners in learning.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Highlights from the first Grantmaker/Grantseeker Conference in the Council of Michigan Foundation’s 1989/1990 Annual Report.

When the Michigan Nonprofit Association was formed, CMF gave the Grantmaker-Grantseeker Conference to MNA as an income source and state leadership project.

In 2000, the Learning to Give CMF board decided they would like to scale the K-12 educational project to a national level; CMF then gave the Michigan component to the Michigan Nonprofit Association, knowing that LTG would be protected and expanded in ways that met the original goals of the program. The LTG Board was then free to expend its energy on going to national scale.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss  Learning to Give.


The ConnectMichigan Alliance, a joint venture of the Michigan Community Service Commission and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, was formed to promote and fund volunteerism and service projects across the state. Over time, leaders of CMA and MNA realized that they had overlapping missions and some role confusion. The leadership of CMA and MNA worked through a merger that brought the two organizations together as one entity, retaining the missions of both.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the history and development of the ConnectMichigan Alliance.


Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Case for support of the ConnectMichigan Alliance from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

When the ConnectMichigan Alliance was being organized, Volunteer Centers of Michigan and Campus Compact already had substantial footprints in the state. Through a process of listening and conversation, the board composition of CMA was developed in a way that made it comfortable for VCM and Campus Compact to come under the organizational umbrella of CMA, while still keeping their distinctive focus and board leadership. This was a win/win because while both VCM and Campus Compact were tremendously important support organizations for volunteerism, neither had found a way to become financially self-sustaining. CMA, with its $20 million endowment, was able to provide financial stability for VCM and Campus compact, thus assuring their continued viability and first-rate service to volunteers.

Over time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and the Michigan Nonprofit Association found themselves both providing technical assistance for nonprofit organizations. Through analysis, experimentation, and based on trust, the two organizations designed a joint venture nonprofit development program that is a model for collaboration. The joint venture extends the resources of both organizations in service to the nonprofit community by sharing the expertise that each organization brings to the table, making it possible to offer more workshops and trainings across the state.

The important lesson is that organizational boundaries are somewhat fluid. When Michigan’s philanthropic leaders feel there is competition for work to be done, or when a program grows to the point that it no longer fits the original organizational framework – programs and projects are handed off or spun out to become their own freestanding entities to assure that the work continues. The relationships and commitment to the new entity is ongoing. The “family” gets bigger rather than splintering apart.

Living With and Managing Role Complexity

puzzle piecesThroughout the many projects and initiatives to support philanthropy in Michigan, the individuals involved have juggled multiple and ever changing organizational roles. One time, a person might be the staff member responsible for implementing a project. Another time, that same person might be a committee member brought in for their personal expertise, or invited as a representative of their organization. A person’s organization could be a partner with another organization, or a staff member for one organization could also be a board member of another. Sometimes an individual was the paid staff person representing their organization – other times, a volunteer working to advance a statewide vision.

As noted above, the foundation leaders were often participants in program design, and then would change roles to later fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities as a grantmaker. Yet, they would remain a partner in working with the grantee to assure program success.

Great foundation professionals successfully wear “many hats,” leveraging their power well beyond the funding provided and engaging in project leadership rather than narrowing their scope to grantmaking and evaluating. Michigan funders “roll up their sleeves.” Trustees of nonprofits and foundations actively engage in statewide philanthropy, not only the paid staff.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss wearing “multiple hats” in philanthropic leadership.


Operating in this complexity requires a mature understanding that there is a distinction between a person and the organizational role they fulfill, and that an individual might need to play multiple roles in differing circumstances.

On the personal level, the culture of Michigan developed strong bonds of professional friendship, trust, and respect among the individuals involved. They liked each other. They trusted that there was no hidden agenda. They looked out for one another’s organizations because they shared a common goal of improving and increasing philanthropy for the benefit of Michigan’s citizens. Nonprofit leaders frequently became grantmakers, and grantmakers routinely became nonprofit leaders. Everyone was “in it” together. “Community capital,” or bonds of relationships, were proactively nurtured through: deliberate overlapping of relationships; sharing common experiences; exposure to ideas; spending time together; and an unspoken expectation by the top funders and organizational leaders that this was the culture in Michigan. These relationship bonds helped to form a common statewide agenda, and to support collaborative efforts when divisive issues arose.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the value of relationships and trust.


Participants also understood that they had the responsibility to fulfill the role they were hired to play by their organization. This meant foundation staff would “switch gears” and play out their formal grantmaker role related to performing due diligence of grant proposals, monitoring the work, requiring outside evaluation of progress, auditing financial reports and systems, and similar fiduciary tasks. The grantee staff members would shift to their “grantee” roles and follow through by implementing the project, providing regular reporting, participating in evaluation, and discussing any changes with the foundation staff member. Committee members of the projects often operated as informal (and sometimes were incorporated into formal) boards of either advisors or trustees with a duty to assist and monitor the project progress. Because they had developed the project together and engaged with one another as professional friends, the people involved found that this way of operating enhanced rather than diminished the professional vigor with which participants pursued their formal roles.

Thus the culture in the state of Michigan that nurtured the development of a strong philanthropic community, supported by key infrastructure organizations, was one of inclusion, energy, and sharing the credit. Everyone was invited. Everyone created. Everyone played their part in implementation. Each person understood that they were part of a “winning team,” and the team got the credit; the team changed Michigan; and they had the privilege to fulfill their position(s) with a high energy, effective group for the achievement of large and aspirational goals.

Issues Involved with Playing Well With Others

For some professionals new to Michigan, or who became involved for the first time in Michigan’s formal philanthropy, the culture of collegiality was a challenge to navigate. The United States prides itself in being a competitive culture with a strong ethic of personal “winning.” Some professionals could never understand how to operate in the philanthropic communities’ collaborative culture.

Changing roles based on the situation requires a deep understanding of the nature of the appropriate role for that function and the self-awareness to adapt. Not everyone comes to their job with these skills, although they can be learned. People do not shed their identity in other roles. Instead, they operate on several levels and in several roles at the same time. It’s not amnesia – but adaptability.

When a program officer is sitting “at the table” with a nonprofit leader, both are aware that money is at stake. But the adaptable program officer knows that in order to make a successful grant, the nonprofit leader needs to expend extraordinary energy and activity – the nonprofit must be engaged. The nonprofit leader knows that in order for a project to be funded, the program officer’s questions and concerns need to be addressed. When they both understand that they are equally talented individuals who are engaging one another “in roles,” they can negotiate together to find the optimum program proposal that meets both partner’s needs and that addresses the social problem at hand. The goal is not for one of the parties to vanquish the other; the goal is for the community they both represent to win.

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