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Chapter 3: Philanthropy & Public Policy

Tackling Tough Issues

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Often issues in the public policy work of the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Michigan Nonprofit Association – supported by efforts from the Michigan Community Service Commission and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy – are difficult to tackle.

Emerging social and cultural issues; complex, large system issues where there is little agreement on an appropriate course of action; even criticism of the field of philanthropy itself are just a few of the complex matters that are often folded into public policy. In spite of potential pitfalls, Michigan has been successful in implementing its public policy agenda.

Despite the myriad of possibilities for failure, ongoing success occurred because Michigan’s nonprofit leaders:

  1. Fearlessly engaged the problem or issue, with confidence that there would be a successful outcome. Read more about how fearlessness played a role in the development of Michigan’s infrastructure in Chapter 1: Be Fearless, Be Patient;
  2. Committed to sound, responsible research and background knowledge about the problem. Read more about how research affected the building of Michigan’s infrastructure in Chapter 2: Applied Knowledge – Willing to Learn;
  3. Prepared to listen, question, and debate;
  4. Prepared to act and quickly adjust tactics based on results of the actions;
  5. Sought out results from formative evaluation to guide mid-course corrections, as well as from summative evaluation to affect ongoing grantmaking; and
  6. Enthusiastically launched new partnerships, collaborations, organizations, and initiatives rather than attempting to build an ever-increasing and diverse portfolio under the banner of any single organization.

Criticism of the Field

In 1969, the United States Congress passed legislation that restricted the activities of private foundations and regulated against documented abuses by foundations. The investigative work of the Filer Commission provided evidence supporting the regulator actions that were taken at the time.

The Filer Commission, formally known as the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, “was formed to study the role of philanthropic giving in the United States and to make recommendations regarding ways to strengthen and increase the effectiveness of the voluntary sector.”

The Council of Michigan Foundations was a small, informal group of foundations (not yet named CMF) when the Tax Reform Act of 1969 was passed.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the original gatherings that led to the formation of the Council of Michigan Foundations.


The response from its members was to formalize their work, increase their professional staff, and create a legislative agenda to roll back the most egregious of the regulations that would harm the field in the long run. But CMF’s members also engaged in self-reflection. There was truth to the abuses pointed out in the Filer Commission. Rather than a wholesale reaction to all of the new regulations, CMF and its members embraced the legitimate criticism and went to work to reform and improve the field itself. In some cases, this involved a regulatory change; in others, it required a change in legislation.

Starting with regular education – workshops, seminars, printed materials, consultation – CMF’s history has been to methodically and relentlessly embrace good practice. In recent years, this ongoing movement has resulted in codes of ethics for foundations and standards for community foundation operations.

Michigan foundations did not react to the Tax Reform Act of 1969 with fear or defensiveness – instead they considered the report. What was true, they set out to fix. In regard to tax act provisions that would harm the field in the long run (such as a payout requirement so high that it would erode the corpus of endowment over time), they worked with government to roll them back. CMF members simply “rolled up their sleeves” and went to work.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the relationship between CMF and Public Policy.


Emerging Issues

AIDSIn the early 1980s, a strange and rare cancer-like disease was suddenly killing many young people – mainly on the West Coast, but also across the nation. Soon, it became apparent that this opportunistic disease was becoming more prevalent, only because a much more serious and completely new disease – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) – had utterly ravaged the immune systems of its victims. There was an immediate need to provide care and support to those afflicted, and an urgent need to understand the disease and stop its spread. A complicating factor was the overwhelming relationship of this new epidemic with homosexual behavior. Since people who were gay were largely treated as social pariahs in many quarters at that time, neither the private sector nor government responded as vigorously as they normally would to a pandemic. It was left to the nonprofit sector – which itself was divided socially and politically as to the appropriate response – to find solutions to the killer epidemic.

When the Council of Michigan Foundation’s members called the home office to say they wanted to do something, they knew they did not have the expertise to understand AIDS. Their funding criteria usually did not include anything related to this emerging health crisis. They did not want to be alone in providing funding – but, more importantly, they didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

CMF stepped up and created the Michigan AIDS Fund as a jointly funded project for member foundations that wanted to contribute to the cause. A fearless approach was taken into the politically controversial topic – and into an unknown area of funding. Whatever research was available was brought into the discussion about “what can we do?” In the end, a model joint funding collaborative was formed. Eventually, the fund was spun off as the Michigan AIDS Coalition. At the time, NO ONE knew exactly what to do – but CMF, and its members stepped up and innovated as they gained knowledge and experience.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Notes from a 1990 Council of Michigan Foundations’ board meeting that discuss the formation of the Michigan AIDS Fund.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the Michigan AIDS Fund.


Complex Issues

knotPoverty; illness; homelessness; substance dependency; unemployment; water and air quality; land conservation and reforestation; social issues arising from differences in gender, race, ability, ethnicity, religion, and class; universal free public education for 100 percent of four to 18 year-olds; and access to higher education for young adults and lifelong-learners – these are just a few of the complex and interrelated issues that are the focus of nonprofit service, foundation funding, and nonprofit sector advocacy.

There are many differing and often conflicting ideas about how to solve or mitigate these complex problems. For the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, it might have seemed like an insurmountable task to strengthen the nonprofit field so these issues could be solved.

To accomplish their goals of increasing and improving philanthropy, CMF and MNA have created a space for education and expansion of knowledge about the issues. By inviting leading experts on an issue to speak at conferences and educational sessions, CMF and MNA continue to offer their members enhanced knowledge and understanding of the problems that are being addressed.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the value of education in philanthropic work.


Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Program from the 1990 Council of Michigan Foundations’ annual conference where leaders discussed the use of data on complex issues to improve philanthropy.

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: Program from the 1999 Michigan Nonprofit Association’s annual conference where leaders discussed the use of data on complex issues to improve philanthropy.

Instead of taking a public policy position on a social issue, CMF and MNA provide training for their members to help them effectively educate and work with their legislators toward public policy change. This neutrality allows two organizations, both members of MNA or CMF, to totally disagree about the nature of a complex social issue or the strategies toward solving large, tangled problems – and yet, through MNA and CMF, each are given the tools and educational resources to become strong public advocates for their respective opposing positions. Their mutual connection gives them a chance for dialogue and discussion about how they might work together to approach the complex problem. All of this support for their members affords an opportunity for the creation of better public policy for the state of Michigan.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the importance of open dialogue and non-partisan politics in the philanthropic sector.


The philanthropic infrastructure organizations in Michigan, and their members, have responded proactively to criticism of foundations and nonprofits; engaged in controversial, but important, issues to provide needed assistance; and helped their members in addressing complex social issues, even when some members might not agree with their course of action.

At the core of the education, sharing of knowledge, advocacy on behalf of the sector, and training on how to work with public policy makers, CMF and MNA have engaged in shaping public policy in Michigan and the nation.

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