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Chapter 5: Insights

Look Toward the Future

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Chapter 5-5

Be an engineer, not a theoretician.

There is a point when a problem can be “over” planned. While Michigan’s philanthropic leaders set ambitious and difficult goals for the field and searched for existing examples outside of Michigan that could inform their planning, there was a fearlessness about just jumping in and taking action.

No other entity was asked for permission. There was a confidence that the problems that would inevitably arise could be solved. Efforts in Michigan were pragmatic, grassroots, hands-on, and required adjusting as the project was being implemented. No one was ever discouraged by someone from outside of Michigan who said a project “hasn’t been done” or “shouldn’t be done.” Such caution often made it seem even more important for Michigan’s philanthropic leaders to simply do it.

A part of the reason for this confidence to tackle complicated problems in new ways was the assurance by major foundation funders that honest errors would be considered lessons learned. Like scientists, the failed experiment, well executed, would be a success in discovering what didn’t work. Well-considered program strategies designed prior to launch could be modified when experience in the field demonstrated an unanticipated consequence or flaw. Because the program officers were partners and not judges, honest conversation about real-time implementation occurred frequently.

Michigan’s charitable sector had a very hands-on, pragmatic, “get it done” quality. Members of the Michigan family often typify the field as the mechanic, with her hat on backward, under the hood of the car, tinkering with the engine through innovation, creativity, skill, and building some of her own tools “on the fly.”

There certainly was research, strategic planning, long grant request documents, outside evaluation, regular reports, and all the appropriate steps taken toward embarking on a new venture. But, there were also plans written on napkins with circles and arrows, informal conversations in the back of a conference hall, and a great deal of peer consultation to achieve concrete results in a messy world. For more about this approach to problems, see Chapter 1, Be Fearless, Be Patient.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the value of big vision and fearless leadership.


Think across space (philanthropy across geography).

The major initiatives in Michigan were designed to build philanthropic strength deep in communities across a large and very diverse state.

From major metropolitan cities, to suburbs, to small and mid-sized towns, to vast stretches of rural woods and farms, there is a geographic awareness of serving the whole state by encouraging services at the local level. Volunteer centers are located throughout the state. Community foundations serve every resident of every county. Academic service-learning grants were given to schools across the state. Campus Compact colleges and universities are in small private colleges and major public universities in all regions. Youth advisory committees serve every county. In some states, the support associations focused on large metropolitan areas; in Michigan, the level of analysis and service was provided to the state as a whole, with assistance given even at the community level.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss the development of community foundations in Michigan.


Think across time (philanthropy across time).

Part of the overall strategy for Michigan was the awareness that philanthropy – and formal organized charitable activities, in particular – are learned behaviors.

Historically, families and religious institutions taught the values and activities of giving and serving. In the modern world, additional support is needed to continue this critical sector of U.S. democracy. The philanthropic community consciously decided to work within systems that educate the next generation in order to assure the future health of the sector. There is always the awareness of time – of building institutions and educating the next generation for the future.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss permanent endowments.



Our State of Generosity was launched to share what was learned, and to begin a conversation of how the culture of a state or region might be shaped to increase and improve philanthropy for future generations. The project brought together eye witness testimony; access to historical documents from four partner infrastructure organizations; stories of people and projects; and an attempt to synthesize 40 years of experiences, ideas, and lessons learned. Others have gained wisdom and identified strategies from similar work to strengthen this most important sector – a sector that was built upon the premise of loving humankind. We hope Our State of Generosity can be used as a launching pad for other stories, and for sharing what was learned about this work, to make the world a better place.

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