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Chapter 5: Insights

Visionary Leadership

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For 40 years, from the early 1970s to the early 2010s, Michigan’s philanthropy benefited from extraordinary leadership.

To attempt to identify all of the individuals who contributed their talents would ensure that several who have made a substantial and significant impact would be overlooked.

From the volunteers in the smallest villages to multi-national corporation executives; from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the Indiana border; and from the 15-year-old YAC member to the retired former governor; Michigan has benefited from inspired leadership. Many of the leaders of Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure organizations and large projects to increase and improve philanthropy were interviewed for Our State of Generosity. However, this group is not by any means inclusive of all of the talent that was brought to bear to improve the state for the common good.

Yet, mentioned by virtually every participant in the Our State of Generosity interviews were the decades-long leadership provided by the late Russ Mawby, past president, CEO and chairman of the board of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Dorothy (Dottie) Johnson, past president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations. Together, they provided a framework of ethics and values, and informally conveyed “standard operating procedures” for the field. Respected as visionary, smart, inclusive, empowering, modest, and totally committed to increasing and improving the charitable sector, Russ and Dottie worked as a team. No one worked longer or harder. They mentored several generations of new leaders – and those new leaders could be described as any person who had an interest in building a better world and/or improving the human condition. They each held national and international positions of leadership, yet there was never any doubt that Michigan was their home and the focus of their work.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss Russ Mawby and Dottie Johnson’s leadership style.


In traveling across Michigan to establish new community foundations, comments made in almost every city, small town, and village in Michigan included at least one of the following: “Do you know Russ? He’s one of my best friends!” or “If this is a Kellogg project, we’re behind it. They are wonderful.”

In establishing the Michigan AIDS Fund, the initial organizing committee members said, “This will only work because Dottie is at CMF. We trust Dottie to handle the Fund.” If a new venture was under consideration, Dottie was the person called to serve on the committee, to advise the project, and to help raise the money.

Everyone knew that if Russ and Dottie were involved, the work would get done, the goals would be achieved, and everyone involved would feel like they had an important part in making it happen. Both Russ and Dottie controlled substantial power as a function of their employment: Russ, as CEO of one of the largest grantmaking foundations in the world; and Dottie, as the founding CEO of a dynamic and nationally-admired statewide network of grantmakers. They managed these powerful resources with skilled hands, humility, and gratitude for the opportunity to work in this arena. At least equal to, and perhaps more important than their control of resources, was the quality of their character and their personal leadership skills.

Dave Egner, Russ’ former assistant and now president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, summarized it well when he said:

Dottie and Russ both have a unique set of abilities to empower everyone around them. As a result of that, they didn’t need to be strong in the use of power in any way. People would feel valued, empowered, and included. They both have incredible integrity. There was never a moment where you thought there was anything less than a transparent discussion. I have not known a lot of people who have known Russ or have known Dottie that would say they wouldn’t run through a wall for them for that very reason.

You knew what they represented was the right thing, there was great integrity. They didn’t care who got the credit. That was the whole other thing. They gave credit to everyone. As a result of that, they were extremely effective. I don’t remember in my three years plus working for Russ of him ever actually playing a strong-handed role. He would set direction. He would sometimes lead by backing up; he would have the tension push against him and just simply turn around the other way explaining direction and lightly moving people. And Dottie, the same thing. Brilliant leaders.

Two other extraordinary foundation leaders deserve recognition in the development of Michigan’s philanthropic culture – William S. White, long-time president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, and the late Margaret (Ranny) Riecker, past president and CEO of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation in Midland. Both provided vision, wisdom, energy, and personal leadership for the development of the foundation and nonprofit field in Michigan, nationally, and internationally.

William S. White joined the efforts to provide a voice for philanthropy and to increase resources for the field very early in the Council of Michigan Foundation’s history. The C.S. Mott Foundation notably championed the development of community foundations nationally and community philanthropy internationally, and provided technical assistance support for community foundations in Michigan through CMF. Since Governor Jennifer Granholm’s administration, the C.S. Mott Foundation has supported Karen Aldridge-Eason, a Mott Foundation staff member, to serve as the director of the Office of Foundation Liaison in the Michigan Governor’s Office. The Mott Foundation has also funded important joint venture projects such as the Great Lakes Community Foundation Environmental Collaborative. Frequently in partnership with other Michigan foundation leaders and foundations, Bill White and the C.S. Mott Foundation could be counted on to invest in and advise on the projects that built Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure.

Ranny Riecker joined the steering committee for the original Conference of Michigan Foundations (the unincorporated precursor organization to the Council of Michigan Foundations) in September of 1975. She was the only person to have served twice as chair of the CMF Board and led the public policy efforts for the field over several decades. Under her leadership, CMF members made a yearly journey to Washington to meet with the entire Michigan delegation to congress in order to promote philanthropic interests and express concerns. This pioneering effort has evolved into a national “Foundations on the Hill” day that engages hundreds of foundations from around the nation to build constructive partnerships with their representatives and senators in congress. With the support of the board of trustees of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, Ranny engaged in the work of philanthropy in Midland, and in strengthening the charitable field across Michigan. Tireless in her enthusiasm for increasing and improving philanthropy, even as a private foundation member, Ranny advocated for the Tax Credit for Community Foundations and the development of community foundations across Michigan. She co-chaired the first endowment campaign and served as the first chair of the advisory council for the Johnson Center for Philanthropy. A mentor to many foundation and nonprofit volunteers and staff members, Ranny was wise in her counsel, energetic in her work, and unfailingly gracious – truly a force for good.

While the list of powerful and talented leaders drawn to the Michigan philanthropic story is not endless, the bench strength in Michigan has been deep with abilities and commitment to philanthropy, volunteering, and service. The qualities of character cannot be “taught,” but individuals who want to lead because of a passion to improve the human condition can do the internal work through reflection and commitment to their own leadership behavior.  Anchored in character with a strong base of integrity, humility, intelligence, and caring, there are many skills and behaviors honed by Michigan’s leadership in philanthropy that can be learned. For more about Michigan’s philanthropic leadership, see Chapter 1, Servant Leadership in Michigan Philanthropy.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss Michigan’s culture of servant leadership.


The focus of the work over the past 40 years has been on strengthening and expanding philanthropy itself. The process has been practical and solution-oriented with a healthy dose of courage, creativity, and innovation. Leaders in foundations, nonprofits, local communities, government, business, and the next generation worked together to solve community problems as part of large and aspirational statewide goals.

The ideas shared here have been culled from Michigan’s history. They are, by no means, the only of such ideas. Certainly others will look at Michigan’s experience – and also the experiences of other great regions and states – and will have other examples that could be added to this list.

This is one state’s attempt to share the learning and to inspire the growth of philanthropy around the world. There are additional “states of generosity” that have insights to share. Our State of Generosity offers the following summary, not as the end of Michigan’s experience – but as a beginning of sharing the privilege to encourage private citizen action for the common good.

VideoVideo: Leaders provide advice for building and maintaining a successful philanthropic culture.


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