It is certainly fair to say that West Michigan has had its share of generous philanthropists.
Names like DeVos, Van Andel, Meijer and Cook adorn buildings all over the region, as well as the donor lists of many local cultural organizations.
But those recognizable names make up just a small portion of what is considered philanthropy, said Dr. James Edwards, executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
In a January blog post entitled “Philanthropy 2013: Hopes for the Sector,” Edwards laid out his resolutions for the year. He sat down with MiBiz to give an overall pulse check on philanthropy in West Michigan.
What is the overall state of philanthropy in West Michigan? What is the role played by the Johnson Center as well as other organizations or individuals?
I think the state is very good. We are consistently one of the most generous communities in terms of our time and talent. We recently did a West Michigan Charitable Giving report that kind of verified that. That’s something we’re planning to do on an annual basis. I know some others nationally are looking at those reports, and West Michigan does really well, overall. So that’s the good news.
And the bad news?
The challenge is that we get a lot of budget constraints. Nonprofits are really struggling for a couple of reasons. One is because they’re being asked to do more. They’re being asked to serve more people. They’re being asked to serve more efficiently. They’re being asked to use more data. And at the same, you have leadership succession happening. There are a lot of challenges for the sector, but there’s a lot of really nice and innovative things happening in the sector as well.
What do you see as some of those innovations?
There’s a lot of energy around Collective Impact Initiatives, place-based strategies where communities are coming together and looking at where the most need is and kind of wrapping a whole community of resources around those areas. Larger collective impact initiatives are also exciting. Kent County is engaging right now in that process. Another trend right now is impact investing. We are still learning more about that and what that looks like from the perspective of a foundation, and also what that looks like from the perspective of a social enterprise.
Can you explain the concept of impact investing?
There’s a lot of different versions but basically from the side of a foundation, it’s using funds in a way that can give them a better return on their investments, but also do good. So you invest in a portfolio that is going to be mixed. Some are going to be for-profits, some are nonprofits. The idea is that you’re using your capital to help this entity grow because you believe in their mission. It’s also called mission-driven investing. The expectation is that you’re getting a return. Now that return doesn’t have to be 8 percent or 10 percent. It could 1 percent. But you’re expecting that you will have some return on this from your portfolio.
How do you define philanthropy?
The big definition of philanthropy that we use is “private action for public good.” So by definition, it is going to be uneven because it is private action, and people will act in accordance to their means and capabilities, so it doesn’t always appear uniform and it can be transparent.
Where do you see philanthropy at work in the community at the present?
If you look around West Michigan, you see a $40 million business school [GVSU’s Seidman School of Business] that is driven by philanthropy. You see initiatives to reopen the rapids [in the Grand River]. That is spurred by philanthropy and government together. There are a lot of things that we don’t label as philanthropy. So the first part is understanding what is philanthropy and how it is impacting our community.
How does the Johnson Center play a role in that community?
For organizations like us, what we try and do is improve the sector. That’s really our goal. By improving the sector, we improve communities. We try to bring in the latest trainings, the latest knowledge. We try to work with people side by side to improve their work. We try to have honest dialogue with people whose work may not be up to par. We try to work with foundations on their strategies.
One thing I talked about in the blog is reputation and to try and always be above the fray and giving out good grants. And sometimes making bad grants is a good thing. You learn a lot. So making grants that aren’t successful and then telling people about it so that everyone else can learn from those lessons is an important part of it, too.
In that same blog post one of your resolutions is that philanthropy needs to be better at “not pretending that we always know what we’re doing.” Can you explain that?
We have theories of change and philanthropy is really good at seeking out scholars and experts in the field and getting experts’ opinions. We are good at pulling up research. But a lot of that is tied to place, tied to people. So when you adopt those philosophies for your foundation, there is some experimentation going on. We don’t know that it’s going to work 100 percent. So it’s important to be open to that.
Nothing is ever certain, right?
We have a theory of change, we think this will work, it’s worked in other places, we have evidence that this will work, but we are not 100 percent. We think it’s a reasonable idea and we should try it here. I think that’s the approach we should take as opposed to saying, ‘This is absolute and this is 100 percent’ because as wonderful as our philanthropy community is in this area, we still have a lot of disproportionate data, a lot of disproportionate indicators to show that poverty is increasing, that people are struggling even more. Now, it’s not philanthropy’s fault. Philanthropy is one piece of it. But it does mean that we need to be open to look at what we are doing.
In this community, obviously we have a lot of big name philanthropic donors. Some have said that makes this area unique in terms of its philanthropy. How do you view this region? How is Grand Rapids compared to the east side of the state, or even on a national level?
We are a concentrated area of wealth, which makes us unique, (although) there are other places that have a similar look. I think the commitment to the community that our large foundations and donors have had is a unique piece. That commitment is what has made this area what it is. … Overall, we’ve been able to move things through, where I know on the east side of the state there has been troubles and it’s nice to see it coming together now.
How does that translate into future stability within the sector?
Going forward, I do think that is going to be a challenge. Our Frey Chair for Family Philanthropy, Dr. Michael Moody, is going to release a report on next-generation donors. In that report, there will be some highlights about things we should be paying attention to as second- and third-generation family members begin to take control of foundations and the giving. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the next generation does have a different perspective of philanthropy.
Some might contend that philanthropy is just wealthy people wanting to put their names on buildings. How do you respond to that contention?
We don’t always recognize and label philanthropy. We do see the buildings, and it’s easy to call attention to the names on the buildings or the plaques that are there, but we don’t see the person that is volunteering every day at the Senior Citizen’s Club or at a Boy’s and Girl’s Club or the volunteers that are calling United Way. That’s all philanthropy as well, and those things are integral to our community. Those things are really the foundation of the community. It’s the individual giving their $5, their $10. Most philanthropy is individual giving. Those are the pieces I would focus on. The names on the building are nice. It’s wonderful that people have the ability to do that, we should celebrate it. But we should also celebrate all of philanthropy.