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Sunday, 07 June 2015 22:00

Changing of the guard: West Michigan nonprofits experiencing new wave of leadership

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Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Community Foundation Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Community Foundation COURTESY PHOTO

The last couple of months have brought with them significant changes to the executive offices of many key players in West Michigan’s nonprofit sector.

This turnover will no doubt have an impact on the nonprofit landscape locally, but some might be left to question why the transitions are happening now.

“It does change the landscape (for local nonprofits) and, generally, it changes the landscape for the better,” Grand Rapids Community Foundation President Diana Sieger said of the changes.

Two of the more notable announcements in recent months included Kyle Caldwell being named executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Kathryn Mullins taking over as executive director of the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation.

A parade of other nonprofits have also either welcomed new executive directors or experienced changes in their administrative offices. They include the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which named Stan VanderRoest as the organization’s first CFO. The CFO position replaces a prior vice president of finance and administration title at GRCF.

“What we’re doing is structuring that position in bringing in someone who really has some very in-depth experience in the area of investments and investment management and really monitoring investment performance,” Sieger said. “We have an outside consultant that does manage our investments, but we wanted to bring more strength internally.”

Recently, the GRCF announced that it raised $33.6 million for its Challenge Scholars program, which will fund certain Grand Rapids Union High School students to go to college or a trade school. The program also offers academic, health and social service support for students starting in sixth grade.

[RELATED: GRCF raises $33.6 million for scholarship endowment]

“We realized that we just needed more dimension,” Sieger said of the hiring. “Our foundation is so complex — much more complex than just saying, ‘Let’s just raise money and give grants and call it a day.’ … I think our (Challenge Scholars) announcement demonstrates that. We have a major, major initiative and that takes a heck of a lot of financial planning.”


Being cognizant of what resources are needed to continue growing the organization is what fueled Sieger’s latest executive administrative hire, and it’s one reason she suspects is nudging along many of the other changes.

Just as for-profit corporations make certain leadership decisions to stay competitive, Sieger said that nonprofits are doing the same, citing many of the recent leadership announcements as proof.

“In my case as CEO of the Community Foundation, I needed a really strong partner for finance and administration,” Sieger said. “So, to me, (the recent leadership changes) are more indicative of an organization that knows itself and knows how it needs to grow with the right leadership.”

With perspective that comes with 27 years at the helm of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Sieger pointed to a similar shake-up a few years ago that validates her optimism.

Both the Frey Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation adopted new leaders within a period of a few months. In late 2011, Steven Wilson took over at the Frey Foundation and Julie Ridenour was brought on as the president of the Steelcase Foundation in mid-2012.

“That was a case where the two previous leaders were exceptional in every way … but, now that the Frey Foundation is growing and the Steelcase Foundation is growing, it shows that those were good changes,” Sieger said.

Caldwell, the incoming executive director for the Johnson Center, pointed to another possible factor behind the recent surge in turnover.

“If you look at the trend nationally, the Great Recession chilled a lot of careers,” he said. “A lot of seasoned CEOs and No. 2s and leaders in organizations really couldn’t retire. They had to look carefully at their own financial situations.

“That really stunted the growth path for a lot of folks. What we’re seeing now with the economy recovering, a lot of people can retire and take a look at other opportunities without having to worry about their financial situation.”


As a notable organization in both local and national nonprofit/philanthropy research, the Johnson Center’s hiring of Caldwell garnered plenty of attention from the nonprofit community.

Caldwell comes to the Johnson Center from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, where he served as the director of the Pathways Out Of Poverty grant-making team. He also previously served as president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

Caldwell said that the Johnson Center’s board was very clear on three points of emphasis for the organization moving forward. They included expanding the Johnson Center’s prominence on the national stage, growing resources (i.e. community research, philanthropic journals, etc.) and gaining more financial resources to help grow and sustain the center.

In regards to the changing of leadership around the region’s nonprofit community, Caldwell echoed Sieger’s sentiments.

“Leadership change is the opportunity for new ideas and new growth and a community that is really thriving and growing,” he said. “It’s really a good thing to see this type of leadership change.”


Monica Priest is among the new crop of executive leadership to be installed within local nonprofits. Late last month, she was named the new fund development director at Volunteer Kalamazoo, which provides volunteer services to the community.

With her experience offering nonprofit management support, Priest said that succession planning has been a major issue within nonprofits and that not all organizations take the thoughtful approach they should toward planning for the future, which can cause a disruption in services.

“I can speak to Kalamazoo, where we have a lot of nonprofits that have had an executive director for 20 or 30 years,” Priest said. “Sometimes, it’s the person that actually started it and put the time, effort and money into it. They’re really invested in it and it can sometimes be really hard to turn it over to someone else.

“It’s hard for them to see where the changes need to be in order to grow the organization and serve new people.”

For Priest and Volunteer Kalamazoo, her primary focus is growing revenue so that the organization can pursue ventures that it currently doesn’t have the capacity for.

“I’m excited to go out and spread the word about our services and how great they are and how they are needed,” she said, “(and) to talk to donors so we can increase the revenue coming in.”

Read 2564 times Last modified on Sunday, 28 June 2015 18:06
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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