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Two Paths to Philanthropy: New research highlights how GR, Kalamazoo approach giving differently

BY Sunday, July 23, 2017 01:51pm

Philanthropists in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo give to improve their respective communities, but they go about it in vastly different ways.

That’s according to new research from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. The analysis reinforced the observation that philanthropists in Grand Rapids tend to invest in the city’s infrastructure and downtown development, with several buildings bearing the names of donors. However, philanthropy in Kalamazoo tends to be more anonymous with a lesser focus on downtown development and infrastructure or the naming of buildings.

But aside from those “very superficial differences,” the contrasts in how philanthropists approach giving in the two communities are “more complicated,” according to one of the researchers.

“Both communities have been very successful in using philanthropic dollars to be more attractive and vital,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, an associate professor of political science at GVSU and a member of the research team that produced a report based on the findings. “But I cannot think of two more different approaches.”

The results of the research were published in the recently released “Understanding the Philanthropic Character of Communities” report and demonstrate a new method of defining and analyzing the philanthropic traits of a community. The researchers applied the new method to the communities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, which share many attributes but nonetheless seem to exhibit some marked differences in their philanthropic character, according to the authors of the report.

“This was a personal interest of mine and I had the opportunity to explore it after receiving a (Russell G. Mawby Fellowship in Philanthropic Studies),” Miller-Adams said. “I live in Kalamazoo and teach at GVSU and noticed that philanthropy looks a little bit different in both communities.”

The new method of analyzing the philanthropic nature of a community focuses on several specific variables, including ways that donors give, the types of issues that received the most funding, expectations from peers about giving, whether or not gifts were anonymous or named, and the degree of collaboration among donors.

“This kind of research is unique because it combines publicly available data with original, qualitative interviews with philanthropic leaders to identify patterns and trends of how giving is done in a specific community,” said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Johnson Center.

Caldwell said the goal of the research is to help determine how organizations can influence giving locally.

The analysis shows significant differences in the tendencies and focus of the most prolific donors in both communities. Coordination between donors, the leadership roles played by funders, the role of religion and the types of programs that are funded varied markedly between the cities.

As part of their research, Miller-Adams’ team interviewed unidentified individuals with expertise in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo who provided comments addressing various aspects of the study.

“Among the number of givers [in Grand Rapids] I know personally, it’s seen by them as part of their Christian belief that when you have that much you give back,” said one of the sources interviewed for the research. “It is an expectation that they grew up with. What I experience is that [Grand Rapids donors] are motivated to give out of faith. Whether it’s a Catholic faith or a Protestant faith, giving is part of stewardship for people and it’s part of our responsibility as stewards. A number of nonprofits in West Michigan have an evangelical component to them. That’s true about Grand Rapids, not Kalamazoo — Kalamazoo is not an evangelical town. It does not have nearly the religious influence of Grand Rapids.”

Total giving in 2012 hit $947.2 million for Grand Rapids and $383.4 million in Kalamazoo. However, total per capita giving was very similar, with Grand Rapids at $1,565 and Kalamazoo at $1,529, according to the report.

In both communities, small groups of major donors with local roots have invested heavily to revitalize the urban core, develop a strong arts and culture infrastructure, support education and social services, and generally make their cities more appealing, the report’s authors said. According to Miller-Adams, these donors — considered among the wealthiest people in the region — play a part in setting the norms and patterns of giving.

In part, that explains why philanthropic giving is structured very differently in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Wealthy individuals in Grand Rapids tend to set up their own foundations whereas in Kalamazoo they give to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation or establish funds there, Miller-Adams said.

“The patterns of how they give and through what vehicles is pretty noticeable,” she said.

In addition, the report highlighted the close level of donor coordination in Grand Rapids through the Grand Action organization, which has successfully leveraged public money with philanthropy to fund infrastructure improvements.

“Donors in Grand Rapids have been awfully good at getting dollars from the state for these public/private partnerships. It’s quite an efficient model because there is this close level of donor coordination,” she said. “In Kalamazoo, the wealthy families know each other, but they don’t have one entity they work through. I have heard that in Kalamazoo, some people wish the donors were more coordinated and efficient.”

Regardless of these differences, the report delves into the notion that patterns of giving help establish a community’s culture of giving, and that character or culture sets the model locally for others to give. Donors will look to one another to gauge how to go about their philanthropic activities, according to the report’s authors.

Dollars and leadership have been critical to preserving the health of each community and preventing the economic and population declines that have characterized many other cities in the region, Miller-Adams said.

“The bottom line is that there are a of different ways to make your community a more attractive place,” she said.

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