Teri Behrens took over as executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University on Oct. 22. She previously served as the director of strategy and programs at the Johnson Center and worked to integrate an applied research mission with the needs of the changing nonprofit sector.
What does the new administration in Lansing mean for the state’s nonprofit sector?
We’re hearing good things about our lawmakers’ understanding and commitment to the nonprofit sector. We talked with both gubernatorial candidates, Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer, prior to the election. While it was too soon to say what kind of legislative initiatives they may advance, they did have a good understanding of the nonprofit sector. They seemed to appreciate the role of philanthropy based on our conversations.
Will philanthropy continue to play a larger role in filling needs once handled by local governments?
We have several examples in Michigan where philanthropy has stepped in, including Kalamazoo, Flint and Detroit. We know there are a lot of cities at risk with underfunded pensions and health care liabilities. There are questions from philanthropists about what roles they should play and if there will be pressure to fill those gaps. Most people on the giving side have concerns about what the role of philanthropy should be in these situations. It’s a question of how you balance that commitment to supporting a community and using those resources wisely. There are some precedents that have been set and that has led to a lot of thoughtful conversations.
Is this trend healthy?
The role that philanthropy should play in society is providing risk capital for society and being able to fund innovative approaches to social problems and being able to flexibly respond. Health care and pensions are among the areas that we have agreed are the role of employers, including government, and they should take care of it. Taking funds from other social programs when they have to be used to fund basic services is an additional drain on already financially challenging circumstances.
Do you see 2019 as being a year of consolidation in the nonprofit sector?
Ongoing discussions are certainly going to continue into the New Year about how areas such as back office functions, human resources or bookkeeping could be consolidated. These are the sort of perennial issues that I don’t see going away.
Could nonprofit mergers help to better solve some large, systemic issues?
Housing is one (with) a compelling business case to be made for the big issues everybody is facing. I think there might be some interesting developments in the lack of affordable housing. We’re hearing a lot more conversations about that and how we can get more collaborations and creativity using economic development resources to address it. I think partnering where the values and mission and theory align is something we may see ahead.
What makes for a successful nonprofit merger?
The things it takes to make a good marriage are the same things it takes to make a good collaboration or merger among nonprofits. How can we make a change in the world and making the business case for that is sort of the easy part. I think that foundations have learned that forced collaborations and mergers are unsuccessful. In addition to providing money for staff time so they can spend time in conversations about those collaborations, bringing someone in who is a seasoned professional to see what a deeper collaboration or merger might look like makes sense.
What else is on your mind for 2019?
It’s nice to see an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in the sector. Baby boomers are starting to retire and I think that’s going to make space for more diverse leaders to move in behind them. There are a number of things that are starting to converge right now. We’re going to see people this year trying to figure out the long-term impact of the tax reform act. We’re going to have data on that early next year and that’s going to be something that we’ll be looking at closely.
What other trends are you seeing in philanthropy?
Two trends that almost seem to be colliding are the emphasis on data and using good data to make decisions, both of which continue. As part of that, there’s the emphasis on trust and relationship building. I think what’s happening is that we’re starting to see a better understanding of what data are important and for who.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jane Simons.