Michael Layton looks forward to the day when he can walk around downtown Grand Rapids or join colleagues for a coffee or beer in person. Originally from Philadelphia, Layton is Grand Valley State University’s new W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair, the nation’s first endowed chair focused on community philanthropy. He joined GVSU’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy in early September, but his relocation is on hold because of the pandemic. Layton founded and directed the Philanthropy and Civil Society Project at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City, where he developed a groundbreaking research and advocacy program to understand and strengthen philanthropy and civil society.
What interested you in the job at GVSU?
When I came back to the U.S., it was somewhat disheartening for me the extent to which many academics are really divorced from their fields of engagement and tend to publish and talk to each other and not to the greater public. One of the really refreshing things about the Johnson Center in general, and this position in particular, is the extent to which it sees itself as an important actor in terms of advancing philanthropy.
What are some of your key priorities for 2021 and beyond?
The last year has shaken up so many institutions and organizations. Like many people, I am trying to sift through and let the dust settle to figure out what comes next. But I think one of the clear priorities for the field of community philanthropy moving forward is how do we promote greater equity and inclusion in our communities. What does that mean in terms of the composition of a board of directors of a community foundation, the staff of that community foundation, the organizations that it’s funding, it’s use of resources?
And I see myself as an advocate and an ally for folks in community philanthropy to sort through those questions and to use the resources at our disposal at the Johnson Center in terms of research, data, learning services to help organizations answer those questions.
What are some philanthropic trends or issues that have arisen during the pandemic?
The one thing that sticks out with particular importance to me are the current debates over the assets that are being held in donor-advised funds and in foundations. And it relates to tax law, so it can kind of be an arcane discussion about things like payout rates. But the fact of the matter is there are billions upon billions of dollars that are held by foundations and in donor-advised funds and there’s a growing chorus of people that say, ‘We need those assets not just sitting in bank accounts accumulating interest, we need those mobilized and put into the streets to help people make it through this pandemic.’ For me, that issue stands head and shoulders above all others right now for the field.
Do you have any specific research projects or goals in mind?
One important thing that I really want to dig into is to try to understand what the differences and similarities are between the way people in Latinx and migrant communities express their generosity and how those communities mobilize their resources on behalf of the causes they care most about. I really would like to dig in deeper and figure out ways to help community foundations in particular better engage and view their Latinx communities. Not just as communities in need of assistance, but as actively engaged participants as philanthropists in their own way.
What have been some of the pandemic’s biggest effects on the philanthropic sector, and how will that change operations for nonprofits in 2021?
I think similarly for the impact of the disease on individuals who become infected, nonprofits that are smaller, ones that are often led by folks from communities of color, are generally disadvantaged in terms of the resources they have available. And I think the crisis that they have felt has been more acute than some of the larger, more well-established organizations. And at the same time, they operate in service to communities of people that have been the most severely impacted by both the health crisis, the economic downturn and the social unrest and injustice. So, I think that kind of triple threat has really threatened to undermine the viability of a lot of organizations.
Historically speaking, where does COVID rank by way of challenges, especially for social service and arts organizations? Are you optimistic the sector will rebound?
I’m optimistic the creativity and commitment of people in (nonprofit) sectors — the arts and culture, social service organizations, advocacy organizations — are going to regain their footing. And I’m optimistic that funders and government and foundations will be there to help them reestablish the very important contribution that they make to the quality of life of every corner of this nation.
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