The innovative Office of Foundation Liaison - a "must have" for the state of Michigan!
February 26th, 2008Two of my foundation colleagues had a brilliant idea in 2003 - well let's hope that they have continued to have brilliant ideas since then! David Campbell, President of the McGregor Fund and David Egner, President of the Hudson Webber Foundation - both in the Detroit area - hatched the concept of creating an office that would act as a way to link the philanthropic community to state government. This idea led to the formation of the Michigan Office of Foundation Liaison (OFL) which serves as a unique, nonpartisan link between state government and the philanthropic community!
When the Office began its journey, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was just taking office in her first term as governor of Michigan and there was discussion about how to make this office decidedly non-partisan so the foundation community could objectively leverage their resources without the accusation of being too closely aligned to a particular political party. Through the Council of Michigan Foundations and the leadership of its president Rob Collier, funding was sought from the foundations around the state and the office was launched!
Now it is 2008 and there has been tremendous success I am happy to report. As a member of the Advisory Committee since the Office's inception, I have watched the Director, Karen Aldridge Eason expertly manuever this ship and help inform state officials about the role of foundations (not an endless money pit!) and help educate foundations about state government (not just a mindless bureaucracy!). Maura Dewan is the program associate for the OFL and has helped this foundation with keeping us posted on a variety of potential public/private partnerships.
In fact, three years ago, the OFL organized a trip to New York City for a number of statewide foundation leaders to observe Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and the Children's Aid Society's community schools. I went on this trip (there was a nor'easter and the flights were backed up - not a glamorous trip!) and the Grand Rapids contingent returned to affirm that a project that was already underway in our community would be well served to connect with the Children's Aid Society as they worked with the school system - not separate from the district. This seemed to be a model that would work better in Grand Rapids.
That helped to spur on the development of the Kent School Services Network which was initiated in September 2006 and is growing in size and importance!
The OFL has been continually evaluated by Grand Valley State University's Community Research Institute of the Johnson Center. The Council of Michigan Foundations has been a critical organization for the OFL and the office is highlighted on their website here.
The office is the first of its kind in the U.S. and many states and communities are interested in replication! In a recent report, the OFL points to the following as key to their success:
* a neutral space where partisanship issues are minimized;
* a place where knowledge is shared openly across sectors and geographic boundaries;
* a shortcut or detour around traditional institutional and bureaucratic blocks to partnership,
* a clearinghouse for ideas, concepts and models. . . and much, much more!
The OFL is generously supported by many of the following Michigan foundations - W.K. Kellogg, C.S. Mott, Kresge, Hudson-Webber, Skillman, McGregor, Steelcase, Frey, and some community foundations including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. It is not financed by the state government. And . . it is time to seek future funding and my hope is that many more foundations in our state see the importance of this critical office and step to the plate with their support! It is particularly important now as it is a vulnerable time for our state!
Spending $10million - how would you measure impact?
February 18th, 2008How would you spend more than $10M? Would you try to make a dent in difficult problems like poverty, hunger, child abuse? What impact could you really have? How would you know if the programs created to address these issues really work?
Many foundations are under scrutiny not only to assure that their finances are in order but also to prove that what they fund is relevant and that there is a positive impact in their communities or throughout the country. But what can $10M really do?
For community foundations it isn't just about the money, it is also the leadership that they can exercise to have greater influence and leverage. Partnering with other funders, public sector officials, and other community leaders increases the ability to have impact. However, this isn't always the case as I have experienced over my time at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Depends a great deal of the willingness of all partners to stay on target and not be distracted by other seemingly attractive efforts.
In the past few years, this foundation has spent close to $10M on public education and most of it directed at the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Have we received a good return on that investment? We have isolated success stories to tell through our 21 year old "Excellence in Education" program which honors teachers and students who have great ideas and plans at the classroom level to implement. We have isolated success stories to tell through our Youth Enrichment Scholarship Program that focuses attention on students who may not also have a chance to spread their wings exploring the worlds of music, computers and the like.
When I read Dr. Bernard Taylor's state of the schools address given on Saturday, February 9th, I was heartened by his account of trends in the district that suggest that some schools are increasing their achievement levels. I was disheartened to read that he was noting that assaults are down in schools - not disheartened by the fact that they are decreasing but by the fact that there are assaults.
How can we measure the performance of this school district without the leaders getting defensive? How can we measure the performance of this school district when there isn't consensus on the vision? Is doing okay acceptable? More on this in future posts. . . .
Public Education in Grand Rapids
February 11th, 2008In January 2006 I wrote about our support to the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) and the link is here. I appeared before the GRPS Board of Education back in January 2007 and essentially laid out what I posted. The reaction from the Board was well . . . plain boredom!
A great deal has occurred since last year and Dr. Taylor has attracted community support which he outlined in his speech yesterday. In my future posts I will outline what this foundation has tried to do with GRPS . . . quite a handsome sum has been spent on the district!
Leadership or the next big thing?
February 4th, 2008When I attended my first national conference for community foundations back in October 1987, there was a real effort to try to understand how grants could make a difference and while asset size of the foundation was important, it was not the only focus. It was a breath of fresh air as I had just left the United Way where I worked for 9 years where there seemed to be a focus on what "Metro size" the organization was and each national conference had a new theme for locals to want to emulate. Things like each community "should" have an Information and Referral line (now 211), be actively involved in "community problem solving", a beginning glimmer of donor choice and of course to raise more money from the business community.
This isn't a commentary on United Way but it is a cautionary post for the field of community foundations.
The community foundation field spent much of the 1990's adjusting its focus from community impact to trying to look like the financial services industry in response to the creation of commercial donor advised funds through Fidelity, Vanguard and many of the big national investment firms. There was no way our field could compete with that but oh my how they did try! At our national conferences, the conversations were all about growing assets and that donor services and eliminating program staff was the "wave of the future" by creating donor services positions. Imagine my dismay when this was seen as the way to organize ourselves solely!
I was the chair of the Council on Foundations Community Foundations Committee during that time (now known as the Leadership Team) and we experienced tremendous pressure from the larger community foundations to separate from the Council to try to create an organization to help "combat" these huge commercial competitors. In fact, some of the foundations did create a separate organization called the Community Foundations of America that existed for a few years serving just community foundations but it did not accomplish what was once envisioned and is now known as GivingNet and they have expanded to serve other types of philanthropy. Possibly the original role was too narrow and/or perhaps the persons who created it did not really have an articulated shared vision at that time - who knows.
Here is where I am going with this post: Back a few years ago, a program officer at the Mott Foundation, Elan Garonzik, was instrumental in commissioning a study and report to, as he told me, help community foundations respond in a more positive way when faced with unanticipated competition and surprising events. The Mott Foundation and Ford Foundation funded two brilliant researchers and futurists Katherine Fulton and Lucy Bernholz to conduct this research and they did a great job leading to a report entitled "On the Brink of New Promise".
In this report issued back three years ago trends were noted affecting community foundations and how to anticipate changes in the environment. The way to differentiate our foundations was to focus on providing leadership on key community issues. I wrote about this back on September 28, 2006 and I said that it was like "Back to the Future". This meant that we had returned to understanding that our role is to focus on our community and find ways to address issues not abandoning our key role in working with donors who want to be connected with causes and issues. What a perfect partnership! I had always thought that if donors can see how their assets invested in the community foundation make a positive impact, then they would continue to invest and contribute.
I cautioned my colleagues two years ago to not make the community leadership role as the next "wave" of how community foundations need to behave just had been done in the late 1990's with the emphasis on donor services and flexible donor advised funds. There is no silver bullet in growing community foundations and each is different depending on the community (well yeah!) and the leadership.
I am concerned that "community leadership" is going to be diminished ultimately if it is touted as the next big thing! At the Grand Rapids Community Foundation it has always been part of our DNA and we have always focused not only on our donors but the entire community. Having just responded to a first draft of a national thought piece focusing on community leadership by a very good organization that is partnering with the Council on Foundations, my caution is that the community leadership role is not new and should not be seen as the next best thing or it will go the way of all the things termed "the next best thing"!