Mike Gallagher, Correspondent
Important issues such as leadership development, next generation and business engagement, marketing, asset growth, investment management and measuring impact continually face community foundation leaders in Michigan and throughout the nation.
How to understand and address the myriad questions - and sometimes problems - that arise from them are best learned from experts in the field: community foundation staff themselves.
That planning committee’s learning theory was the driving force behind the annual Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Community Foundation CEO Retreat recently hosted by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County in Port Huron.
Taking the leadership role in designing the event was the retreat planning committee comprised of CEOs Randy Maiers (Port Huron), Bonnie Hildreth (Barry County), Neel Hajra (Ann Arbor), Mackenzie Price (Huron County) and Mike Goorhouse (Holland/Zeeland).
“We really wanted to make sure this retreat provided everyone an opportunity to connect with each other, to give them a chance to talk about their work and what they do and how they do it so we all could learn something from each other,” said Price.
The theme of this year’s event was “Growing Your Impact” and chief executive officers attending reveled in the opportunity to connect with their peers, share stories, seek advice and hear how others deal with the everyday successes, failures, opportunities and issues they all encounter in their work.
“This is an extremely valuable way for community foundation CEOs to engage in peer-learning activities and build capacity through the lessons learned by their counterparts,” said Janet Topolsky, executive director, Community Strategies Group, The Aspen Institute.
Topolsky facilitated this year’s event and helped guide the attendees from foundations large and small through the two-day event.
One important methodology Topolsky and the retreat planners utilized in creating the agenda was to allow participants to suggest and vote on which topical issues they wished to discuss.
Among the chosen breakout session topics were: grantmaking approaches, board commitment, wealth-building framework, geographic affiliates, asset development, measuring impact, community leadership, impact investing/mission/program related investments, and resident engagement.
Welcoming the community foundation leaders was Donna Niester, board chair of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, chair of the James C. Acheson Charitable Foundation and who also serves on the Michigan Community Service Commission’s executive board.
Speaking to her colleagues, Niester said, “You represent about a billion dollars in community assets. That is so huge in respect to the impact you can have on your communities. You are the ones who collaborate with different groups. You are the doers, the donors the thought provokers. The ones who make things happen in your community.”
Among the session leaders, several were singled out by their peers as leaders able to share their insights and experiences in funny, captivating and informative ways to help others gain a deeper understanding of various cross-organizational issues.
Called “the rock star” of the retreat for taking the lead on sharing with the nonprofit sector how he and his foundation have helped support and create many win-win opportunities for the St. Clair County community, Maiers, president/CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County said, “It’s all about the community impact, not grantmaking. You have to lead with vision, not money.”
Echoing those sentiments, Hajra, president/CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation added, “I’m relatively new in my position. But I am focusing now on impact, not assets. We all have to learn what are the important needs of our community first before we can determine what to focus on and how many grant dollars are needed to address them.”
Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation For Southeast Michigan, said for her, the community foundation is all about community leadership.
Noting what makes her organization so successful, Noland said, “We are neutral. We are here forever and in our case we have a board that is just an incredible group of community leaders, so the trust is there. We do reactive grantmaking and that’s good, but we really view our role as looking at opportunities where it is appropriate because of who we are and how we can make a difference.”
During the conference, several foundation CEOs shared their successes in helping spur economic growth in their communities. For example, Tina Travis, executive director of the Gratiot County Community Foundation, told how her organization received a donated farm and, in turn, how her board decided to keep the land and lease it to farmers.
“This fits right in with our efforts to support local workforce development…it provides an opportunity for new farmers and it brings these new workers to our area,” said Travis.
Not all the CMF Community Foundation CEO Retreat was about work. An evening dinner at the historic Vintage Tavern in downtown Port Huron sponsored by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County provided a great venue for the attendees to share time with old friends and new.
The retreat wrapped up the following day with “Peer Advice Sessions”, which Topolsky advised, “Our final objective is conviviality so you can better know each other and continue to communicate and share ideas and issues.”
Throughout the conference attendees were awarded gift cards for coming up with different ideas to encourage conversation and dialogue. Hajra received the first award for suggesting small brand incentives for community foundations to complete the data survey that CMF conducts every year. Several CEOs granted their awards to projects other community foundations had under development.
Rob Collier, CMF’s president/CEO, shared with the group that CMF and the Michigan Nonprofit Association are supporting the passage of Proposal 1 (1% sales tax increase) that will be on the Michigan ballot May 5.
In Proposal 1, “Legislators have included $200 million for K-12, $100 million for local governments that are hurting, $100 million for public transit, and it also reinstates what was in place for the Earned Income Tax Credit so low-earning working families will not get penalized by the 1% increase in the sales tax,” said Collier.
He also shared that CMF, working through the Urban Institute, sent out a request for data regarding the IRA Charitable Rollover to 605 community foundations throughout the U.S. and had a response rate of 33% “which was a great data point for us to have.”
That data is needed to help persuade Congress to vote this year to make permanent the IRA Charitable Rollover, said Collier.
Next year’s CMF Community Foundations CEO Retreat will be hosted by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. In 2017 the event will be held in Flint and sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
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