Blog: Amplify

Seeing Philanthropy in Action in Grand Rapids

Last week, I got to see philanthropy in action on a great trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan. After just a few days of meeting with philanthropic leaders in Western Michigan, I had new energy, new ideas, and more proof that collaboration is driving the field forward.

I was grateful to have been invited by Diana Sieger, President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, to see its work in action.  I got to tour the city and learn about philanthropic projects around the area. I learned about collaborative efforts like:

  • The Challenge Scholars program, which is reducing poverty and supporting families across the city. To date, the community foundation has raised nearly $34 million in support that’s targeted toward families in need.
  • Encore is a cutting-edge effort to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities. The idea of harnessing the talents of people over 50 makes a lot of sense as more and more Baby Boomers enter retirement.
  • The gorgeous new Downtown Market is providing a beautiful distribution point for fresh food, a site for new food entrepreneurs, and an important contribution to the civic commons.

There’s too much happening in the Grand Rapids philanthropic community to mention here, but I do want to remark on one effort that I found particularly exciting. At the community foundation each month, an informal group of philanthropic leaders – some from foundations and some individual donors – gets together to discuss the big issues facing the region. They don’t solve everything at once, but they discuss the challenges, stay informed, and get exposed to new issues as they arise.

I was lucky to attend this month’s meeting. Some of the magic came from plain ol’ fellowship and a sense of familiarity from the leaders, but this community of funders also had a lot of focus. They were all really engaged in the discussion, and it was clear that each person wanted to contribute to solving community issues. They were sharing, debating, and struggling at times to find solutions.

As I understand it, they’ve been at this for a long time and the culture of the community is genuinely collaborative. The group includes large organizations, community foundations, corporate foundations, and private foundations. All of these leaders truly have a shared vision for their community, and it shows. 

The slogan atop the GRCF building says “community happens here.”  What a role model they are for the “leading together” concept that was embraced at this year’s Annual Conference.

The Grand Rapids philanthropic community is:

  • Prioritizing issues, not institutions
  • Sharing
  • Thinking about the ecosystem of the region
  • Committing to work together

I’m often asked what is special about community foundations.  And my answer is that they are architects of their communities.  In Grand Rapids, I saw that in action.  The power to convene and to let ideas flourish is powerful. 

The focus was on a goal. There were different opinions on how to achieve it. I don’t want to reveal the actual problem they are tackling because the specifics actually don’t matter.

A vibrant philanthropic community has a positive impact beyond any one issue.   This group knew what mattered the most: picking an issue or organization or problem, and then working together to find a way forward in a civilized manner.

At a time when our world is so polarized and increasingly negative, it was refreshing to see philanthropy in action.  

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