Johnson Promotes Philanthropy

April 15, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — Philanthropy and service to others have always been at the forefront of Dorothy Johnson’s interests.

Even two years after retiring as the long-time head of the Council of Michigan Foundations, a umbrella organization for 480 foundations in Michigan, Johnson continues to help philanthropic causes — through a small consulting firm she owns and manages — and serve the community, including through her role as chairwoman of the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees and board positions with a dozen other organizations.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I’ve had,” said Johnson, whose dedication to service came from her parents when she was growing up in Los Angeles. Her father was a volunteer police officer and her mother a Red Cross volunteer.

“There certainly was that example,” said Johnson, who’s first brush with philanthropy came in the third grade when she encouraged fellow students to bring an extra nickel to school to help a classmate who couldn’t afford to buy a 35-cent harmonica they played in class.

The 61-year-old Grand Haven resident continues to build on her philanthropic background with a small consulting firm she founded after retiring in March 2000 after 25 years as president of the Council of Michigan Foundations, where she continues as president emeritus. The Ahlburg Co. provides support to foundations, benefactors and non-profit executives.

One of her more visible roles in public service is chairing the GVSU board. Johnson, who hopes to earn re-appointment to the board when her present term expires at the end of the year, sees GVSU as a “very high quality university” that’s limited only by “people’s imagination and our funding resources.”

She sees the university delving further into collaborative ventures on many forefronts in the future, especially with a West Michigan business community that she calls a “natural partner.”

“We have education and the business community has needs,” Johnson said. “It’s been very healthy for us.”

A Harvard Business School graduate, Dorothy Johnson came to Grand Haven in 1965 with her husband, F. Martin Johnson, a native of the community whom she met in college and who was returning home to work for the family business, the current-day JSJ Corp.

In Grand Haven, she was invited to serve on the first board of directors for the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. That position led to an opportunity to attend a conference of foundation professionals from around Michigan, which in turn brought about the formation of a steering committee and eventually what was initially known as the Conference of Michigan Foundations.

Johnson became the new organization’s sole staff member in August 1975 and remained at the helm of organization until her retirement.

Over the years, Johnson has helped foundations that have raised and awarded millions of dollars annually. She believes the philanthropic spirit remains as healthy as ever, although benefactors, particularly corporations, are pushing for more accountability and are more selective in where they target their gifts.

The feeling is that when a business gives to a cause, it views it as a long-term investment with hopes that it will ultimately result in the sustainability of the organization or project.

“They don’t just want to throw money into an organization that is not going to be self-supportive,” Johnson said. “They want to see results.”

And generating results by building from the ground up is the essence of philanthropy, she said.

“If you start at the bottom and work up, you have a greater root base to start from, and it works,” Johnson said.

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