Adjust philanthropic roles amid difficult economy

April 13, 2009
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Four years ago, the Business Journal ran a series of stories providing an in-depth look at the beneficence of this community, summarized with a headline indicating it is the Wall Street of charity, especially among religious organizations.

The story was picked up by national media, which helped to further charitable financial goals and esteem. When the Chronicle of Philanthropy recognized the metro area as the nation’s second most generous region per capita, the importance of that history was produced in DVD format as a PBS documentary, “The Gift of All, a Community of Givers,” produced by a group of oral historians under the banner Sharing Our Uncommon Legacy, or SOUL.

But like all businesses surviving this downturn, nonprofit boards are impacted by asset losses in financial markets and will begin to reinvent themselves — and likely with greater public scrutiny.

The Michigan Nonprofit Association 2009 report on that sector’s $108 billion economic impact is probably not such of a surprise in the Greater Grand Rapids area (see page 1). This city was reinvented and built on philanthropic endeavors, especially by leadership of the DeVos and Van Andel families. The city remains at the top of the list of communities for its significant level of contributions to nonprofit entities. In West Michigan, 2,558 nonprofits in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Muskegon counties spent $7.4 billion. (The study was sponsored by the Grand Valley State University Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership and Council of Michigan Foundations.)

Most of these nonprofits have well-defined missions — health care institutions, for instance; others capture the interest of many, like the Heart of West Michigan United Way. There is no shortage of donations of time to nonprofits either, as community members are encouraged and expected to earn leadership rank dependent upon such service. The United Way has been distinguished with some of the top leaders in Grand Rapids and the ability to elevate such contributors in community standing.

All of this talent has no doubt focused the past few months on losses in investment funds that were once thought to secure agency futures. National reports show foundation asset values fell almost 25 percent this year. But there has been little public discussion of how the economic crisis could or should change missions. It is a discussion just as important as asset building. A greater coordinated approach should not just evolve but be carefully orchestrated.

The United Way board several years ago was determined to focus on initiatives related to healthy children and early childhood education, and such impact is undoubtedly essential in a recession. But so, too, are primary needs such as shelter and food for families suffering through layoffs. Before the fall campaigns begin again, one would anticipate that the agency will be able to ascertain community needs and make assessments that are flexible enough to fill the void, even in programs that are not the announced target.

This community’s legacy is tied to such continued leadership.

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