Inside Track: Caldwell makes transition from photography to philanthropy
Johnson Center’s executive director has global aspirations, but a community focus.
While at Lansing Community College in the 1980s, Kyle Caldwell spent a week riding with midnight ambulance shifts.
Caldwell chose to document those rides for the field experience that was required for a degree in photojournalism, which he received in 1985. Unlike many of the other students who preferred to photograph fashion or architecture, Caldwell preferred documenting people’s stories. Riding along in the ambulance that winter, he told the stories of people who were unable to get to the hospital without aid.
Those stories still stick with him to this day, as executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.
“That really taught me what life was like for those that are less fortunate,” Caldwell said. “That was a real molding experience and it’s carried me throughout my career. I still think about the people I met on that ambulance, and thinking about what my role is in society rather than just being a consumer of space.
“What’s my role to give back?”
But he didn’t immediately leap into a nonprofit career path. He left Lansing with his wife, whom he met in college, and moved to Kalamazoo.
He became a professional photographer, but he soon realized he wasn’t good enough at it to make enough of a living to support his new family.
He enrolled at Western Michigan University and finished his bachelor’s degree in communications, and then went on to receive a master’s degree. As he was filling out an application for a Ph.D. program at Purdue University, a flyer ended up in his hands for a Governor’s Management internship program.
“This was the early 1990s — one of our great Michigan recessions,” he said. “I was going to end up in commercial marketing or on the academic track. The job market was so tight; every opportunity was one I would pursue. I went from photography to philanthropy by accident.”
His application to the internship program was accepted and, in 1993, he found himself on the staff of the Michigan Community Service Commission, a pet project of sorts of Gov. John Engler. It was also around the time when President Bill Clinton unveiled the AmeriCorps program, to be modeled after state programs — of which there were only three, including Michigan’s.
He met a number of people who would influence his career choice, including Dorothy Johnson.
“It wasn’t the compensation that made that stop the jewel of my career,” he said, explaining his choice to commute daily from Kalamazoo to an internship in Lansing. “Everyone on that board gave me every break in helping me grow.”
Following three years with the Michigan Community Service Commission, he joined Olivet College as director of corporate and foundation relations, before being asked to return as the executive director of the Michigan Community Service Commission in 1998.
It was his job to smooth the transition of the Engler administration and the administration of whoever the next governor would be. Engler’s wife pinpointed the future First Gentleman of Michigan, Dan Granholm Mulhern, to chair the commission.
“John had created that organization, and it could have easily been wiped out,” Caldwell said. “It created that legacy.”
Among his accomplishments while leading the commission was to create a permanent volunteer infrastructure in Michigan. The commission’s new volunteers were the engine for the nonprofit sector, but there was no steady support, Caldwell said. The commission asked for $10 million from the state legislature, with the promise of a matching amount from the private sector, to create a $20 million endowment to support volunteers in Michigan.
The legislature did set aside the $10 million.
“This is the hardest fundraising — raising money from the state on something everyone thinks should be free,” Caldwell said. “They put it in the budget, but said, ‘Look, we don’t think you’ll be successful in matching it.’ We don’t get a nickel unless we match it.”
It took three years, but Caldwell was able to get the matching funds, and the organization ConnectMichigan Alliance was created in 2004. Caldwell became its second president and CEO.
Around that time, he had been talking with Sam Singh, who was running the Michigan Nonprofit Association and was interning with Caldwell. The two organizations were so intertwined, they asked the question: Why keep them separate?
In 2007, the board chose Caldwell to lead the newly combined organization.
Caldwell spent five years at the helm of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, before being asked by the C.S. Mott Foundation to help modernize its poverty strategies.
“Kyle brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience related to the nonprofit sector, as well as a keen awareness of the issues the foundation is interested in,” said the foundation’s Bill White at the time of his hiring. “He will be an asset to our poverty grant-making team, which works to ensure that low-income people and communities around the U.S. have the tools and opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty.”
White was someone Caldwell had long looked up to, and he was eager to work under his tutelage. The job was a “transforming experience” with a lot of career progression and “skill building by fire,” he said of his two and half years with the Mott Foundation.
Then he got a call from Dorothy Johnson, asking for suggestions about who to hire as the new executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, before asking him to consider it.
“There’s a couple of things in life that are remarkably painful, and one is saying no to Dottie Johnson,” he said with a laugh.
He was named director of the Johnson Center in May 2015.
“Kyle’s vast experience and entrepreneurial approach will ensure the center can help Grand Valley, donors and philanthropic organizations for years to come,” Johnson said at the time.
Caldwell took office in August, and is now wrapping up his 90 days of “make no major decisions and just listen” phase. He wanted to learn about the center’s strengths and what growth potential exists.
“Is this a regional organization, or is it something bigger?” he said. “We’ll look at what does it look like for the Johnson Center to be more global in our work.”
One focus will be on how giving is changing in the modern world. He said giving sometimes can happen very quickly, and people often criticize when organizations don’t act just as quickly when they’ve received the money. He noted the 2014 “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise money for ALS as a great example of how an organization received a massive influx of support and used it to fund an underfunded research program.
“Here you have a disease — Lou Gehrig’s disease — some people knew a little about, and a guy goes viral,” he said. “He could have set up an organization for failure. But they immediately identified research that was underfunded and fully funded it.”
Despite its global aspirations, the Johnson Foundation won’t lose sight of West Michigan. During his time with statewide organizations, Caldwell worked in Grand Rapids, but was not part of the community.
“For a guy driving in from Lansing, it was never quite my home,” he said. “Even today, it’s like an onion; I’m still finding layers of exciting things going on.”