Kellogg Foundation casts a new eye on GR

July 17, 2009
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With total assets of $8 billion at the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek ranks fifth in the nation, according to The Foundation Center.

Now Grand Rapids will rank a little higher in the eyes of the Kellogg Foundation.

The foundation is implementing a revamped strategic direction, President and CEO Sterling K. Speirn said. Speirn said the foundation is focusing on programs and research that improve the lives of children, reflecting W.K. Kellogg’s original intent when he donated $66 million of his cereal company’s stock to start the foundation in 1930.

While it will continue to salt the nation and the globe with financial support, the Kellogg Foundation’s new strategic direction in the U.S. will land on Mississippi, New Mexico and Michigan, including four urban areas in particular: Battle Creek, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

“It’s hugely significant. … It could make a tremendous difference to the community,” said Kathy Agard, executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University. The Kellogg Foundation is a long-time supporter of the center.

Last month, the foundation’s board of directors met in Grand Rapids for several days with leaders of local businesses, foundations, schools and nonprofit organizations, Speirn said. Kellogg Foundation representatives have been joining the monthly roundtable meetings conducted by local foundation CEOs since last year. Later this year, the foundation board is expected to consider an “integrated, holistic” approach to its goals and funding in the Grand Rapids area, Speirn said.

“We are excited about getting linked into the Grand Rapids community,” Speirn added.

Agard said it’s crucial for the Kellogg Foundation to learn about philanthropic activities in the Grand Rapids area and plan a strategy that meshes with local goals.

“My sense is that … they have been doing a lot of thinking about what they want to do, and this trip to Grand Rapids was the beginning conversation at the board level … how what Kellogg wants to accomplish might fit,” she said. “It means coming into the community not only with a sense of scale, but humility toward who is on the ground and already knows what’s happening.

“We’re fortunate to have a really robust foundation community in Grand Rapids that works very well together. So now Kellogg is coming to the door and saying, ‘We want to be a part of it.’ Especially over time, they can have a tremendous impact on helping the local foundations and local communities both get where they want to go and then also to help accomplish Kellogg’s goals.”

Grand Rapids Community Foundation President & CEO Diana Seiger said that the well-respected foundation has arrived here with sensitivity to local collaboration and initiatives.

“They can help play a significant role in leveraging some additional dollars and influence policy direction,” Seiger said. “They have been really, really very great in working with us thus far — the area foundations, the area funders — to understand there are many, many things already going on in this community.”

Speirn, a University of Michigan Law School graduate, said that when he arrived in Battle Creek from California in 2006, he commenced a strategic planning process with board members and foundation staff.

“We are now committed to have a more coherent, integrated approach to our work in Michigan,” he said. “In western Michigan, we have core interests in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek — three of our four metro regions — and we’re going to take a specific emphasis and approach there.”

The June meetings in Grand Rapids included not only Sieger, but representatives from Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids City Commission, the Baxter Community Center, The Right Place, and First Steps, an early childhood program that received a $400,000 Kellogg Foundation grant in January.

Kellogg Foundation’s strategic realignment is aimed at children and at efforts to help the families and communities in which they live. The emphasis is on three program areas: education and learning; food, health and well-being; and family economic security.

In addition to Michigan, the Kellogg Foundation is interested in New Mexico and Mississippi, two other states where it has historical funding ties. Also getting special attention are the Hurricane Katrina recovery areas in Mississippi and New Orleans.

Overseas, the Kellogg Foundation has chosen to focus on Latin America, including the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoaca in Mexico; areas of northern Guatemala near the Mexican border; gulf coast areas of Honduras and Nicaragua; El Salvador; and the Caribbean region. In Africa, focus locations are Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Kellogg grants could land anywhere in the U.S. or the world, Speirn said, but narrower geographic interests make for stronger and longer term impact in areas where statistics show children are falling behind their peers elsewhere.

The foundation’s new orientation on Michigan comes at a time when the state is trying to crawl out of a prolonged economic trough. Kellogg was one of 10 foundations to commit to spending $100 million over eight years on the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan to boost talent, innovation and culture change as economic drivers in the Detroit area.

“Clearly, one of the key elements of our framework is family economic security,” Speirn said. “We talk about wanting kids to grow up being healthy, well-educated and in secure families. Family economic security takes into account issues of economic development as well as individual families struggling to survive.

“We’ll continue to look at the macro level. … Economic development at the macro level is a complicated program.”

Fred P. Keller, Cascade Engineering president, CEO and founder, is a member of the Kellogg Foundation’s board of trustees, but did not return a request for comment.

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