Inside Track: Dedication to philanthropy
Executive director of Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy helps organization expand reach beyond Grand Rapids.
Teresa Behrens said she has driven about 40,000 miles per year for the past 10 years commuting from her home in Ann Arbor to her job in Grand Rapids.
Her husband’s business was anchored in Ann Arbor, and her children have been in school, but she still made the commitment to work at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
“Well, I love the work,” Behrens said.
A couple of months ago, around the time she was promoted to executive director of the organization, she bought a condo in Wyoming, where she lives during the week. In the next couple of years, after her children are finished with college and launched into their careers, she plans to finally sell the house and move permanently with her husband to West Michigan.
Behrens joined the Johnson Center in 2007 to start The Foundation Review journal as a way for philanthropy researchers to share their findings with foundations and other organizations.
The quarterly journal, which she said is “rigorous but readable,” publishes research ranging from local to international philanthropy. Some articles are openly accessible and some are behind a paywall, though all articles are openly accessible after two years.
In her previous role as director of evaluation for the Kellogg Foundation’s education programs, she said she had seen millions of dollars spent on evaluations that informed only a few people inside the foundation.
“In terms of consciously making an effort to share it more broadly with the field, I just felt like there wasn't a way to do that very effectively,” she said.
Through her role at Kellogg, she spent a year at the Johnson Center launching the journal. Kellogg provided some funding for the first year and then GVSU funded it for several years.
The plan originally was to work part time at the Johnson Center, she said, but she kept accepting new projects because she found the work so interesting. She was working full time for the Johnson Center within a couple of years.
She was a senior researcher for the center’s community research institute and then spent three years as the director of the center’s Institute for Foundation and Donor Learning, which provides professional development to people working in foundations.
She had just accepted a new role at the center as director of strategy and programs when Kyle Caldwell announced he would be leaving the organization. The GVSU dean decided it made the most sense to promote her to the role, she said.
Behrens said she first became interested in program evaluation during her time at the American Civil Liberties Union, wondering how much the legal approach actually made a difference in offering equitable vocational education.
“That led me to wanting to understand how you tell if the programs are actually working,” she said.
She has a master’s and a doctorate degree from North Carolina State University, where she studied program evaluation, during which she evaluated a National Science Foundation to study how industry-university collaboration can support research and better prepare students.
She thinks people often get comfortable in the routine of their roles in organizations, but there is a lot of benefit that can come from looking beyond that.
“I think really creative ideas and innovations happen when you're looking across boundaries,” Behrens said.
“I always think we can do better, and I think evaluation is a tool for helping the philanthropic sector do our work better.”
Behrens’ next job was at the Industrial Technology Institute in Ann Arbor, which was created to help manufacturers adopt technology developed at the University of Michigan. She worked on projects involving the cultural and policy changes companies need to make when adopting new technology.
After working for the Michigan Strategic Fund for a few years starting in 1991, she started having kids and transitioned to part-time work as a consultant for government agencies and nonprofits. With a group working toward providing continuum of care in housing, she developed Washtenaw County’s first homeless count.
Her husband owned a software company, and they were worried about its continued success amid the 2000 dot-com bubble burst, so she decided to return to the full-time workforce.
In 2001, she applied for an evaluation manager position at the Kellogg Foundation through a newspaper ad someone pointed out to her.
She got the job, but her boss left the organization between her hire and start dates. She applied for his position and was promoted later that year to the evaluation director.
She said her husband’s business was doing well when she decided to make the switch to the Johnson Center, so they could afford to take the risk.
“So, I took the leap and came here,” she said.
What sets the Johnson Center apart from other similar organizations throughout the world, she said, is beyond its research, the organization provides philanthropy training and resources to foundations and nonprofits locally and throughout the world.
“All the work that we do is really focused on creating new knowledge or helping people apply knowledge to do their work in philanthropy better,” she said.
For the next few years, she plans to focus on executing the strategic plan the previous executive director laid out before departing, which she said includes a lot of input from the organization’s leadership.
Some major pieces of that framework include better collaboration between the organization’s individual departments, as well as continuous improvement in the quality of the organization’s work, such as expanding the annual VoiceKent community survey.
She also would like to provide courses and recognizable credentials to people who work in the philanthropy and nonprofit sector, particularly to help those without degrees gain skills that could help them move into leadership roles.
In the past 10 years, she said the organization’s reach has expanded from more locally focused to international, especially because of the work of endowed chairs, and she hopes to strengthen that reach and influence.
“I know there are a lot of people that had never heard of Grand Valley State University, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, frankly, who know about us now because of the journal or because of the work that the chairs are doing,” she said.