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Creative Projects and Partnerships to Advance Your Philanthropy

by Tory Martin
Creative Projects and Partnerships to Advance Your Philanthropy

As director of communications and engagement at the Johnson Center, I have a fundamental problem: there is no one-sentence way to describe who we are and what we do.

We’ve certainly tried. Fundamentally, we provide competency-based professional development, applied research and evaluation services, and resources and tools to help philanthropy practitioners improve their work. But what does that all look like, exactly? Does it mean we can help you and your organization with more amorphous projects, like assessing your program strategies over time, or helping your on-staff leadership and volunteer board work together more effectively?

As a matter of fact, it does.

Who we are and what we do is expansive and dynamic — and it’s what makes us unique. It’s also what makes our work hard to summarize. Our mission is to help individuals and organizations understand, strengthen, and advance philanthropy. We actively engage with all sides of the philanthropic table — nonprofits, foundations, donors, and volunteers — and ground our own actions and the practices we share with you in rigorous research and real-world experience.

Our university affiliation is part of what makes us strong. We are an academic center of Grand Valley State University (GVSU), but we are not a degree-conferring part of the institution. (For philanthropy-specific programs, that would be our colleagues in the School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration.) GVSU provides tremendous leadership and operational support for our work, but it’s up to us to cover the bulk of our expenses through earned and contributed revenue.

Our roots in West Michigan are deep, stretching back to our founding at GVSU in 1992; yet our reach is global. We’ve conducted original research, facilitated strategy, presented scholarship, and offered professional development on every habitable continent on earth — in 12 countries and over 30 states. Now that our courses are all offered online, we routinely attract practitioners from organizations and programs the world over.

We publish The Foundation Review, the nation’s first peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy. Scholarship on philanthropy is on the rise as the number of academic programs and infrastructure organizations dedicated to the study and understanding of philanthropy continues to grow. Since it’s founding in 2009, articles and issues from The Foundation Review have been downloaded more than 225,000 times around the world.

We also offer extensive research and evaluation services and are expert data analysts. The range of work we can really do — that we can help you and your organization with — might surprise you. To put it broadly, we work with foundations and nonprofits of all sizes, geographies, and missions, to find innovative solutions for improving your philanthropy. This work is designed entirely to meet your needs, based on your unique assets and challenges. Work might include:

  • Facilitating organizational and board development
  • Designing and implementing programs to support talent pipelines and staff
  • Capturing unique programs and moments in your history
  • Fostering peer-learning networks and convenings
  • Developing case studies and oral histories

[W]e work with foundations and nonprofits of all sizes, geographies, and missions, to find innovative solutions for improving your philanthropy. This work is designed entirely to meet your needs, based on your unique assets and challenges.

I invite you to explore our website further to find examples of these kinds of work. Sometimes it’s one report — like the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update, underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — that is able to support multiple organizations at the same time (see how the City of Grand Rapids and Kent County Essential Needs Task Force are using this data). Other times it’s a highly customized, intimate engagement designed to serve a particular organizational board over time (we can walk alongside you with facilitation, strategic thinking, personal interviews, focus groups, and more).

The point is, we revel in creative thinking and working with colleagues from a wide range of organizational types and mission areas. We want to talk to you about your highest priorities, your persistent challenges, and your nagging questions — and we want to help you find effective and energizing solutions that spark great work.

The closest we’ve come to a one-sentence description of the Johnson Center is this: trusted guidance for doing good. So, go ahead, reach out to us with whatever’s on your mind. We can help.