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Meet the Johnson Center’s New Executive Director, Dr. Teresa (Teri) Behrens

A Q&A with Tory Martin
Meet the Johnson Center’s New Executive Director, Dr. Teresa (Teri) Behrens
Teri Behrens, Ph.D. began her new role as the Executive Director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy on October 22, 2018. Tory Martin, the Johnson Center’s director of communications and engagement, sat down with Teri to learn more about her vision for our future — and to learn a little more about Teri herself.

Tory Martin: This year, the Johnson Center has been working to realize the promise of our new strategic framework and the vision of and for the philanthropic sector that it represents. How do you plan to make our mission “to help individuals and organizations understand, strengthen, and advance philanthropy” come alive in the work of the Johnson Center?

Teri Behrens: Many people use the word “philanthropy” to talk about the donor and foundation part of the sector, and the field of philanthropy is often seen as having two sides — grantmakers and grantseekers. Going back to the root of the word “philanthropy” — love of humankind — reminds us that many types of organizations can and do seek to improve the human condition. We see social entrepreneurs, impact investors, government organizations, and yes, the traditional foundations and nonprofits, working together in often unexpected ways to try to move the needle on critical social issues.

In our strategic framework, we include this web of interconnected people, missions, strategies, and resources that is redefining how philanthropy approaches and accomplishes its work.

My colleagues and I at the Johnson Center want to ensure that our own work to support the field — applied research, data, and capacity building — reflects this view of philanthropy. I want to see us really start organizing ourselves and our projects around bodies of work, focusing on themes like diversity, equity, and inclusion; practitioner education; emerging trends, etc. When we focus on the theme, rather than the individual’s role in our sector, we’ll develop the systems and knowledge that support collaborative, cross-sector engagement and move the field forward.

How do you see the field of philanthropy changing, and how will the Johnson Center, under your leadership, evolve to meet these emerging needs? What do you see as some of the most critically unmet needs in the field?

Well, you can always check out our Trends reports for an answer to that!

Philanthropy is starting to act more like water — it’s looking for any new path it can carve out to get where it wants to go. Projects like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, hybrid organizations that may be organized as for-profit entities but have a social mission. The rise of Donor Advised Funds, more limited life foundations or foundations choosing to spend down. Huge growth in nonprofit media — these are all relatively untested methods for achieving social change that we’re seeing play out in real time.

“Philanthropy is starting to act more like water — it’s looking for any new path it can carve out to get where it wants to go.”

We’re also starting to see more emphasis on networks of organizations working together to tackle an issue; that’s an evolution from the field’s long-time push for collaboration. Similarly, we’re starting to see more progress on adopting concrete strategies for integrating DEI principles across philanthropy. Participatory grantmaking, which cedes grantmaking power to the very communities those funds are meant to serve, is a great example of both.

All of which is to say, philanthropic professionals need educational opportunities and tools that will help them make these shifts effectively. They need access to high quality data. The Johnson Center is looking into some new credentialing opportunities using badging, developing some new core tools and competency models that focus on critical knowledge and skills. And I would love to get some funder-grantee dialogues going that could really dig into the deep dynamics of our field.

How do you see the Johnson Center serving local, national, and international audiences?

As we lay out in our strategic framework, the work that we do should be grounded in the experiences of real communities in order that that experience can inform local, national, and international practice. And on the flipside, it’s about absorbing the best thinking and research from around the world and allowing it to inform how we advise and work in local communities.

The work that we are doing through Juan Olivarez [Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] is a perfect example. Much of his efforts are focused here in West Michigan on talent pipeline development and inclusive economic growth in the community, but he’s also working with many national organizations on the sector’s evolution. Those two perspectives inform each other.

Internationally, we’re seeing philanthropy emerge in places that do not have a history of civil society. Giving circles, community foundations, and other philanthropic institutions are forming all over the world. Because of our deep experience with these forms of philanthropy in the U.S., through the work of our Kellogg Chair for Community Philanthropy, Jason Franklin, and others, we can both help to speed the development of philanthropy in other places and learn from new models in other countries, thus building a stronger sector worldwide.

How does this position fit in with Grand Valley State University and serve students?

We really are a great place for students — undergraduate and graduate — to come and get experience in working directly with nonprofits and the community. We are a center for applied research, and being able to offer students who are currently studying the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in a real-world setting is absolutely core to our work. In addition to straight-up employment opportunities, we’re able to support students through a number of named fellowships we’re able to offer as a result of the generosity of local donors.

“[B]eing able to offer students who are currently studying the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in a real-world setting is absolutely core to our work.”

I’m very proud that we have a robust network of alumni working throughout philanthropy today, holding positions of leadership in nonprofits, foundations, family foundations, you name it. Everywhere I go I meet people who used to be students at GVSU and who worked for the Johnson Center. Seriously, it’s amazing. It happened to one of our colleagues on an airport shuttle at one in the morning just a few weeks ago — she met a guy who had gone through Grand Valley’s social work program and interned in our community research department.

Okay, now for some lighter questions. You’re taking on a leadership role in Grand Rapids, Michigan — a.k.a. Beer City, U.S.A. So what’s your favorite style of beer, and why?

My husband has been homebrewing for more than 25 years and makes a variety of fantastic beers. I’m sort of partial to his double IPA — I’m a fan of centennial hops. So I’d say that’s up among my favorites, but I’m always willing to sample other styles!

Your work with the Johnson Center and throughout your career has taken you all over the world. Do you have a favorite travel destination?

Depends on the time of year. I like to go to places I haven’t been before, and I like to go visit my kids where they’re living. I’ve been to six continents — haven’t been to Antarctica yet but I’d love to go! And I’ve never been to Greece. I have a fantasy of sailing among the Greek islands — that blue water, sipping something yummy. Perhaps not a Double IPA. That’s a little dense for the Aegean. Maybe rakı.