Meet Michael Layton, the new W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair at the Johnson Center
TM: Michael, welcome to the Johnson Center! Tell us a bit about yourself.
ML: First, I am truly honored and deeply grateful by my appointment as the W.K. Kellogg Community Philanthropy Chair and to become part of the Johnson Center and Grand Valley State University. Throughout my career, I have moved between nonprofit and philanthropic practice and academia, and this position at this Center is — for me — the best of both worlds.
Personally, I have felt warmly welcomed by my colleagues at the Johnson Center, despite the restrictions we face during the current pandemic. I am excited to become part of the Grand Rapids community and get to know Michigan. I know my canine companion, Frankie, is eager to explore the many parks in the area.
Share a little about your research and community engagement background — any favorite projects you’ve worked on? Favorite communities you’ve visited?
My career has been characterized by a movement between research and practice. As an academic, I have always wanted my research to have relevance for the community of practice. As a practitioner, I have always wanted to draw upon the rigor of academic research. So, the opportunities to integrate research and practice have given me the greatest professional and personal satisfaction.
While I served as a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and as the founding director of its Philanthropy and Civil Society Project, one of our initial projects was to better understand and improve Mexico’s fiscal framework for philanthropy. As our first step, we held a series of forums throughout the country in conjunction with community foundations. Everywhere we went — Chihuahua, Jalisco, Puebla, Sonora, Baja California, Mexico State, and Oaxaca — we were so warmly received. The leaders who put together those events, the people who participated, and those communities, will always have a special place in my heart.
Recognizing that you’re only just getting your feet wet in this role, can you tell us a little about your vision for the Community Philanthropy Chair? Do you have research questions or projects in mind already?
What I want to bring to the work I have done recently is a deeper level of research and reflection — an academic perspective. As a rule, practitioners are eager to learn from their peers and reflect on their experience. Given the limitations of time and other resources, it is often difficult, if not impossible, for them to do that. I hope to work with the Johnson Center team to offer those practitioners in community philanthropy the opportunity to learn, monitor, and evaluate.
How do you see this position serving local, national, and international audiences?
Recent decades have driven home the idea that what happens in our local community has important national and international implications, and it is in that context that we can often have the greatest impact as engaged citizens. What excites me about the study and practice of community philanthropy is that the people working in the field often connect the dots between the biggest challenges facing our society — the need to fight for social justice and inclusive growth, the urgency to combat climate change — and the innovative local actors addressing those challenges.
I would like to serve as a bridge between the amazing resources of the Johnson Center and the field of community philanthropy, exploring how to support those actors with our ability to conduct research, assemble and analyze data, monitor and evaluate programs, and offer outstanding training.
During the last two decades, I have had the incredible privilege of working with community philanthropy organizations, especially community foundations, throughout the Americas. They work not only within their local community, but also with their sister organizations across borders and with their diaspora communities. Those migrants have a sense of connection both with the place where they live and work and their place of origin, experiencing what many call “transnational community.” The work of community philanthropy is made more profound and effective to the extent to which it embraces this broader and more inclusive sense of community. I see this position as giving me the opportunity to continue my engagement with that exciting work.
How does this position fit within the context of Grand Valley State University and how might it serve students?
The Chair I hold, the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy held by Michael Moody, and the Johnson Center itself, are all a testament to the importance of the study and practice of philanthropy to Grand Valley State University and its link to the local philanthropic community. I am very excited to engage with students as they explore philanthropy and nonprofit leadership and to serve as a mentor in their professional development. I hope that my international experience will be an invitation for students to explore an international and comparative perspective on philanthropy and nonprofit studies.
Tell us about a trend in philanthropy that you find intriguing or inspiring.
I have been inspired by the response of the philanthropic community, particularly from those in community philanthropy, to the overlapping crises our nation and our world are facing. So many leaders have taken a hard look at their standing priorities and practices, and readjusted them in light of the challenges that communities are facing. I think we need to monitor those adjustments and track the long-term impact this unprecedented moment has on philanthropic practice.
On a personal level, what nonprofits or social causes are closest to your heart?
In our research in Mexico, where we did the first national survey of giving and volunteering, one of our most important findings was about the lack of trust in nonprofits. We found that most Mexicans — four out of five — strongly prefer to give directly to the needy on the street, rather than to organizations. And that preference is based upon distrust of the sector.
For me, that distrust is a major impediment to promoting a culture of institutional giving and the development of a more robust nonprofit sector. There have been half a dozen initiatives to enhance transparency and accountability, but we haven’t been able to move the dial on this issue.
In 2013, in a partnership between my university, a Mexican think tank — Alternativas y Capacidades, AC, and the Foundation Center, we launched a website called Fondos a la Vista (Funds in Plain Sight) to make financial data on nonprofits more easily accessible. For the last decade, I have served on the board and now on the advisory committee of another of these initiatives, Confio (“I trust”), and we face a continuing challenge of seeking to better understand and address this challenge.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to spend time with my daughters. They are young adults and we live in different cities, so that means spending time either on the phone or on vacation together. During the pandemic, I have discovered the joy of talking on the phone. I used to view using the telephone as a chore. Being slowed down by the unavailability of so many activities, I have come to enjoy calling my family and friends. Laughter and words of affection heard over the phone aren’t a substitute for a hug, but they are precious in their own right.