My Foundation for Community Engagement
“Community foundations serve as catalysts for change.” – Russell G. Mawby
Early in my “second” career, I was an intern at a newly appointed state governmental agency designed to promote service and volunteerism. For someone professionally trained as a photographer, and who had recently gone back to school to get two degrees in communication, I was clearly out of my comfort zone. But I was eager to learn new things and just coming into my own self-awareness of the power of civic engagement. This “job” — and it was a job, even though it was called an “internship” — involved working in several Michigan communities to help establish local partnerships of funders, government entities, and nonprofits to build systems that recruit and retain volunteers. My particular interest had always been around youth and supporting them in meaningful community change through civic engagement, so I was able to weave that interest into this work.
However, if history has any lessons for us, it is that our common will — our capacity — to cope together, grows with the size of our challenges and does so in part through the lens of philanthropy. This was as true for the Abolitionists and their efforts to end slavery, as it is for the young people today who are calling for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in our economy, in our communities, and in society generally. As philanthropy explores its relevance to society and communities more specifically, community foundations have the potential to serve as powerful catalysts for problem solving.
Over my career in the sector, I’ve come to understand that community foundations serve not just as fundraisers, financial stewards, conveners of broad constituencies, thought leaders, and strategic grant makers. They provide neutral spaces to address hard challenges and hold critical conversations while offering “patient capital” to address local needs and interests. Their scope is broad, working in a host of areas including education, arts and culture, the environment, youth development, human services, and much more. While these are their traditional roles, increasingly, community foundations are growing to engage in economic development, civil discourse, government reforms, and advocacy. They are serving as conveners of communities around the politically-charged issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, while also helping everyone recognize that we can each be a philanthropist. These roles are reflective of the changes community foundations are making to reflect the societies in which they operate and thrive.
Just before the creation of the Johnson Center, Michigan embarked on a journey to change philanthropy by developing the next generation of philanthropists while ensuring every Michigan resident has access to a community foundation. Thanks to the leadership of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project developed generations of future leaders while building community foundation endowments. In addition to leveraging local support for local endowments, the program cultivated young people to serve their communities. Today, these youth grantmakers now lead in creative community engagement, educate the next generation of philanthropists, and serve as champions of local philanthropy.
It is this nexus of youth, community engagement, and philanthropy that enticed me to serve on the board of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. I was honored to be asked to serve. After all, Grand Rapids gave me my start and the community foundation here played an important, formative role. The Foundation has been a vital resource for the community for nearly 100 years. It embraces the important role of supporting youth grantmakers, and is continually exploring new forms of community philanthropy. Going forward, many communities like Grand Rapids will continue to look to philanthropy, and especially community foundations, to lead in careful and thoughtful ways. I am glad to be able to return to this community to work alongside great community leaders like Diana Sieger to learn how effective community philanthropy works. As someone who has watched this field grow, and now works and volunteers to advance community philanthropy globally, I look forward to being a volunteer for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and to being a part of what someone once called, “a catalyst for change.”
Kyle Caldwell is the executive director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about Kyle here.