My Foundation for Community Engagement

by Kyle Caldwell

Kyle Caldwell, Executive Director of the Johnson Center, was recently named to the Board of Trustees of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF). Kyle took this opportunity to reflect on his long history with GRCF and the importance of community foundations in civic life and philanthropy.
“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.

Starting out, Grand Rapids was one of the first communities I visited to explore what could be possible. I had gotten advice from leaders in Michigan philanthropy that Grand Rapids had a solid community of willing collaborators. I was advised to have a conversation with the head of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to learn more about their work in youth development, philanthropy, and civic engagement. That is where I got to meet Diana Sieger. As President and CEO at the Foundation, Diana had a prominent leadership role in the community and I was initially surprised, then pleased, that she agreed to meet with me. Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting into and talking about developing community collaboratives, launching a new federal program called AmeriCorps, and working to find partners in this work was overwhelming. Still, Diana took the meeting with me and my colleagues and shared her insights. Later, she became a great champion and supporter for the work we engaged in to advance service and volunteering. She and others in her orbit taught me what it means to work deeply in community, listen, bring thoughtful leadership to sticky challenges, and bring leverageable resources to the table, all while adapting to more global realities.
Diana Sieger

Diana Sieger, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Perhaps this was a harbinger of what was to come for my engagement in community. Today we live in dynamic and paradoxically challenging times. Our robust economy flourishes while income disparities grow. Our population is becoming increasingly diverse while our politics become more polarized. Our communication channels (part of a $703 billion industry) are radically expanded, yet we gravitate toward those more attuned to our points of view. These paradoxes make it difficult for communities to adapt and thrive.

…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.

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.”

Photo: Kyle Caldwell


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.

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