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Reaching Across the Aisle: Nonprofits need to engage, share data more than ever, panelists say

Written by  Jane Simons, Mi Biz, January 27, 2017

GRAND RAPIDS — The nonprofit community has a unique opportunity to engage individuals from both sides of the political aisle in meaningful conversations to find common ground.

That was a key theme during a panel discussion as part of the 2017 MiBiz Best Managed Nonprofits Awards, held on Tuesday at the Goei Center in Grand Rapids.

“The advantage that nonprofits have over the for-profit and government sectors is that we are 501(c)(3)s and by law can engage in these conversations in a non-partisan way,” said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Dorothy Johnson A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, a presenting sponsor of the awards. “You can host the hard conversations in a problem-solving space.”

Caldwell was one of three panelists who addressed various issues of importance to the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. He was joined by Donna Murray-Brown, the president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and Diana Sieger, the president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Matthew Downey, program director of nonprofit services at the Johnson Center, moderated the panel.

Caldwell has had the benefit of working for administrations overseen by former Governors John Engler, a Republican, and Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat. Despite their distinctly different political views, they both agreed the nonprofit sector is where people could be reached and social change could happen, he said.

“We’re going to increasingly see people sitting back and letting the fervor die down, but I don’t think we have time for that,” Caldwell said. “This is a time to lean in and have just civil discourse.”

According to Sieger, the expected dip in government funding as the result of a new Republican-led administration is not a new experience for the nonprofit sector, which has witnessed plenty of transitions as the federal, state and local levels. She told the audience of nearly 200 people that now is the time to communicate, not hunker down and hide.

“We need to be very vocal and tell people that we’re alive and well,” Sieger said. “We don’t rest on our laurels with regard to making news. The nonprofit sector with regard to health, housing, and human services is needed now more than ever before.”

The panelists maintain that as government funding continues to decrease for federal agencies charged with addressing issues such as homelessness, poverty, and affordable health care, communities will increasingly call on the nonprofit sector to step in and provide these services. Murray-Brown said research is showing that high net-worth individuals identify basic needs and their faith communities as number one and two, respectively, on their list of funding priorities. In addition, she said their average gift is $25,000 compared to $2,500 from the general population.

“They also volunteer more than the general population,” Murray-Brown said. “They give a bit differently than we may expect.”

As an example, most people might assume that high net-worth individuals give to pet causes, when in reality they give to support individual needs, Murray-Brown said.

It’s another example of why nonprofits should take time to research and study the characteristics and preferences of those with great financial means, she said.

“One of the things we need to think about is that recognizing that there is more high net-worth (individuals) and how we’re connecting with these individuals requires us to know them better,” Murray-Brown said.

The current growth in philanthropy can be traced in many ways to the concentration of wealth among high net-worth individuals. A 2014 Boston College study concluded that $59 trillion will be transferred across generations from 2007 until 2061. The majority of that wealth transfer is happening within a relatively small group of high net-worth families. For example, the study found the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own 75 percent of all of the wealth in the United States.

“No one should feel an ounce of guilt about pointing out that wealth disparity,” Caldwell said. “I can safely say that there is no penalty, harm or foul in pointing out the disparity.”

Luckily, nearly every community in the state of Michigan has established a community foundation to work to democratize philanthropy, Caldwell added.

To Sieger, people’s desire to create great communities across the state fits closely with the mission of community foundations.

“It’s going to fall on the champions and leaders of nonprofits to point out the challenges many are feeling, such as not being connected to their community, educational opportunities or the job market,” Caldwell said.

Murray-Brown agreed, noting that consistent and continuous engagement with those seeking out services provided by nonprofits will keep the sector relevant and evolving. Still, she noted that additional efforts also must be made, most especially around the collection and sharing of data among funders and nonprofits.

“Just having a conversation about data means so many different things,” Murray-Brown said. “One of the things I would really like to see changed in the philanthropic sector is that funders and nonprofits have access to the same data. This would allow us to see where the gaps are and work together as partners to solve problems.”

For its part, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has relied on data available through the Community Research Institute — which is housed at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy — when meeting with funders.

“I wanted to have my hands on information so that I could sit across the table from a CEO and say, ‘This is what the impact is,’” Sieger said. “The philanthropic sector is in a massive time of change. No longer are we the moneyed people or the elite. We need to take off the gloves and listen to all of our communities. Nonprofits and foundations need to help one another.”