Inside Track: Cohen helps organizations in their time of need


Shannon Cohen started her consultancy firm, Community Ventures, as a way to work with a variety of causes about which she is passionate. Photo by Jim Gebben

Sometimes, Shannon Cohen thinks “The A-Team” theme song should play when she’s done with a job.

Cohen, a nonprofit consultant with her company Community Ventures, cherishes the times she is able to help an organization in its time of need, lending her skills and then moving on.

Currently, she’s serving as the interim executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, but she has no thoughts about being retained in the role, replacing longtime director Steve Faber.

“I’m like the A-Team,” Cohen said. “They brought the best of themselves, took on someone else’s battle as their own and, once it was resolved, they got in the black van and drove off to the next activity.

“I can be a part of anything — be it a fire fighter, fire preventer or fire starter.”

Since her childhood on the east side of Detroit, Cohen has been dedicated to servant leadership. At age 12, she held summer school “classes” on her front porch for the neighborhood children. Later, Cohen volunteered at the soup kitchen down the street from her downtown Detroit high school.

“My mom would always say, ‘There’s someone worse off than you are,’” Cohen said. She explained how she didn’t realize she had grown up poor until she arrived at Grand Valley State University.

Cohen’s mother, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employee, was avid about utilizing Detroit’s free days at museums and similar activities.

“I’m thankful for the foundation she instilled,” she added. “My mom created this reality within a reality. The sacrifices she made allowed us so many opportunities that I thought were normal parts of everyday life.”

Cohen grew up not far from the plants of the Big Three automakers, coming of age right about the time Japanese automakers were making a big push into the United States. Showing some foresight, her high school offered Japanese as a subject, and Cohen’s mom forced her to take the class.

She fell in love with the language and ended up taking classes in Japanese throughout high school and college. During her junior year, Cohen’s teacher approached her about a Toyota exchange program, which sent students from Japan to America and vice versa.

She signed up. Cohen went to Japan in the summer of 1993 with calling cards and some stamps. On a three-month, all-expenses-paid trip, Cohen spent time both in the cities and farmland of Japan.

“It was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had,” she said.

A year later, she was a freshman at Grand Valley State University. She decided to major in political science and international relations, in part because of her experiences in Japan and the auto industry.

“The world is global, and I wanted to be globally engaged,” she said. “There still are ties to that — life has a way of winding.”

Following graduation from college in 1999, she returned to Detroit and attended Lord of Faith Bible Training Center for two years before getting ready to move back to Grand Rapids for a job in the Sister Cities program.

The day she was packing for the move was Sept. 11, 2011.

“I was packing and the TV was on mute, and I saw a plane hit the building and thought to myself that I couldn’t be seeing it correctly,” Cohen said. “I was moving the next day, but the city had to rescind its offer because it didn’t know what would be required of municipalities and what would happen economically.”

Still, she had signed a lease for an apartment, so she had to move to Grand Rapids. Once she arrived, her car died in front of the house.

“I was back in the city with no job and no car,” she said.

Her savings helped her get through the tough times. While looking for a job, Cohen began volunteering at a variety of local nonprofits that worked for causes she cared about.

Then, in 2007, she decided to return to GVSU for a master’s degree in public administration.

“I was putting Band-Aids on problems,” she said. “I wanted to get to the root causes.”

In 2009, her final year in the master’s program, she started her business, Community Ventures.

“There was this niche and an opportunity to be a consultant in the nonprofit sector because I was passionate about so many causes and didn’t want to be tied to just one,” she said.

“This way, I can give the best of me to different organizations for a set period of time.”

Network180, Kent County’s designated Coordinating Agency of Mental Health and Substance Services, was Cohen’s first client. The organization brought Cohen in to help organize a community coalition to focus on underage substance abuse.

The Kent County Prevention Coalition’s Above the Influence – Kent County Youth Summit became the largest multi-ethnic youth conference in Kent County, growing from 12 children the first year to now serving more than 2,000 children every year.

The coalition received a Gold Standard commendation from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and was selected as one of 11 coalitions nationwide to partner with The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Cohen was invited to the White House.

Cohen also does equity and inclusion work with Heartside Ministry.

“A lot of times in the nonprofit sector you need that person to come in and adopt that vision and give it the same level of attention and excellence as you would if you weren’t so busy already,” she said. “People need that — an extra pair of hands and feet — with shrinking workplaces and expanding roles. They don’t have to look twice; they just get the final project and run with it.”

Currently, Cohen is focusing a lot on “soul care” and leadership longevity. Her focus has been on the nonprofit world, but she’s gearing up to make a transition into corporate work and executive mental health.

“Being a difference-maker can be a lonely place,” she said. “It’s a thankless place and somewhere you can’t really say, ‘I’m stressed,’ or ‘I’m burned out.’”

She said many leaders expend all their energy on getting to the top and making a difference and then burn out quickly. A lot of focus is put on physical fitness and health care, but little is done to ensure a healthy mind into the future, Cohen said.

“People shoot for the stars, then they crash and burn,” she said. “That’s awful. People do great things but deal with hardships behind closed doors, and it’s just a matter of time until those things show up in their external brand.”

Working with a variety of organizations on major projects has allowed her an inside look at how some leaders in the community feel. Those types of conversations date back to her childhood, when she said she was mindful of the wallflowers who received little attention.

“As I’m there, there will be these moments of vulnerability where they talk about what is going on with them emotionally,” Cohen said.

“There’s no space for leaders to do that now. As leaders, so many people notice their dynamic skills, but nobody notices their wounds.”

Aside from helping executives, Cohen also continues her mission of helping children. She’s one of 120 W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellows across the country. It’s a three-year program and takes the fellows to four locations across the country in a year to show how others are accomplishing innovative work with children, equity and inclusion.

“It gives me the space to look at how I can take all this to the next level,” she said. “I’m taking my limits off and I’m doing great work, but I can go higher.” 

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