Todd Jacobs said he believes a stronger business ecosystem will play a vital role in reshaping Muskegon County. Courtesy Community Foundation of Muskegon County
In the latest role of his diverse fundraising career, Todd Jacobs has come full circle. When he received a college scholarship from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, he had no idea he would become its president and CEO more than 30 years later.
“That idea that somebody was willing to help me be successful was imprinted upon me,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs was first introduced to the world of nonprofits and philanthropy as a sophomore at Aquinas College. He knew he enjoyed volunteering, and a couple business professors told him that could be a career path. He took internships at a couple of nonprofits, and that was what set him on his path, he said.
A transformational moment for him early-on was during a volunteer shift with the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. Through the program PRIDE, meaning Poverty Relief Is Developing Everyone, groups of young people worked to create awareness among one another on the issues of homelessness and self-sufficiency.
During a cleanup day along South Division Avenue, Jacobs was picking up newspapers and bottles in a narrow alleyway between two buildings. At 18 years old, he felt wonderful just to be helping in some way.
“But then I had this realization that I wasn't picking up newspapers and bottles, that actually what I was doing was dismantling somebody's bed,” Jacobs said.
Relatively unfamiliar with that sort of lifestyle, he was taken aback, and decided he wanted to work toward solutions that could keep people from being in such situations.
“So I've pursued a career pathway that has really allowed me to work with community members and organizations of all types to try to really create vibrant opportunities for everybody,” he said.
His first job out of college, however, was making office furniture chairs for Herman Miller, with the goal of working up to the marketing department. Besides his career goals, the plan was to “volunteer a ton.”
“And then I had realized after a few months that I was not having the opportunity to be as impactful within the community as I had hoped,” Jacobs said.
That’s when he applied for a development coordinator position for what is now Catholic Charities in Grand Rapids.
He then got his first experience with community foundations at a job working for the Council of Michigan Foundations in Grand Haven. He said that’s when he began to understand how to build a permanent resource that can continue addressing community needs. That’s also where he first worked with Pat Johnson, the first president of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and the person who awarded Jacobs the scholarship to attend Aquinas College.
During his work in the first couple of jobs, he spent several years working toward an MBA degree from Western Michigan University. He later also took coursework to be a certified financial planner, not to work in financials, but to have a better understanding of how it works.
“I was trying to fill gaps in terms of what I thought I needed to best serve,” Jacobs said.
Next in his career, he spent time working in development for Fremont Area Community Foundation, Heart of West Michigan United Way, Hackley Cornerstone Foundation for Hackley Hospital, Holland Hospital Foundation and Ferris State University.
Before taking his current position in January 2019, Jacobs spent seven years as vice president and chief philanthropy officer for the Fremont Area Community Foundation, having returned 15 years after leaving his first role there.
Finally, he got the chance to return to his hometown of Muskegon, be closer to family and give back to the community where he got his start.
“It’s not very often in your life that you get a chance to return the blessing that was bestowed upon you much earlier in your life,” Jacobs said.
While he believes the diverse types of organizations where he got his fundraising experience created a broad knowledge base and the ability to work with a variety of institutions, he really appreciates the role community foundations have in the places they serve.
“I love the idea of community foundations building long-term permanent resources to foster future prosperity forever,” he said.
“Those other institutions gave me an opportunity to really appreciate and understand how we can work collaboratively, work together, and I’m not sure I would have had that if I had different experiences. It's really been a very interesting career progression.”
He said this allows him to build strong relationships with donors, helping them align their charitable wishes with the needs of the community.
“You really get to have a very deep and intentional relationship with donors,” Jacobs said.
At the Muskegon community foundation, the strategic focus involves the three main areas of advancing education, fostering a dynamic local economy, and enhancing community trust and prosperity for all.
Through those focus areas the organization supports such specific issues as educational equity, lifelong literacy, affordable housing, affordable daycare, transportation issues and small business.
He said it all comes down to promoting the idea of prosperity for all.
“What I've experienced personally is when you realize that you're taking apart somebody’s bed, here's somebody that is not having the opportunity to participate in any kind of an inclusive way,” Jacobs said.
“How do we give people the tools so that they don't find themselves nesting in the alleyways or the streetways or the corridors or the doorways in our community?”
Sometimes that support comes through grantmaking, and sometimes it comes in other ways, particularly surrounding some of the larger systemwide community issues. He said it’s important to make sure the community is able to lend its voice in the work that gets done.
While Jacobs acknowledges he personally has not had the experiences of many of the people he serves, he said he’s done what he can to listen and learn. He volunteered for nine years at the Kent County juvenile detention center, where he tried to fill a role as a positive role model for the children there, for example.
The foundation currently is working with educational institutions and religious organizations to determine how they can build stronger support systems for children and families, he said.
“It's going to take these more collaborative approaches involving families and community organizations and donors and schools and health care institutions,” Jacobs said. “It's going to take all of us coming together to really truly build a vibrant community.”
A stronger business ecosystem will play a vital role in that, he said, and that’s where he hopes the foundation can play more of a pivotal role going forward.
“One of the things that we've done is we recognize that resources are finite. So the question really becomes for us, where can we make the greatest impact?” he said.
“So that's why we're really looking at educational attainment and the idea of fostering a strong local economy and making sure that we're building these opportunities to enhance community trust and the idea of prosperity for all.”