Chris McGuigan said her job is truly the best in the world, working with people who just want to do something good. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Chris McGuigan, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, has been involved in the community ever since moving to West Michigan to practice law, after graduating from Indiana University Law School in Bloomington.
“When I got here, I just became involved in civic and charitable activities,” said McGuigan. “One of the things I had the good fortune of doing was being a trustee on the Community Foundation board of trustees.”
When the former president/CEO of the Community Foundation decided to retire, McGuigan said she was asked to apply for the job during the national search process.
“I thought about it and I decided I was very interested. I got the job,” said McGuigan. “The reason I was interested in the position was because I saw what the Community Foundation does and what it could do to improve the lives of the community, and I became passionate about it.”
For nearly 16 years, McGuigan has led the Community Foundation for Muskegon County to engage generous people in improving the community throughout the county. The organization manages more than 1,200 funds and received financial support from more than 3,800 donors in 2014. It received more than $23.2 million in gifts or grants and has more than $182.5 million in total assets as of 2014.
“This truly is the best job in the world, in that the people who are attracted to come to the Community Foundation with their money, with their interest, with their passion — they are good people,” said McGuigan. “Not only are they good people, but also they bring their best selves here. Every day we get to work with people who just want to do something good.”
CFFMC’s more than 1,200 funds range from unrestricted dollars designated to supporting unmet needs in the region and specific community or educational scholarships, to donor advised funds, organization endowment and community service or nonprofit support.
As an organization, CFFMC engages with “generous people who want to do good things for their community” who may have a specific interest in mind, and also provides guidance to potential donors on critical needs in the community, according to McGuigan.
“The needs of the community are endless. There is no place in Muskegon County you could look and not find a place where a donor, through the Community Foundation, has made a difference — and that is especially true downtown,” said McGuigan.
“We have donors who build art, we have donors who beautify parks, and we have a lot of donors who care about the children of Muskegon — in schools, in recreation and in feeding kids.”
For more than 50 years, the foundation has strived to make a difference and now has identified three fundamental issues to address going forward, to either lead or to form partnerships to lead, according to McGuigan.
One of the areas is increasing diversity and inclusion.
“We are a segregated community, but we are an accepting community. There is a whole lot of caring throughout this community for each other, but we live separate lives to a great extent — separated by race and separated by economic status,” said McGuigan.
“If we could make a difference in that, so everybody understood they had an equal opportunity in Muskegon, we would be reaching our goal.”
The two other fundamental issues are working toward a system of unified decision-making to strengthen the community and simplify the process of developing community-wide priorities, and increasing the feeling of hope in the younger generation.
“There have been high levels of violence in the past few years, largely among young people, and we know that is related to lack of hope, lack of feeling they have a future,” said McGuigan. “We are focused on changing that, mostly through offering educational opportunities, recreation and employment opportunities to youth.”
Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College, has served as a CFFMC trustee since 2010. He said the organization understands the need for an enhanced talent pool in Muskegon.
“Chris McGuigan is a visionary leader, seeing community needs and presenting solutions well in advance of what may be expected,” said Nesbary. “Under (her) leadership, the CFFMC has increased college scholarships, placed a renewed focus on early childhood education … and supported education and talent development initiatives through the business and greater community.”
CFFMC manages a scholarship fund of approximately $1.5 million designated to students in Muskegon, Oceana and Mason counties, according to its website. Muskegon County alone has more than 200 scholarship funds for current high school, homeschooled, college or non-traditional students.
Nesbary highlighted two other notable CFFMC efforts helping to enhance the “perception and reality” of Muskegon: the Love Muskegon campaign and Western Avenue Corridor Development initiatives.
McGuigan said the organization has a focus showing the community how great it is and the potential for what it could become.
“There are world-class things happening in Muskegon, world-class people who walk around Muskegon, and yet for a long time — I do think this is really changing — we had a low estimation of ourselves,” said McGuigan.
“Now I think what we have is the challenge of spreading knowledge. We know we are good, but we need to tell everybody else about it and we are not used to that, we are not used to bragging.”
As a community foundation covering an entire county, one of the challenges CFFMC faces is to ensure not only that grant-making and donor engagement takes place throughout the region but also to make sure the work is recognized. Although a lot of work appears to happen in the downtown area due to donor interest, investment takes place in every corner of the county, McGuigan said.
“The downtown is sort of the physical manifestation of the growth of Muskegon, but we do have to bring the whole community along on that ride, and I think we can,” said McGuigan. “The challenge is to make sure we cover the entire county — not only engage donors from everywhere, but make grants everywhere.”
After 16 years serving as a liaison to the board, leading staff members and maintaining organizational direction, McGuigan said she is excited about approaching big issues, knowing the potential for making an impact in the future.
She acknowledged the importance of her fellow colleagues in the community foundation sector.
“We are a very collegial group, especially in West Michigan. Muskegon never feels alone in its efforts because of the rich community foundation feel we have in West Michigan,” she said. “I am excited about tackling big things and believing you can really do them, and that comes from what we know to be the hopes and dreams of the people who have given their resources to do it.”