Philanthropic endeavors have had an enormous amount of influence on Grand Rapids over the past several decades.
Without a major philanthropic focus on projects such as Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Downtown Market, the Medical Mile and Grand Rapids Art Museum, the city’s landscape would be much different than what the public sees today.
Where that focus will head in the future, however, is unknown, as the pillars of past philanthropic missions are beginning to step away and let the younger generations take over, said Kyle Caldwell, the executive director at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
Caldwell said older generations of philanthropists generally contributed to institutions doing good work and to building up the infrastructure in the community. Younger generations tend to focus their donations directly on causes they care about.
“This generation is institution agnostic,” Caldwell said. “They use technology to go directly to a cause. They don’t need intermediaries to say, ‘These are good causes.’ They can find the information directly.
“There’s an expectation to have a straighter line from time, talent, treasure to the people it’s affecting.”
Funneling efforts directly to causes has posed a problem for fundraising professionals — a problem they are working through on an ongoing basis, said Barbara Hohman, principal at Barbara Hohman Consulting and president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals of West Michigan. She also was the capital campaign director for the $70 million Grand Rapids Art Museum building in 2002.
“It’s very obvious to us in this community, but it’s something we’re seeing nationwide,” Hohman said. “As the big pillars step away, their families and children are equally interested in philanthropy but in different ways.”
Hohman said the younger generation wants to be actively involved in a cause at a grassroots level. She said organizations now need to prove to donors they are worth spending money on. Some organizations have been slow to embrace that change, she said.
On the plus side, the shift has led to a larger swath of people who are giving.
Social media and crowd-funding websites have opened up avenues of giving for everyone, said Diana Sieger, executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
Sieger said finding a way to stay relevant should be at the forefront of the minds of fundraisers. Listening to members of the community and discovering what causes they want to tackle is the most important task for GRCF, she said, and is a primary reason it focused on at-risk children’s programs and prevention programs in the 1990s and on the Challenge Scholars program for college scholarships the past five years.
How the foundation helps grow the next generation of donors and keep them in the community is a multi-generational effort, Sieger said.
“It hits all generations,” she said. “We want to deal with real things. Our focus is how do we make sure there is good access to everything?”
Sieger said it is important the West Michigan community continues to do what has made it a uniquely successful philanthropic community: work together.
“Even when we do disagree — and you do — it’s not a matter of, ‘You’re dead to me forever,’” Sieger said. “There are different priorities, but there are some real strengths when we do work well together.”
The degree of collaboration that takes place on a philanthropic level is unique to West Michigan, Caldwell said. Most communities have wealthy donors, but they often tend to work individually to support the causes about which they’re most concerned.
Caldwell cited the Grand Vision initiative — which led to Grand Action and the completion of Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and Downtown Market — as an example of how the community’s philanthropic pillars were of one mind in what they wanted to do. The younger generation will be different, he said.
“ArtPrize is a great example,” he said. “It’s not a brick-and-mortar effort. It’s a disruptive community engagement strategy that brings art and community together to think about economic development.
“It’s clear the next generation wants to do something impactful, but how they get there will be different.”
He pointed out that collaborative efforts are still taking place. With ArtPrize being a DeVos family endeavor, he said other family foundations might have stayed away from supporting it. But this year, the Frey Foundation offered seed grants to help artists fund their works.
The families of the philanthropic pillars are committed to maintaining the legacies and collaborative efforts in Grand Rapids, said Ellen Satterlee, who retires next month as CEO of The Wege Foundation.
Peter Wege was one of the philanthropic pillars of Grand Rapids until his death last year. Despite most of his children and grandchildren not living in the area, they are committed to the foundation’s investment in the local community, she said. A special initiative has 20 percent of the foundation’s annual grant-making dollars go to causes of the children’s choice, while the remaining 80 percent stays in West Michigan.
“Mr. Wege had some very strong philanthropic beliefs and major things he wanted to accomplish here in Grand Rapids,” Satterlee said. “It’s a real intentional decision they’ve made to honor their dad’s legacy and continue the work he was so passionate about.”
The commitment by philanthropic families to continue investment in the local community is unique to West Michigan, Caldwell said.
“The wealth that is made here, stays here,” Caldwell said. “That creates a footprint and a framework of strategy.”
He said that footprint is evident from all the family names on local buildings, but he said that sort of recognition is not a driving factor from the giving side. Rather, it’s a strategy often utilized by the fundraising side.
“It develops a lot of momentum and quality assurance,” he said. “It allows a nonprofit to say, ‘This is who’s involved and this is what we’re naming it.’”
Caldwell said the DeVos family disclosing its donation amounts on the Forbes Top Givers list — the family has given $1.2 billion, making it No. 20 on the list — is an important step.
“That’s a huge move,” he said. “They’re really being clear with what their intentions have been, what the giving has been and what it’s driving toward. They’re thinking about what’s next and want to be clear about donor intent.”
The mixture of physical philanthropic efforts and impactful programs will be key moving forward, Sieger said.
Caldwell said the way the nonprofit and for-profit communities and government interact in forming communities has changed from the past. He said 50 years ago, government played a larger role in figuring out how communities are organized.
Now, he said, philanthropy has a much larger role as a catalyst.
“There will always be a role for ‘big philanthropy’ in development because they can marshal resources and collect from different tables,” he said.
“Whether the next series of generations organize around neighborhoods and buildings or other forms is yet to be determined.
“It has been fun to watch ArtPrize and the amount of economic development that comes in. They aren’t driving where it goes. Through the arts, it’s building this economic vitality, but it’s a very different way to think about how a grand vision for Grand Rapids will unfold.”
Hohman agreed, but she suspects giving will be similar to previous generations as the younger generations mature.
“Every generation wants to put their stamp on history,” Hohman said. “This generation is social media related, and things are quick, quick, quick — ‘I want to make my own stamp, my own footprint.’
“Over time, we’ll see some of the older patterns. I fully expect younger donors, by the time they’re in their 50s and 60s, to be giving the same way their parents and grandparents did when they had a lot of money.”