Investing in Nonprofit Leadership

March 18, 2016

The nonprofit sector in the Unites States is remarkably wide-ranging and touches many aspects of life — from the arts, culture and the humanities to education and research, health, the environment, international relief, religious organizations and much more. Few other societies rely so heavily on nonprofit organizations and volunteer efforts to provide so many essential services to citizens.

In Michigan, almost 12 percent of the workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. In addition, state residents donate more than $4.7 billion per year to causes and charitable organizations they care about. Nonprofits are an important part of our regional economy, woven into the fabric of our communities at every level.

The Community Foundation has a deep commitment to strengthening the charitable sector in southeast Michigan. One of the most important ways we do this is by awarding grants for professional development. Well-trained employees are the backbone of any successful organization, but training requires a serious commitment of staff time and money, which many nonprofits find impossible to allocate when budgets are tight and community needs are great.

Here are three examples of programs that demonstrate the value of thoughtful, coordinated investments in helping people grow in their ability to do their jobs effectively.

Supporting Detroit's Revitalization

In 2014, at the height of the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation established a fund at the Community Foundation to support training and development for some of the key organizations working on Detroit’s turnaround. Both Knight Foundation and Community Foundation staff were aware of just how many critical responsibilities were on the shoulders of the city’s hardworking nonprofits — and how vital their efforts were in pulling Detroit through the crisis.

Proposals were solicited from organizations working in areas such as land use, city planning and economic development. The nonprofits were encouraged to think big: If resources were available, what professional development opportunities would make the most difference to their organization’s ability to fulfill its mission and help Detroit and its residents?

“This program has done more than build skills,” said Katy Locker, Detroit program director for Knight Foundation. “We have heard from participants that this investment has made them feel that their efforts and sacrifices are valued."

The responses were so impressive that more than $400,000 in training stipends were granted. One hundred sixty-four individuals from 26 Detroit nonprofits attended programs ranging from executive coaching and leadership training to content-specific courses and national conferences that gave participants the opportunity to see how other cities were addressing issues and problems similar to Detroit’s.

Justin Schott, executive director of EcoWorks, attended the Schools Sustainability Summit, sponsored by the Center for Green Schools of the U.S. Green Building Council. His organization works with Detroit schools to cut costs and improve student health by reducing energy consumption and creating environmentally sustainable facilities and practices.

“Attending the summit connected me with an impressive network of thought leaders and helped me map out a strategy to expand our program to new school districts,” said Schott. “Perhaps more importantly, the experience changed the way I value professional development and motivated me to invest in a comprehensive leadership development strategy for all staff.”

Last fall, the participants were brought together to share stories about the benefits their organizations gained from their training opportunities. Some of their experiences can be found at At the event, Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation announced an investment of more than $150,000 for another round of training.

“By advancing the talented people who are working to build a more vibrant future for Detroit, we are able to help them perform better, but we are also giving them a reason to want to stay connected to our city and our region,” said Katy Locker, Detroit program director for Knight Foundation.

World-Class Training on a Nonprofit Budget

There’s a reason why entrepreneurs pay thousands of dollars to experience the business training methods developed by Zingerman’s. During the company’s 30-plus years in business, it has been recognized for the outstanding quality of everything it undertakes, from its famed Ann Arbor deli and restaurant to its wholesale bakery and specialty mail-order business. Its ZingTrain division has been sharing this recipe for success through seminars, workshops and training DVDs since 1994.

Such training is unaffordable for the average nonprofit organization, but thanks to a partnership with Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW) there is now a ZingTrain program tailored to their budgets and unique needs. NEW was founded more than 20 years ago to provide consultation, education and resources to the nonprofit community, so the collaboration was a natural fit with their mission.

Thanks to a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation, the new program, Leadership DELI — Develop, Elevate, Lead, Innovate — is being offered to nonprofits throughout southeast Michigan.

An underlying theme of Leadership DELI is looking at nonprofit service through the lens of best-in-class customer service. While it is the mission of every nonprofit to serve others, sometimes the pressures of limited resources can make it challenging to provide the best possible customer service experience to all clients.

The program consists of seven seminars over a seven-month period. In addition to building solid skills, Leadership DELI also leads to close ties among the participants, who become a ready-made support group for one another as they move forward in their careers.

Building Capacity in St. Clair County

St. Clair County is the northern- and eastern-most county in the Community Foundation’s seven-county region. It’s a diverse area, boasting miles of freshwater coastline and beaches, a storied maritime history, diverse industry and acres of productive farmland. With a population of just over 160,000, it is less populous than most of our seven-county region, with a rate of poverty that is just slightly higher than the national average.

For several years, the Community Foundation has been working to grow the capacity of nonprofits in the county to meet community needs and improve the quality of life for residents through strategic grant-making. A key partner in these efforts is the Port Huron-based Stebbins family, whose fund at the Community Foundation has supported more than $7.5 million in grants over the past 10 years.

Grants from the Stebbins Family Fund at the Community Foundation have helped to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations in St. Clair County through training and professional development opportunities for staff. The Stebbins family has a strong commitment to programs and organizations addressing rural poverty and family literacy.

Grants from the Stebbins Family Fund at the Community Foundation have helped to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations in St. Clair County through training and professional development opportunities for staff. The Stebbins family has a strong commitment to programs and organizations addressing rural poverty and family literacy.

With their support, the Community Foundation recently offered training to 18 nonprofits to help them better manage and expand their organizations. The Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University was enlisted to create two sessions for executive directors and board members covering such topics as governance structures, board engagement, management, the legal duties of boards, and strategies for increased funding and impact.

Denise Dalrymple, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southeast Michigan, whose service area includes St. Clair County, said of the experience: “This was one of the best trainings on boards I have attended in 30 years. Thank you, Stebbins family, for this opportunity. It is so great when the patron and the gift are in such great harmony. It was very much appreciated.”