Homegrown giving Community foundations help your gifts go further

It is difficult, maybe even impossible, to live or work in Ingham, Clinton or Eaton counties and not be affected by the Capital Region Community Foundation.

Often operating services in the background, while leveraging $90 million in assets, the foundation’s grants and those of the foundations it serves provide funds for education, charities, arts and entertainment, Girl Scouts, high school water polo, faith communities and more … much more. Altogether, the foundation manages more than 400 funds and is the largest charitable nonprofit in greater Lansing.

The past year was good for the foundation, said president and CEO Dennis Fliehman “We have good investment returns, good donations and good grant numbers.”

In 2016, the foundation received nearly $6 million in gifts and matched its five-year average 8.1 percent annual rate of return on investments. Combined with strong financial performance, an energized board of directors is committed to community leadership using “impact grants.”

While still committed to a broad spectrum of grant funds that spreads across the three counties, Fliehman said the foundation is providing funds to help nonprofit groups to fulfill their mission. A grant might provide money for a new computer system to improve a charity’s fundraising efforts or money might be allocated to defray the costs of new refrigerators for a food pantry, allowing it to better serve the community.

“Before we even consider a group’s application we might give them a couple thousand dollars just to evaluate their needs. We are trying to make our grants more effective, to be the best stewards of our funds,” Fliehman said.

For donations to support its grants, the foundation seeks out bequests, retirement assets, charitable remainder trusts, charitable gift annuities, charitable lead trusts and life insurance. Although its assets topped $90 million last year, the Capital Region Community Foundation is modest compared to some of Michigan’s large private foundations.

The Battle Creek-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Michigan’s largest, reported $9.6 billion in combined trust and foundation assets as of Aug. 31, 2016 – year-over-year growth of $1.1 billion. Its cash distributions for charitable activities totaling $399 million.

Second to Kellogg, is the Kresge Foundation; which estimated its assets in 2015 at $3.6 billion and reported that it approved 370 grants totaling $125.2 million, in addition to nine social investment commitments worth $20.3 million.

Third is the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation which reports 2015 assets of $2.7 billion and $119.1 million in grants awarded.
All three foundations are amongst the nation’s largest and spread their grants broadly in the U.S. and overseas.

The Mott Foundation also invests heavily in its hometown; with local grants totally $53.6 million in 2015. It provided millions of dollars to schools, for arts and culture, economic revitalization and evolving community needs. Mott stated that its goal is “to help our hometown of Flint solve problems, create opportunities and build a vibrant future for the community and its residents.”

Robert Collier, president and CEO of the Michigan Council of Foundations, acknowledges that organizations like the Mott Foundation can have significant impact on their communities. But he added that 80 percent of charitable contributions come from individual givers. This is the sweet spot for regional community foundations.

“Because they are public charities, they offer real flexibility to respond to a community,” said Collier. “They offer a sense of permanency. People seem to like and need things that are going to be around forever, especially in a time of great change. Also, they offer a vehicle for every citizen to be a philanthropist. In this day and age where everything is so politicized, what do people trust? They trust the nonprofit sector. It’s non-partisan, not in one camp or another.”

Collier said there are 64 community foundations in Michigan with total assets in excess of $3.2 billion and annual grant making of $200 million a year. For its part, The Capital Region Community Foundation has three ways it encourages donors to make a difference: community endowments, donor services and community leadership.

Community endowments include unrestricted funds and field-of-interest funds. For these, the foundation handles investment management and administration of an endowment, said Fliehman. As of the last fiscal year, the foundation reports that it supports more than 80 nonprofit organizations and public entities.

Donor services provides hands-on support for an array of donor advised funds, designated funds, agency funds and scholarship funds. “We help donors set up endowment funds that benefit charities in the way that they want them to be benefited,” Fliehman said.

It is the foundation’s community leadership initiatives that has the broadest impact on the Lansing region. It wants to be more proactive in addressing community needs by identifying problems that it can help solve. It’s a results-oriented approach, mandated by the board of directors.

“The best way to help someone in need of human services may be with a job, by helping the economy grow,” Fliehman said. A key to this is placemaking and the foundation is committed to improving public space, making the community more attractive and engaging.

The foundation is funding programs to reimagine public spaces which it defines as neighborhoods, downtowns, waterfronts, parks, plazas, markets, arts and activities that create culture and a social environment. There is a large focus on what it calls the urban core, the Michigan Avenue corridor from the Capitol to Abbot Road and the downtown Lansing riverfront.

Impact grants can total as much as $75,000 as can capacity building grants, but some of the foundation’s awards are simply strategic and for placemaking, are inexpensive.

“Sometimes it may just be putting a bench in a place for people to congregate,” Fliehman said.

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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