A Conversation with
Dorothy A. Johnson
Dorothy A. ("Dottie") Johnson is a very busy woman. Everyone I interviewed about her mentioned her cell phone. One grantmaker recalled being engaged in deep conversation only to be asked to hold, as Dottie placed her Diet Coke order at the drive-through window! When we discussed a date for this interview, I heard a flurry of planner pages being flipped as she described her rapid-fire itinerary: "Ill be in Grand Rapids this afternoon, Flint tomorrow, Detroit "
Maximizing the potential of every waking moment is the essence of Dottie Johnson, this years recipient of the Council on Foundations annual Distinguished Grantmaker Award. She recently "graduated" (not retired) after 25 years from the presidency of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF)the largest regional association of grantmakers (RAG) in the country. Johnson has been involved on every level of philanthropylocal, state, regional, national and internationaland is one of the few philanthropy professionals left in the field who was there right at the very beginning of RAGs.
She helped create CMF and other statewide philanthropy organizations, including the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the Michigan Community Service Commission, the Aspen Institute-Michigan Nonprofit Research Program and the Grand Valley State University Center on Philanthropy (now the Dorothy A. Johnson Center on Philanthropy).
Under her leadership, CMF has successfully positioned itself to become a regrantor of millions of dollars won by the state through the Exxon and tobacco settlements. CMF has also cultivated a legislative network described by Council Senior Vice President and General Counsel John A. Edie as "quintessential." In fact, CMF successfully lobbied for legislation establishing a tax credit for gifts to community foundations that included the first governmental definition of community foundations for special tax treatment purposes.
And not only was she the first female board chair of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, but she has been or is currently on the boards of numerous national philanthropy-related organizations, including: the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations and the Foundation Center. Johnson has achieved all of that while moonlighting as a wife, mother, grandmother, civic leader, and yes, even a soprano in the church choir.
Following is an excerpt of our recent conversationover the phone, of course.
Youve watched CMF grow into the largest U.S. RAG, and along the way youve kept in touch with your Capitol Hill representatives. Have you seen any changes in their philanthropy views?
CMF set up committees of members to "cover" each member of the Michigan congressional delegation, and arranges for at least one meeting with each per year. What goes into coordinating all of those efforts?
Second, the RAG must be responsive. We have something at CMF that could be replicated all over the country, and that is our Allen Fund. Its a permanent endowment, now amounting to about $140,000, which was put in place by our members to honor the first chair of our Government Relations Committee, William W. Allen. Those funds facilitate the grantmaker meetings with legislators, and help underwrite the directories and written information we provide.
Can you discuss examples of instances where developing relationships with the legislators has paid off?
A second example is the allocation of the 1987 Exxon oil spill restitution funds. In this case, Michigan received $70 million. CMF, together with our members, suggested that $3 million of that be regranted through CMF to the participating community foundations for making grants to save energy in their local communities, and we did that.
The third, and probably by far the largest, will be the tobacco settlement. The state legislature, with the governors recommendation, is allocating a portion of the $8 billion tobacco settlement to CMF to be regranted to every participating community foundation in the state to make grants for Healthy Youth and Senior funds.
One thing to remember is CMFs board pledged to serve every citizen in the state with a community foundation, and we achieved that within ten years. By definition, then, we certainly have a network already in place to work with the legislature on these things.
How has CMF avoided falling into party affiliation snares?
Whats the potential for replication of some of the statewide collaborations that youve been instrumental in, such as the Michigan AIDS Fund and the tobacco settlement that you mentioned?
Im trying very hard to talk about RAGs in general and not brag, but a key point for us was that CMF had a track record of 15 years of servant leadership before creating the Michigan AIDS Fund. Its very interesting that if you charted the accomplishments of CMF, many of the things were talking about have happened in the last five years, and one is built upon another.
What led to your recent successes?
Youve been quite involved in youth philanthropy programs. How do you see them affecting the future of philanthropy?
We also have examples of those same young grantmakers making career decisions to work in the nonprofit sector. We are building that next generation of volunteers and givers.
Has it been a struggle communicating what philanthropy is?
You helped to start several foundations and RAGs, both in the United States and abroad. What are the opportunities and responsibilities of grantmakers to reach out globally?
And, quite honestly, I learn something every time CMF has a delegation visit from another country. Ive learned to listen and ask questions to see how they might approach different situations. Being able to talk with many of them informally about how they nurture philanthropy has taught me that its not that much different from how we do things in the United States. However, I do find the fact that so many other countries do not have tax codes that encourage philanthropy to be a real stumbling block for them.
How would you get a foundation started in that type of atmosphere?
Was it challenging to become the first female board chair of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation?
And I guess by extension, today, I am thrilled to see that more and more women and minorities are serving as trustees and CEOs of grantmaking organizations. When I started in this business 25 years ago, that was not the case. Actually, I have always wanted to see diversity in the grantmaking arena in all respects. It needs to be done. Many people have the wisdom required to do this work.
What is your vision for the future of the RAG movement?
As chair of the Forum of RAGs New Ventures in Philanthropy National Advisory Committee, what effect do you think this much-heralded transfer of wealth will have on foundations and, in turn, the RAGs that serve them?
How is the CMF preparing for this change?
With so many board memberships to your credit, what do you think it takes to be an effective board member?
What is your secret to wearing several career hats while balancing the demands of family life as a wife, mother and grandmother with all of your other civic involvementssinging in the church choir, even?
I find that my job with the regional association is never really "done." I just try to manage it in a way thats responsive to the most members in the timeliest fashion.
Is there anything that frustrates you that you wish you had gotten done?
What are your concerns for the field in the new millennium?
Looking at the Forbes 400 list or older wealthy donors, I wonder, are they sharing that ethic with their children? David and Lucile Packard were a good example of where it was transferred and done beautifully. Im concerned that that happens for foundations and corporate giving programs of all sizes.
Im also concerned about disengagementindividuals who dont seem to care any more. This is also a problem thats on the rise that grantmakers need to do something about.
What are your own plans for the future?
Plus, Ive just learned that our daughter and her husband are expecting twins in June.
Allan R. Clyde is associate editor of Foundation News & Commentary.