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GVSU researchers use new method to explore giving traits of specific communities

  • The cover page of the philanthropic character of communities report by the Johnson Center

Posted on June 27, 2017

Researchers from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University have released a new report that demonstrates a new method of defining and analyzing the philanthropic traits and character of a community.

The report, Understanding the Philanthropic Character of Communities, applies the new method to two separate case studies that focus on the communities of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. 

"This kind of research is unique because it combines publicly available data with original, qualitative interviews with philanthropic leaders to identify patterns and trends of how giving is done in a specific community," said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Johnson Center.

"This report can help identify possible ways to influence giving on a local level," Caldwell said. "Fundraisers, too, might benefit from a deeper understanding of giving in their community."

The new method of analyzing the philanthropic nature of a community focuses on several specific variables, including ways that donors give, the types of issues that received the most funding, expectations from peers about giving, whether or not gifts were anonymous or named, and the degree of collaboration among donors. 

"By focusing on the details of how the most prolific donors in a community are giving, we're able to better understand and find patterns that reveal the distinctive and unique philanthropic character of each community," said Michelle Miller-Adams, political science professor and a researcher for the report. "By looking at the data and consulting with 'expert witnesses' to philanthropy in these communities, our team was able to reach more nuanced conclusions."

Independent analysis of giving patterns in each of the two communities shows that in both Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, dollars and leadership have been critical to preserving the health of each community and preventing the economic and population declines that have characterized many other cities in the region. 

The analysis also shows that there are significant differences in the tendencies and focus of the most prolific donors in each community. Coordination between donors, the leadership roles played by funders, the role of religion and the types of programs that are funded varied between the two communities. 

The research focused on case studies that compared approaches to giving to the arts (ArtPrize in Grand Rapids and the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo), K-12 education (Challenge Scholars in Grand Rapids and the Kalamazoo Promise), and downtown development. 

Grand Valley's research team included Miller-Adams and Johnson Center researchers Grace Denny, Teri Behrens and Michael Moody.

The full report is available online at bit.ly/PhilanthropicCharacterReport .