Welcome to 826michigan’s tenth anniversary! In 2015, we’re celebrating ten years of 826michigan by highlighting ten people who have significantly shaped our organization since 826michigan opened its doors in 2005. Follow along with former 826michigan Communications Coordinator Amy Wilson this year as she explores how the contributions of many individuals have contributed to 826michigan’s evolution: from a tiny operation to a full-fledged nonprofit organization serving over 3,000 young people in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor.
James A. and Faith Knight Foundation
I really want to be a partner with the nonprofit. I believe in the nonprofits, I believe in the people who run them, and I think they know what they need best . . . As a funder, at the end of each year, I sit at my desk and my “no” pile is so big and my “yes” pile is so small. I try to give myself that time every December to go through my “yes” pile and to feel really proud and really happy to partner with the people that I do. 826michigan is the number one thing on my list to volunteer at when I’m retired, when I have more time. They’ve definitely touched my heart.
This month’s honoree Carol Knight-Drain represents the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation, which makes grants to nonprofits in Jackson and Washtenaw Counties.
Carol, and her foundation, have made nine grants to 826michigan, beginning in late 2007. Their grants have ranged from $10,000 to $25,000. All have been focused on capacity building – that’s the internal side. Among other things, James A & Faith Knight funds have allowed 826michigan to improve our data collection and management, undergo our first strategic planning project, strengthen our infrastructure by using the services of external bookkeepers, and appreciate our volunteers and interns for the work they do every single day with over 3,000 students in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. This summer, 826michigan will engage in another strategic planning session – for the next ten years! – also thanks to the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation.
Our Executive Director, Amanda Uhle, says, “All of these projects funded by the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation provided an essential backbone behind the scenes to the much more visible work we do in our tutoring labs and classrooms, in our student-written books, and in the public eye. The foundation, specifically Carol, stands out as a truly forward-thinking funder. Her contributions to fund the ‘hidden’ needs of our organization have had huge power and great importance – ultimately, they’ve made us the strong organization we are today.”
As an 826michigan fan and supporter, I’m very grateful to Carol Knight-Drain for what she’s done to fundamentally and intelligently support the work of the organization. As Amy Wilson, person, the word “grateful” doesn’t seem to cover it – one of the grants the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation made, all the way back in 2011, was what allowed 826michigan to hire me as a staff member after I had finished my AmeriCorps term of service with the organization. In 2011, in Michigan, as a recent graduate with a degree in Creative Writing, finding any job would have felt like a miracle. To get the chance to work and use my writing at 826michigan, a place at which I had volunteered for a long time and which I deeply admired, was stunning. It’s not going too far to say it changed my life – I learned about nonprofits, about service, about how to use and develop my own skills – and I still work in the nonprofit sector, and I probably will for a long time. Without being too personal, that’s what I want to say.
And it wasn’t just me, either – funding from the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation allowed 826michigan to hire our first Volunteer Coordinator, the lovely Frances Martin, LMSW, and helped us add more time for D’Real Graham to work supporting our office administratively. That’s what I think about when I think about the somewhat opaque term, “capacity building”. I think about what it means for we nonprofit folks as actual people: our jobs, our job security, the systems that help us tear out our hair a little less and focus a little more. The quality of our lives when we are at work, which since we are nonprofit people is a lot of our lives. And this of course ripples out into the work of the organization as a whole.
826michigan spends a lot of time ensuring that our programs, whether at our tutoring lab or out in the world, create spaces that are positive and welcoming for students and volunteers alike. We do that because we believe that these environments are essential for lasting, substantive learning. But there’s also the truly wonderful thing that 826michigan is a great place to work – to be an employee, to dedicate your time, to think about into the future. In my opinion that’s a big part of why we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary with energy and with hope.
That’s the impact that Carol Knight-Drain, and the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation, have had for us. Let’s hear more from her.
“I’m Michigan born and raised. I grew up in Jackson. And I live in Ann Arbor now.
I am the President of the Board of the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation, and I do all the grant-making. I have no staff currently. The foundation funds causes related to women and girls, specifically, the environment, natural world and animals, and the catch-all category — that’s capacity building for anything that would strengthen the nonprofit. That’s the most competitive.
My interest in funding capacity-building projects roots back to when I inherited the foundation about fifteen years ago. I didn’t know a lot about this area of expertise. My side had always been the nonprofit side, interning, volunteering, etc. I didn’t have a lot of understanding about the private foundation world. I inherited the foundation completely out of nowhere.
One thing I love about 826michigan is that you can always learn, and it’s such a great and compassionate place to learn. I’m one of those people who wants to be a life-long learner. So I thought — well I’ll just jump in and learn. How do I do this responsibly? I took a ton of classes at the NEW Center, and I joined three boards — I joined a statewide board, a brand-new grassroots nonprofit board, and a local very well established board. I was trying to learn: how do people make decisions? How do funders decide what to fund?
I learned very quickly about the relationship between nonprofits and funders. It didn’t make sense to me how so many funders only wanted to fund programs, or ideas, maybe to get publicity or to make them look successful. Everyone has the right to fund what they want, but I realized as I started to do site visits and meet nonprofits that a lot of nonprofits feel like they have to create a program to get some dollars. I really feel like they should be the ones to decide what they’re going to do. I really want to be a partner with the nonprofit. I believe in the nonprofits, I believe in the people who run them, and I think they know what they need best. I want to help get the services to the people who really need them. I put my trust in the nonprofits, and see how it goes.
I also have a reputation for funding places other people won’t. I like to see these really grassroots nonprofits start. How are they ever going to get up and running in the first place? I love to see nonprofits like 826michigan that are so mission-filled and so passionate about what they do. The good part is I don’t have to answer to anyone about what I do. That gives me freedom that many other foundations don’t have.
I think 826michigan is an unbelievably funky cool place. It’s awesome that it’s in Ann Arbor, because the other chapters are in big cities. It fits into the vibe of Ann Arbor perfectly. I’ve known about the robot shop and walked by it, but I never really knew what it was. I thought it was the most awesome place. I go there and visit sometimes — to see these kids learning in a place that’s very cool, that they want to go, where they don’t have to worry about what people will think, where they can get the support and help they need. I have two kids myself and have known some kids who go there.
I know and feel that that strong leadership is hugely important to nonprofits. Those conversations are just starting within the funders, which I think is interesting and good thing. [826michign Executive Director] Amanda Uhle has such a quiet confidence. She always has everything together. She always sees how she wants the organization to go — I think it’s fantastic.
It’s a fantastic relationship and I’m very very proud to be a partner with 826michigan. When I’m down there, and sometimes I stop by as a person on the street just to see, I’ve been really proud to see the growth. The moves into Ypsilanti and into Detroit — the need is so big all the way around — I’ve been proud to play a really small role in seeing that 826michigan stays around and can grow and have the staff that they need. I’m proud to be a partner. It makes me really happy.
As a funder, at the end of each year, I sit at my desk and my ‘no’ pile is so big and my ‘yes’ pile is so small. I try to give myself that time every December to go through my ‘yes’ pile and to feel really proud and really happy to partner with the people that I do. 826michigan is the number one thing on my list to volunteer at when I’m retired, when I have more time. They’ve definitely touched my heart. I’m a huge reader and I love to read — I’m in awe of people who can write. Books and reading and writing and the whole thing has always been a huge part of my life. I love seeing what 826michigan publishes and seeing the light bulb go on for kids.”
Carol Knight-Drain is now the fourth individual we’ve met during this retrospective. Like parent Jeannette Jackson, she is willing to take risks and invest in new things. Like board member Keith Hood, she is thoughtful and self-educating. Like business leader Kevin Spall, she is interested in meaningful support and community-building. Like the people we will continue to meet, she believes in education and in creativity – not only abstractly, but as a continuing practice and a vibrant way of life.
Oh boy. It’s great! That’s what 826michigan is, a collection of these individuals. You are, or can be, one of them.
Next month: we hear from one of our most accomplished friends.
Amy Wilson is a writer living in New York City. From 2010-2014, she was a member of 826michigan’s staff.