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Tonya Allen: 5 Lessons from My Experiences in Michigan Philanthropy

This article was originally published by the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF). Read the original post.

Forward by Kyle Caldwell, president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations

We often say that philanthropy is more than grants. This is very true and frequently we hold up the many examples of our investments, our partnerships, our deep learning and expertise, and our impact all as part of our contributions to bettering our communities and society. There is one more important contribution we make and is our most valuable asset ─servant leaders.

As our community continues our collective equity journey and efforts to advance our love for humankind, we welcome reflections from Tonya Allen’s years of equity-centered leadership in Michigan philanthropy as she begins a new chapter at the McKnight Foundation. Tonya is one of our servant leaders who has moved us with her words and actions over the years, redefining collaboration and showing us the power of possibilities. She has been an incredible collaborator, partner, ally and for me personally an honest, ethical, and devoted friend. 

She has always genuinely shared who she is with our CMF community, inspiring us, challenging us, and energizing us as we all lead with love in our hearts for Michigan and the communities we serve. We will miss her as she geographically moves her focus, but always know that her contributions and radical love of Michigan, Detroit, and our children will endure. 


In December 2020, I made the difficult decision to announce that I was stepping down as president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation to lead the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. I had built a family, a career, and a personal mission around Detroit, including 16 years of service at The Skillman Foundation.  I never imagined myself leaving my hometown. But I’m committed above all to advancing racial equity, and to do so from the site where our country lost George Floyd, Philando Castile, and so many others—and where a major city is wrestingling with real policy issues—is something I could not turn away from. It was a calling I could not ignore.

Michigan is a special place with a strong philanthropic sector. I am privileged to have started my career in philanthropy here. Before joining The Skillman Foundation in 2004, I worked as a program officer for both the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Thompson-McCully Foundation. I founded the Detroit Parent Network, a parent membership organization dedicated to improving educational options for children. And I led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative in Detroit.

I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with partners across Michigan philanthropy. I’ve learned from seasoned veterans as well as from newcomers who bring new life to the field. These lessons can be applied to all Michigan philanthropy, from hyper-local foundations to those with both state- and nationwide reach.

I now leave home to begin my next chapter, with full confidence that the current and future generations will lead Michigan to a more prosperous and equitable future. I can’t wait to see the innovative and far-reaching impact the philanthropic sector will continue to have.

Lesson One: Change the Odds

Over decades, a narrative arose about Detroiters—and, especially, Detroit children—needing to overcome the odds. According to this narrative, Detroit children must surmount the odds stacked against them. If a Detroiter went on to earn a college education, start a business, or obtain another goal, they were labeled as “beating the odds.” They had overcome barriers like poverty, violence, and struggling schools that are said to be synonymous with their identity. The “beat the odds” narrative defines Detroit children by the obstacles they face, rather than by their abilities and aspirations, and it  reinforces the factors that limit children’s potential, rather than reducing them. Instead of wondering how someone achieves greatness despite such hurdles, we must wonder why the hurdles exist in the first place.

Philanthropy should understand the challenges facing a community by listening to those impacted and use its resources to address those challenges. Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to help communities remove barriers to education, economic prosperity, health, and other pieces of happy and healthy lives. We can come together to influence leadership, industry, and policy (e.g. Launch Michigan) to reshape systems for the better. If we want to change lives, we must change the systems that negatively affect those lives and create a clear path for all people to achieve their aspirations.

Michigan philanthropy can play a lead role in changing the odds for all Michiganders. For the betterment of our state, philanthropy should focus on improving the systems that have a heavy determination in life outcomes for Michiganders.

Lesson Two: Balance Content and Context

In the field of philanthropy, there is an often-unstated tension between national and local philanthropic organizations. This tension usually hinges on the differences in philanthropic approaches and the geographic scopes of their respective work.

Generally, national philanthropy focuses on being content experts. They are populated with smart people with smart ideas. They master their subject matter, building a depth of knowledge regarding what strategies have worked. Then, they pursue efforts to replicate and share their ideas by finding communities that are ready for investment and are most likely to succeed in replication. Generally speaking, in many ways, they can assess conditions and glean lessons on what will help constitute success by comparing organizations, capacities and communities, which is not easily available to local foundations that are confined by geography.

Many local foundations focus their attention on context— such as building relationships, understanding the environment, and navigating politics. This is a time-consuming endeavor and complex work that often leaves little attention or capacity to build extensive content knowledge. These foundations may rely on the content expertise housed at national foundations without a strong understanding of how it applies in their local community. The best of local philanthropic organizations become good at learning and operating within their local context. This context knowledge provides them unique wisdom regarding how to implement strategies.

My statements are generalizations intended to illustrate and emphasize this important tension between content and context that is crucial to successfully addressing social issues, including changing conditions for children. Content, despite the substance and fidelity of the subject matter, doesn’t always translate within local contexts. This is especially true for Detroit, as many national models have attempted to expand to Detroit and have faced significant challenges as they have underestimated the conditions of the local environment and frailty of its public-serving systems. Likewise, those who focus more on context often are mired in the challenges of a geography and are less likely to spend significant time ensuring that the work they are supporting is grounded in sound research and is implemented with fidelity.

To be successful, we must balance the two—we must get stronger at marrying content knowledge and expertise, and wiser context experience and considerations. And we need to practice this—by having the national foundations in our state and those who choose to work here become more collaborative and respectful of our local philanthropies that are embedded and crave respectful partnerships.

Lesson Three: Power is a Tenet of Change

There is a common saying in community organizing: “Power is organized people or organized money.”

Power provides the ability to reimagine and remake the rules. This is exactly what is required for philanthropy to successfully change systems to enable and expand opportunity for Michiganders. Philanthropy’s awareness of power is not about self-aggrandizement; it is about the ability to advance change through influence, knowledge, expertise, relationships and, shared will.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy offers a useful philanthropic framework to think about how power can be built, shared, and wielded to make positive social change.

  • Building Power: Philanthropy’s efforts to produce system change is enhanced by funding civic engagement, advocacy and policy work, and community organizing to ensure that the voices of children and families are evoked and included in important community issues.
  • Sharing Power: Philanthropic organizations hold prestige, privilege, and power as a result of deciding who receives grant funding and who does not. Additionally, philanthropy’s power is enhanced because of its capital, community standing, and high-profiled board membership. We have learned that a foundation’s impact is stronger when it is willing to relinquish and share its power via reciprocal and trusting relationships as well as by co-creating solutions with stakeholders.
  • Wielding Power: Philanthropy doesn’t just enable change, it is an actor in creating it as well. Thus, it is important that we exercise public leadership beyond our grantmaking to create equitable, catalytic change. 

Embedded in these values is the democratic engagement of Michiganders in the co-designing of systems that affect their lives. Be it organized people or organized money, power is the only way to reform systems to produce equitable outcomes.

Lesson Four: Keep Equity at the Forefront

In the last few years, “equity” has become a buzzword across philanthropy and most other sectors. While it’s easy to dismiss the term as just another hot phrase, we cannot let it become a forgotten fad. We have a responsibility to ensure equity is at the center of everything we do as a sector and as a state.

I often assert that Detroit is the birthright to Detroit children. I have worked to ensure that not only do the city’s children benefit from Detroit’s recovery, but that they help lead it.  There are many other American cities that have risen from low points, but none have yet figured out how to do so inclusively. A city and state where legacy residents are displaced and social issues of hunger, homelessness, and struggling public schools remain is not a success story. We have a chance to do it differently; to do it right. Detroit and Michigan can become a place of prosperity, where all people are given a fair shot.

In the world of education—which The Skillman Foundation and many of our Michigan colleagues invest in—we often hear of the achievement gap, the idea that certain populations don’t perform as well academically as their more-affluent peers. But the issue is not the achievement of students; the problem is that there are inequitable opportunities for all children to be successful in the classroom. There isn’t an achievement gap; there’s an opportunity gap.

Michigan philanthropy is primed to create a more equitable state for all residents. We cannot throw the same solutions across our state and expect the same results; we must treat every community and every person as an individual with different needs. We must fight to ensure that everyone can succeed and thrive, regardless of the circumstances of their birth and living conditions.

Lesson Five: Do It with Love

I grew up under the wing of my grandmother, a neighborhood organizer and activist, whose work, rooted in the gospel, came with great sacrifice and scrutiny. Her example showed me the importance of place and dedication to the majesty of this city.

My mother struggled and sacrificed to make ends meet. As a result, I have lived in every section of Detroit and attended eight different public schools during my matriculation. My mother taught me the value of hard work and persistence. But, most of all, she taught me that love is the greatest motivator.

Etymologically, philanthropy means “the love of humanity.” But in its highest form, philanthropy should seek to embody “radical love.” “Radical” is to champion significant social change. “Love” is to act in favor of others, for the betterment of people. Radical love is about enabling social change and promoting equity that sparks transformation.

Philanthropy is about more than grants, policies, and strategies. It’s about love for the places and the people who make us who we are. It’s about working alongside people and communities to ensure they can achieve their ultimate greatness. It’s about spreading love from person to person, place to place, generation to generation so everyone feels that love and wants nothing more than to share it.


Michigan is a special place, full of innovation, ingenuity, and spirit. Michiganders are a proud people, eagerly willing to tout their state and its successes to anyone who will listen.

Nevertheless, our state and its citizens need people who are dedicated to building a more just, prosperous, and equitable future. I take solace in knowing that in the darkest hours—during economic hardships, civil unrest, and environmental crises—we come together to reach a brighter tomorrow.

The many people I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from are full of grit and determination to make the lives of others better through giving, advocacy, policy, practice, and love. From watching my grandmother be a rock for her community to watching our CMF community push toward a more just and equitable future for all people. This is the spirit that made me. And I leave knowing that you carry it forward for our state.

Lead with love. It will take you, and others, far.

Comments (6)

Leave your Response
  • Tanisha Burton

    You are so awesome… Truly will be miss. Love you Tanya Allen

  • Michelle L. West

    God Bless you and your family Tonya and Thank you for what you’ve done with and for Detroit. You’ll be missed💖
    Parent Child Center Parent.

  • James Connell

    A wonderful legacy from a terrific leader. Hopefully, those who follow her will read her words and bring them to their work.

  • Joyce

    Tonya…I first met you when I was director of development and marketing at Lighthouse of Oakland County many years ago. I have always admired you from afar and thank you for the important work you have done in our community for years. Best wishes as you begin your new adventure. Congratulations! As always…best Joyce Russ

  • Jacqui Lewis

    We do, indeed, carry the spirit of grit and determination forward for the children of Detroit, our children! Continue to be ‘sunshine on a rainy day’. Godspeed Tonya.

  • Vivian Pickard

    This is a written lesson for anyone involved in philanthropy. Tonya is “spot on”. I enjoyed reading how she so eloquently organized her message. She is an amazing leader that will be missed. However, we know that she loves Detroit and our children will always remain top of mind for her. We love you Tonya. Thanks for all you did to make our community better. You did your best!

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