An Important Four Letter Word

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Dorothy A. Johnson is a force of nature.


She is a leader in the philanthropic world and dedicated to a life-time of public service. As a retired President and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, 32 years as a Trustee and the first female board member of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and previous board member of two Fortune 500 companies, Johnson had a lot to share. 



At a very young age she developed a passion for helping others. She networked with classmates from high school, college, and graduate school volunteering every step of the way. Then, “it was onto foundations, corporate giving programs, and non-profit organizations who had received foundation grants,” Johnson explained. 


When she first started at Council of Michigan Foundations, she was at a time in her life where she wanted to be “fully career-focused.” After attending the first conference, she quickly learned she wanted to be associated with the well-spoken, informed people she met. She expressed, “my opinion is that a liberal arts degree gives you general empathy for people, which is necessary for work in any field.” She utilizes these communication skills to network everywhere she goes.  


Humble to her core and highly proficient in reading a room, Johnson shared tidbits of invaluable experiences she had while networking. At the invitation of Presidents Clinton and Bush, Johnson has advised the White House on volunteering and giving. During the 1963 Women’s Conference for Business through the Harvard Radcliffe program, she spoke with the editor of the New Yorker. After a discussion about her early work in the non-profit world, he told her to, “give me a call.” Not fazed by fame she said, “it’s that kind of thing that just happens when you speak up.”


Johnson expressed, “the best part of this is that it’s all about helping people.” Johnson enjoyed working with people who share the same values, with mutual respect. She shared her least favorite part of the nonprofit world as, “there are much greater needs than there are resources, which consequently means you simply cannot support or promote everything.” One challenge she faced when collaborating on solutions was trying to distinguish between ideas and projects. 


Johnson offers a unique perspective from both the business and nonprofit world. She continues to be a networking legend. Thanks to her leadership, I am eager to enter the world of philanthropy.


Her advice? Show up early, stay late.

Know what you have to offer, ask questions, send emails, write thank you notes.

“Volunteering should be exciting.”

“Taking risks makes the world a better place to live.”

"Strive to be actively engaged in life."


“Above all, care.”


Johnson met Nelson Mandela twice with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to discuss peace, hope, and the power of giving (pictured above in 2010).

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