Battle Creek

Brenda Hunt says it's time to step back as leader of the Battle Creek Community Foundation

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Raised on her family’s potato farm in rural Montcalm County, Brenda Hunt learned about philanthropy in its most basic form.
“Before there were harvesting machines, we had migrant workers who would pick the potatoes. We would harvest potatoes and some would fall back on the field. There were a lot of them because we did early harvesting,” says Hunt, President, and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation. “People would always ask if they could pick up those potatoes. My dad would give potatoes away and discounted things.”
When her father was killed in a farming accident, many of the workers he employed years back attended his funeral, a testament, Hunt says, to the way her father chose to do business. She was 13 years old when he passed away.
“We had employees who remember how they were treated. There was always a fair exchange, but there was also an understanding of their needs,” Hunt says. “There were a lot of values I learned, more than I can articulate growing up in a lifestyle like that.”
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation will retire at the end of March 2024.Although her initial plans career-wise did not include a focus on the philanthropic sector, that is where she began and where this chapter of her work life will end. On March 31, 2024, she will officially step down after a 30-year career with BCCF. Hunt, who is 61, says it is a resignation, not a retirement, based on her belief that BCCF needs new leadership. She calls it a “grace” that the organization’s Board of Trustees has given her this transition period.
“I’ve been talking to the board about this for a couple of years,” she says. “We’ll be in our 50th anniversary as a foundation in 2024 and I thought what a wonderful time this would be to put it down and let the foundation step into a new reality and platform.”
A seven-year strategic plan for BCCF completed in 2022 allows for new platforms to be developed which includes trust-based grantmaking that more intentionally engages grantees and community members in the decision-making process.
“This allows us to go deeper into the community and have the community participate and help,” says Clovis Bordeaux, Director of Marketing and Administration for BCCF. “Whereas volunteers and board members come into the building, we’re actively going out and bringing the community in to see what we do. It allows the community to be more involved. We’re making sure the community has a say and gives us guidance as we move forward and how our future will look as a foundation.”
“A new leader lends itself to new guidelines,” Hunt says. “A new CEO is going to have a totally different reality from mine.”
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation is seen at her 25th-year celebration with the foundation in 2018.Hunt has no plans to leave Battle Creek after she steps away from her role with BCCF and says she wants to work for an important mission that she will recognize when she gets closer to it. While this mission may take her away on occasion from the community that she calls home, she says she will always come back.
“I’m not ready to fully back away,” Hunt says, adding that her resignation will give her a little more freedom that she has been looking for. “This job requires your presence and I have never wanted to do it at any other pace or rate. I have a history of responding on evenings and weekends.”
Bordeaux was more pointed saying that it’s a 24/7 job for Hunt, who would not have it any other way. This commitment includes everything from making the big financial asks to hand-signing her name to correspondences including a letter announcing her resignation that was sent to hundreds of individuals who have relationships with BCCF.
“It’s a value system for me,” she says.
How it all began
That value system, which began its formation during Hunt’s childhood, was present when she was making decisions about what her major would be in college. She wanted to be a psychologist and earned a Bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan with a concentration in sociology, communications, and Women’s Studies. She wanted to go on and earn a Master’s degree that would put her on a path to work in the psychology sector. The most likely options available to her at the time were a Master’s Degree in Social Work or an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration). She chose to work on a Master’s Degree in Public Administration.
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation will retire at the end of March 2024.This was before WMU offered a management program in Non-Profit Administration.
“When I went to college in the early 1980s there was not such a thing as a career in the not-for-profit sector, public and private,” Hunt says.
The value system inherent in the MBA sphere didn’t mesh with her value system. She also knew she wouldn’t achieve the impact she wanted as a social worker, but her interest in psychology was still very much in play at the time.
“The best I could find as a Master’s in Public Administration. It created a way for me to have that degree work for me,” Hunt says. She earned that degree in 1985 while working full-time at the American Red Cross chapter in Kalamazoo and taking classes at night.
She got the American Red Cross job in 1983 right out of college and spent three years there before securing a position at the United Way of Greater Kalamazoo, which is now part of the United Way of South Central Michigan. While there she designed a program for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation which became the Youth Alliance Committee. This program and other work she was involved with caught the attention of leaders in the nonprofit sector. While working for the Holland United Way after leaving the United Way in Kalamazoo she received a phone call from BCCF with a request to apply for a Program Officer position.
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation is seen at her 25th-year celebration with the foundation in 2018.When she was hired as that Program Officer in March 1993 she was the fifth individual on a staff of five – three full-time and two part-time employees – and the foundation had an endowment totaling $25 million.
Hunt says the mentoring she received from Ann Marston, who led the GKUW while she was there, positioned her for the opportunities that would come her way.
“She gets the credit for my discipline because I needed it,” Hunt says of Marston. “I was 25 and learned many of the basics about the nonprofit sector and key components on everything from fundraising to the business side of the work from her. It was all in-house.”
While crediting Marston with instilling attributes that would be crucial to her success in the nonprofit world, Hunt says the list of individuals who mentored and shaped and helped her put things into perspective for her is “long and quite wonderful.”
This list includes Peter Christ, who Hunt succeeded as President and CEO of BCCF. Hunt says Christ made sure she had access to everyone and everything and brought her into meetings early as a way to position her for future roles within the organization.
In November 1997 she was asked to gather information that would help the Board of Trustees to determine if an external search would be necessary to find a new leader for BCCF.
“The board had a very rigorous process here that included 26 objectives to fulfill. I turned in what I had put together, left the Search Committee meeting, and was notified after that meeting that they were going to hire me instead of doing an external search,” Hunt says.
When she took over as President and CEO, the foundation had assets of $50 million. Under her leadership with support from a staff of 50, that pool of funds has grown to more than $140 million with 1,150 individual funds hosted by BCCF.
“We enjoy a very consistent level of giving here. In more challenging years the board has initiated a value that has been practiced for years because they recognize that’s when the community needs us the most,” Hunt says. “We let donors know that the community needs us and they respond. We stay active and available and our donors respond.”
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation will retire at the end of March 2024.In recent years, BCCF has tapped into federal grantmaking opportunities that have helped to fund some of its focus areas with sustainability.
This is among the changes Hunt has seen during her 30 years with the Foundation. She cites other changes that include an ever-increasing number of service providers that has led to an increase in requests for grantmaking. This led to the establishment of a mini-grant program and neighborhood grantmaking that was the only one of its kind in the Battle Creek area. The program enabled smaller community organizations to build capacity and sustainability to do their work.
“There’s been a dramatic shift in the number of high-quality providers of service and grantmaking. Sustaining all of that is hard for our community,” Hunt says. “Nonprofits across the country have problems with sustainability. We have many grant-maker budgets versus streams of funding. Ongoing streams of funding are much more difficult for smaller communities to sustain.

"Smaller communities have different assets and a lot of our smaller communities don’t qualify for some of the state and federal funding that has changed dramatically in the last 5 or 10 years. You have to have a large infrastructure and all of the bases for the infrastructure but you don’t need overhead to sustain the real broad support that’s needed. That broad support is needed when you look at a community.”
Similar to foundations throughout the United States, BCCF has encouraged grant seekers to adopt collaborations and partnerships as a way to make the grant funding go further and eliminate duplication of efforts.
“Collaborations and partnerships are a necessity when it comes to dealing with the complicated nature of societal needs,” Hunt says. “But they also absorb resources both human and financial that are required to address the need. The work we’re doing has gotten more complicated. It’s a business with a human-focused mission.”
Bordeaux says the Foundation is a “nonprofit corporation with a heart.”
Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation will retire at the end of March 2024.That heart will continue to beat under the direction of Hunt’s successor. A committee already has been formed to find that individual and the community will have opportunities to provide their input.
“We will continue to build on the significant successes of 49 years,” says BCCF Board Chairperson Linda Morrison in a press release. “Brenda has been a remarkable and highly-effective leader in advancing the vision and purpose of our Foundation. We are grateful for Brenda’s service and anticipate a dynamic search process that will include community engagement.”
No misgivings about her decision
During her tenure as President and CEO Hunt has had many successes. Among those she chose to highlight in a press release announcing her resignation:
• Assisting with the successful transition of the Burnham Brook Senior Center to the Kool Family Community Center.

• The establishment of two organizations, the first focusing on college and technical training and the second providing fiscal management for groups and individuals who are making a difference in the community.

• Supporting the development of the Battle Creek Shelter, a low-barrier shelter for men and women.
When asked to cite an initiative that didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped, she discussed plans to move the Foundation’s offices into what is now The Milton, a missed-use development with apartments and retail space. That building is the former Heritage Tower.
“Long before the Milton capital stack was put together there was a plan to put the BCCF offices there and what went along with that was the sale of the Riverwalk building to generate enough revenue to get us into the Heritage Tower building. We had drawings and had task force meetings,” Hunt says. “But, financially we couldn’t afford to be there because of the ongoing costs and leases that were too high for our operating fund to support.  It was a painful moment for me because we were going to be the anchor for Milton and that particular developer blamed us for that deal not working. I needed a week to process that. That was a tough one for me.”
Despite hiccups like this, Hunt says she will always be grateful to Foundation trustees who trusted her and gave her opportunities to lead and succeed. They are among the biggest reasons for her three-decade tenure with the organization.
“The board approves all direction and opportunities to get things done in the community and I have had the opportunity to lead those efforts,” she says. “I listen to them and they have good ideas and many times they would redirect the conversation. To me, it’s been a great partnership.”
With this chapter of her life nearing the last page, Hunt says she plans to spend more time at her family’s farm in Montcalm. She still owns 40 acres of the original 120 acres and has a lengthy list of projects that she’d like to get done, some of which will necessitate the use of a tractor that she enjoys riding. She also has seven godchildren through her older brother and sister who will now be getting more of her time and attention.
“I think the Foundation is in a wonderful position with a strong staff and team and an extremely capable board,” Hunt says. “It seems well-aligned for this transition.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.