Dr. Grace Lubwama reflects on new role as Kalamazoo Community Foundation leader

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

The Kalamazoo area has a strong history of philanthropy, a lot of resources, and many people willing to give, says Dr. Grace Lubwama.
“We are one of the communities probably around the country that is resource-full,” says the new president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
Through any number of hard-working organizations, Kalamazoo County residents have struggled to address a wide range of issues including racism, economic disparities, housing instability, educational needs, social injustice, infant mortality, and homelessness. Ground has been made, but those problems persist and continue to be challenges.
“I think where we have fallen short is we have failed to connect the resources to address the needs that are happening in this community in a very authentic way, and really align resources to a true strategy,” says Lubwama, who became the executive leader of the foundation in July after being selected for that role in March.
Dr. Grace Lubwama greets those who attended the KZCF Partner Appreciation event in September.Ninety days into her new position Lubwama hopes to help the foundation lead the way to more positive change by re-envisioning what the community foundation looks like, and by helping it become a leader in aligning resources that address people’s needs.
“I think what we’ve tried hasn’t worked,” Lubwama says, speaking of gaps in educational achievement between African Americans and Whites, disparities in infant mortality rates, and other problems. “So we have to continue re-thinking and really being innovative and really lifting ourselves … looking at the broader community and looking at what is happening especially as we are working through developing strategies.”
Within the philanthropic world, that means investing in organizations and efforts that have a collaborative strategy, she says, asking, “Have we had an opportunity to collectively align what that strategy is and align it with an investment?”
If the foundation identifies a collaborative effort to end homelessness, for instance, it may look to align its investments with those of other charitable organizations to support a strategy that helps multiple organizations that are attacking the problem.
She says she thinks what is happening now is that organizations hear from a committee and allocate whatever resources they have to an issue. But that does not necessarily demonstrate a wider, collaborative understanding of an issue, and it does not assess what the return on investment will be.
“The community foundation model is about really cultivating resources in this community to assure that those resources are distributed to address the needs in this community,” says Lubwama. “And the other thing that we do is we are cultivating relationships and resources. We want to invest in this community.”
She says the Kalamazoo Community Foundation Board of Trustees has asked her to clarify the role of the foundation so anyone can understand it. “And my first 90 days have really been spent doing that,” she says.
“Our mission is very, very clear,” Lubwama says. “It is about mobilizing people, resources, and expertise to advance racial, social, and economic justice. But how do we do that?”
Dr. Grace Lubwama at a Kalamazoo community Foundation staff meeting.She has been working with the foundation’s 45-member staff and its 10-member board to establish the organization’s identity. And she is working to create a 10-year strategic plan for the organization by early next year. The foundation is set to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2025.
With assets of about $624 million, the foundation invested $5.5 million last year in Kalamazoo County from its discretionary funds and it awarded more than twice that amount to other designated and donor-advised funds, including scholarships, and specialized fields of interest. In 2022 it awarded a total of $20 million to local organizations, projects, and individuals.
Lubwama says she would like to grow the number of unrestricted contributions that can be used at the foundation’s discretion, to address critical needs in the community.
Foundation grants and investments have been focused on supporting education, economic development, increased housing opportunities, efforts to combat homelessness, family/youth development, and other efforts to create a more thriving community. The foundation works through other front-line organizations to accomplish those goals.
It supports education, for instance, by providing grants to organizations like the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, which supports individuals who want to learn or improve their reading skills. It supports economic growth by providing grants to entrepreneurs who want to start businesses but lack the resources. In the housing sector, it was an investor in developments such as The Lodge House, the conversion of a former motel into apartments for unhoused people. And it was an investor in the development of The Creamery, a former Edison Neighborhood industrial property that was converted into affordable housing, child care, and commercial space.
Dr. Grace Lubwama greets those who attended the KZCF Partner Appreciation event in September.“In my world, it is not complicated,” Lubwama says. “It’s about cultivating resources. It’s about growing those resources, growing our endowment so that the community foundation is available to support the needs of this community in perpetuity.”
She wants the foundation to continue to be seen as a partner of the many front-line nonprofit organizations working to effect change, and she wants to assure smaller communities in Kalamazoo County that the foundation is a resource for them. She also wants to encourage organizations and residents to consider donating. 
“I believe that (for) every resident who loves the Kalamazoo community and has a desire to leave a legacy, we’re their partner in leaving a legacy in this community,” Lubwama says. “It could be $10, $1 (or) whatever it is that is sacrificial for any resident to leave a legacy. We are their partner, the community foundation.”
She says philanthropy doesn’t mean a person has to have a lot of money. “But once you have a heart of charity, and care about this community, and want to see this community thrive, the community foundation is your partner on that journey,” she says.
Lubwama has a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Art and Design from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a Master’s in Public Health from the Boston University School of Public Health. She has a doctorate in Policy Planning and Development from the University of Southern California. She has two young sons.
Credited with being a strategic thinker and results-driven executive, she has worked since February 2014 as CEO of YWCA Kalamazoo. In that role, she has been praised for developing the first comprehensive human trafficking program in the state of Michigan, for founding Cradle Kalamazoo, an initiative focused on reducing Black infant mortality in Kalamazoo County, and for establishing the state's only comprehensive 24-hour early childhood center, located inside The Creamery development in Portage Street in Kalamazoo.
Dr. Grace Lubwama was the YWCA Kalamazoo CEO for 9 years before assuming the Kalamazoo Community Foundation position.Comparing her new role with her work at YWCA Kalamazoo, she chuckled at the idea of how different their missions are,  although they are located across the street from one another (the YWCA Kalamazoo at 353 E. Michigan Ave. and the community foundation at 402 E. Michigan Ave.). She says the two organizations have worked closely on programs and are passionate about helping to make Kalamazoo a great place to live. The YWCA Kalamazoo has specific focuses on working to help victims of abuse, maternal/infant health, and empowering women, however. “For the community foundation, my role is broader,” Lubwama says.

“I oversee all the issues that are impacting the community and how philanthropy can play a really vital role in assuring that we meet the needs of this community,” she says, “and assuring that we lift up the voices of the most vulnerable community members.”
She wants the foundation to continue to be a leader in philanthropy and cultivating resources to address community-wide needs, including the need for more housing, housing stability, infant mortality, education, and affordable child care.
Lubwama says, “I think a lot of the issues that we are going to continue championing are not going to be new. But how we align with those issues (will be). …  We’ll just continue to be a voice on the issues that this community is facing.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.