Chris McGuigan is retiring from the Community Foundation but her spirit will live on

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By Cynthia Price

Some might imagine, judging from her success, that Community Foundation for Muskegon County (CFFMC) Executive Director Chris McGuigan is a serious, utterly focused go-getter who concentrates narrowly on running the foundation.

Though there may be a bit of truth to that assumption, McGuigan is also a very funny, quirky, youthful woman with broad-ranging interests.

Now that she is retiring, the Community Foundation may be losing a leader, but not only the systems she put in place but also her enthusiastic spirit will continue on.

She seems to regard her success as something that just sort of happened. McGuigan, a lawyer for 17 years, was always highly committed to community work and served on the CFFMC board. When it came close to the time for Pat Johnson, the first and at the time only Executive Director of CFFMC, to retire, the two met for lunch and Johnson suggested that she would support McGuigan in assuming the foundation’s top spot.

“In the field Pat is what is referred to as a birth mother, she was basically the creator and grower of this foundation. When she retired, Pat handed me her baby and I was looking at it like it might be a honey baked ham,” McGuigan says, grinning.

“When I started I truly didn’t understand, for example, about the foundation running the Frauenthal and what that meant from a working standpoint. Nor did I understand how endowments really worked. I’ve always been more comfortable in a leadership role.

“I really am more of a visionary,” she adds. “I’m certainly not a manager or especially not a micromanager. I thank Pat Johnson for building a really strong foundation and for supporting and encouraging me when she probably was tempted to be horrified,” McGuigan says, and laughs.
“Well, I might be being modest,” she adds a minute later.

If growth in the CFFMC’s assets are any measure, she is indeed. Though lawyer Steven Clink started the foundation in 1961, the first real gift was not given until 1971, and it was $42.000. When?Johnson was made the executive director in about 1980, there was about $4.8 million at the foundation, and she grew that to $87.4 million in 1999.

But since then, under McGuigan’s guidance, the assets have increased to $224 million (2017). In 2011, when the foundation celebrated its 50th anniversary, they had $124 million, so even in the last seven years $100 million has been added.

McGuigan also pushed for the community impact model, where a cluster of foundations and organizations focuses on a specific problem or geographic area.

A self-confessed meeting hater, McGuigan says, “I’d rather give, or get, a phone call that tells me what is expected of me, asks me, what can you implement? With all the problems in downtown Muskegon at one time, we eventually had to say, wait, there is no ‘they’ – we have to do this ourselves.

“And it’s working, that’s the key. It is working.”

Born in Minnesota and raised in South Bend, Ind., McGuigan went to Hope College and then to Indiana University Bloomington Law School. She practiced law first at Landman Latimer Clink and Robb (with the man who did the legal work to start CFFMC) and then Lague Newman and Irish before the Community Foundation.

“When I started on July 1, 1999, the first staff I inherited from Pat I am grateful for all the time – especially Ann Taber who truly was the leader of the staff while I learned what I was doing. And then it just evolved from there to where the community foundation became a respected community leader.
“I think one reason is because we have so many small governments in  this county, and the people who built this foundation had a unified philanthropy goal,” McGuigan adds.

“The Community Foundation has to be what the community needs us to be in order to reach its highest vision of itself. We can’t react, we have to lead. And collaborate and partner. Muskegon’s really good at partnering.”

The CFFMC’s three leadership goals are to create hope and opportunity for our children, to build an inclusive community, and to encourage cooperation and common goal setting among the municipalities. She acknowledges that not much has been done on the third, a very difficult goal.

But there is much to be proud of. In addition to the work on downtown Muskegon, which is visibly successful; institution of the community impact model; and the success in growing the CFFMC’s assets, McGuigan says she is also proud of the work the foundation has done with its donor-advised funds.

“We adopted the philosophy of asking people, the needs are endless, what do you like? I look around Muskegon and think we’ve achieved so much that way than if they’d just turned their money over to us,” McGuigan says.

She is pleased with CFFMC’s support of creation and development of the Muskegon Boys and Girls Club and Muskegon Covenant Academy.

Her husband, lawyer Gary Neal, and she have three daughters, in their mid to late twenties, all living in the San Francisco Bay area. Naturally, she intends to visit them more often after she retires.

What else McGuigan will do is not yet completely clear. She intends to reinstate her law license, but  adds with a laugh, “I’m interested in learning something completely new but that’s all I’ll say about it right now.”

And that is a story for another day.