Nonprofit executive takes on state-appointed economic development role

A Q&A with La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Earlier this month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed the president and CEO of a major Michigan foundation to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s executive committee. In the role, La June Montgomery Tabron — who has been the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for more than 35 years, including the past eight as president CEO — will help provide policy direction and guidance to the state’s economic development arm. Montgomery Tabron says it’s a natural fit based on the nonprofit’s core mission to promote economic development across the country. She recently spoke with MiBiz about the major philanthropic organization’s role in workforce development, its financial outlook during a period of economic turbulence, and the business case for racial equity.

How will your experience at the Kellogg Foundation apply to this economic development committee?

I am so honored to have been appointed by Gov. Whitmer. I believe this role overlaps with my work at the Kellogg Foundation completely. Our work at the Kellogg Foundation has been about economic development. We look at it from a workforce perspective and an employment equity lens. We also approach our work through a health equity lens, and we also look at it from an early childhood perspective. But the bottom line for us is: Our work is deeply embedded with growing Michigan’s economy. While we have always participated in public-private partnerships, I think this role squarely allows us to deepen our work from the Kellogg Foundation’s perspective and partner in ways that can really accelerate the growth across the state.

The foundation is a major financial backer of the redevelopment of the former McCamly Plaza in downtown Battle Creek. What is the organization’s approach to these types of projects and how they’re selected?

I would say that our point of entry is the community. … When we think about how we can support our community in this case, the Battle Creek community requires collaborative approaches to economic development. We need an anchor hotel in the city. It is a key asset to the entire revitalization strategy, and so what we like to do is be that catalytic investment to support some of those projects that require these public-private partnerships where they can leverage dollars given by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. And we also consider ourselves a citizen in the community of Battle Creek, and as one of its corporate citizens we want to be a part of their master plan.

How has the recent economic turbulence affected the foundation’s financial outlook?

Our portfolio is volatile just like any portfolio. During the pandemic, while we saw the impact of capital dry up, our foundation actually issued social bonds in order to generate capital that we could then give away to nonprofit organizations who weren’t able to access the funds that were being made available at the federal level. Because of that, last year was one of our highest grantmaking years in the history of the foundation. We actually gave away well over $400 million across the nation. In Michigan alone, we gave out over $100 million this past year. 

How has the foundation’s social equity mission and grantmaking shifted over the past couple of years?

One of the things we saw during the pandemic was the issue of workforce. We’re still seeing disruptions in the workforce. One of our key areas of focus is creating a workforce pipeline and providing support to allow people to be on a career pathway, to access resources for training, and then also provide resources for entrepreneurship.

What we have found during this time is there will be a need for retooling. Our investments will be a part of that collaborative fiber in these communities, and we’re building what these communities need. There’s no more training for training’s sake. We’re working in direct partnership with the businesses, the corporate sector, and we’re determining what’s needed and beginning to build those pipelines that allow people direct access to livable wage jobs.

Can you talk about the Kellogg Foundation’s Business Case for Racial Equity?

That’s a publication we commissioned that talks about the win-win-win solution that we can create as it relates to economic growth by really making sure that everyone in the community has an opportunity to participate in our economy. What the business case says — just for the state of Michigan, if we were to truly create equity, and equitable opportunities for all citizens — is we could generate another $92 billion in economic output in our state. Those are resources we’re leaving on the table because we’re not providing those opportunities for everyone. It further says that if we could eliminate those inequalities across the entire United States, we would increase GDP by another $8 trillion by 2050.

So we’ve quantified it, we’ve shown that it’s a win-win-win solution, and that what we’re really asking for is these collaborations of business, public, private sector, coming together to really figure out how we create these opportunities and eliminate these disparities.

What’s the next frontier for the Kellogg Foundation and similarly sized, major nonprofits?

I can’t stress how important I believe our work is around racial equity and racial healing. What we saw was a nation appalled by the brutality and the murder of a Black man being George Floyd. But more importantly, we saw people engaging and willing to engage now in conversations around race who had been on the sidelines in the past. What I see now is a true and sincere interest in people at least wanting to understand and to engage around these issues of racial equity and racial healing. At the end of the day, that’s about building relationships and bringing people together across differences and allowing them to see their common humanity. Believe it or not, this work is more relevant and demanded now than it has ever been, and what we’re doing at the Kellogg Foundation is truly doubling down on how we can be helpful. The reason why we can be helpful is not only the resource that we have, but we’ve gone through and taken this journey. Our organization has been transformed after committing to becoming an anti-racist organization and taking the journey — each of us — to go through healing, and to do what we’re asking others to do.

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