When Maureen Smyth retired from her position as senior vice-president of programs and communications after 30 years with the Mott Foundation, she knew she wasn’t done giving back to her community and her world. It was perhaps only natural, then, that after she and her husband moved to Traverse City, she would form a relationship with Groundwork, whose diverse set of environmental- and community-focused issues tapped into the skill set and broad vision she developed at Mott, one of the nation’s top 100 foundations.
Maureen signed on to the Groundwork board, eventually became board chair, and on October 1, after three years, Maureen’s term as chair came to a close. As she rotates back into a position as a board member, we asked her to share a bit of her background and some thoughts about the organization she chaired and will continue to serve.
Give us a little history on your career with the Mott Foundation and its environmental and community development.
I had taken some time off work after my second son was born, and was thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I got a call from the Mott Foundation communications department. They said they had somebody out on sick leave and asked if I could do some part-time work. I wrote press releases and did the things a communication person does. Within a year, I was approached by the program officer who had begun exploring a new grantmaking area focused on the environment. He wondered if I’d be interested in joining the program department.
What were Mott’s environmental programs focused on back then?
When I started, I spent most of my time on the Great Lakes program. It was a really exciting time to be working on the Great Lakes. In the ’80s and early ’90s there was a huge emphasis on water quality—reducing the volume of persistent toxic chemicals entering the Great Lakes. And there was a really vibrant environmental community back then working on Great Lakes issues. Governor Milliken had been instrumental in creating the Center for the Great Lakes, and there was an an emphasis on advocating for uniform water quality standards and cleaning up polluted areas. It was a hopeful time!
Eventually I was promoted to vice-president of programs and then senior vice-president for programs and communications. In addition to the environment program, we had programs on poverty alleviation, and on quality after-school programs for kids. We had a program focused on strengthening the nonprofit sector, working on best practices and helping to build nonprofits. And we had a program that funded a variety of initiatives that addressed community needs in Mott’s hometown of Flint.
Then you retired…
Yes. And we moved to Traverse City. We decided on Traverse because we’d always lived where we had to get in a car to do anything. We loved the idea of walkable, bikeable city, where we could walk to downtown restaurants and shopping. The beautiful setting on Lake Michigan is wonderful too. We really love living downtown!
What appealed to you about the organization when we approached you?
I was looking to get involved in this community, and the set of issues that the organization worked on overlapped with my interests. I’ve served on a whole bunch of boards in my life and, I don’t know, I’m just really committed to the issues this organization is focused on.
And the organization itself. The culture of Groundwork. There is a lot of collegiality among the staff, and they seem very enthusiastic and have a lot of passion for the work they are doing. Jim Lively on Line 5, Diane Conners on 10 Cents a Meal, Dan Worth on renewable energy, Jim Bruckbauer on the Ann Arbor to TC rail project. These are people whose job doesn’t seem like a job, but more of a passion for them. Hans empowers his staff.
What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen at Groundwork during your tenure as chair?
We have created a fund development committee on the board. That’s an important change because it formalizes that process. We meet to explore new approaches to fundraising and to clarify board members’ roles. Also, Groundwork has worked to increase the amount of funds it receives from individual donors, and to diversify its funding base, which is very important.
From a program standpoint, what are some of the things that get you most excited about Groundwork?
There are many. I guess … let’s see. The work in renewable energy is something I’m really proud of—our role in helping convince Traverse City to commit to 100% renewable energy. Also the amazing success Diane Conners has had in expanding 10 Cents a Meal to half the Lower Peninsula, and continuing to press for it statewide. And the Line 5 work is very impressive. Groundwork was one of the first organizations to go public with that issue.
What about when you look ahead. Name one thing Groundwork is working on that you’d really love to see happen?
Shutting down Line 5, because I spent so many years working on Great Lakes water issues for Mott. I would love to see that pipeline shut down. It makes no sense to leave it there or to build a tunnel for it.
And you are staying on the board …
Yes, I will be staying on. I am really committed to Groundwork. I like the mission of the organization and the values it represents. I am going to stay!