carrie picket erway header

Carrie Pickett-Erway

What is your official title?

I am the President CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

Average is really hard, every day is so different. Every day I meet with people in the community who are making amazing things happen. I will have anywhere from three to nine meetings a day, many of them out in the community. I meet with pastors, and people who have started a new project, and executive directors of human service agencies, or individuals who are looking for a wonderful project to give money to.

I spend a lot of time working with my colleagues. We have a lot of internal meetings where we are collaborating and strategizing how to make Kalamazoo a better place. I read a lot about local data and national reports of other communities doing great things. I read case studies or reports of how philanthropy is changing, or communities who have done initiatives around things like prisoner re-entry or juvenile diabetes – lots of those types of reports.


What is the Kalamazoo Community Foundation?

It is a local foundation all about the people and the place of Kalamazoo. It is a marketplace for giving. If you are an individual who is interested in making a contribution to the community, usually financially, you are able to give a gift to the Community Foundation – it can be small, medium or large in size, but it’s for all. We invest all of those gifts into an endowment that we store and protect and make sure that those investments are just as strong 10 years, 20 years, 100 years from now. From the growth of that, we invest those dollars into the community through grants. We give money to local charities who are doing great work in Kalamazoo.

We were created in 1925, so about 90 years ago. And all of those little gifts over time have created an endowment of over $400 million, which is pretty impressive. Kalamazoo is a very giving community. I think sometimes we don’t know that; it’s quiet giving. Per capita, we’re the ninth largest Community Foundation in the country. We’re a humble community, so we often don’t talk about it. So many people have been giving in this way for so many years.

We work with donors, but we also work with the local charities, like Girls on the Run, Family and Children Services, Habitat; we’ve worked with just about every non-profit in the community.


What is your background?

I started at the Community Foundation as an intern in 1999. I was finishing my masters degree in social work at Western, and I came in to help them develop some policy related to the grant making end of things. Shortly after that, a position opened part time as a Community Investment Officer, so I was a part of the grant making staff. Part time was great for me at the time because I had young children.

I kept working through the grant making staff. Eventually, I was promoted to Vice-President of Community Investment, about four years ago. I became CEO in April of 2012. We joke that I’m the intern that never left. We are proud that there is an organization where you can come in from any entry point, and eventually become the CEO. It says a lot about the organization, really believing in developing people. I’ve always felt like I’ve had support from my colleagues, from my supervisors, and from the board to try new things and grow and learn, and fail a little bit, and to learn from that. It’s been a cool place to grow up.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

Currently, we are working on the building at 402 E. Michigan; it’s going to be our future home, which is so exciting. The Arcus Foundation and John Stryker gifted us that building, and we are working on renovation plans so that we can bring our whole staff down here and eat at Food Dance every day and Sarkozy’s every morning! What’s cool is that we have an opportunity to be very thoughtful about how to be welcoming and inviting to the community through our space. We want the space to reflect the values we have about inclusion and diversity, and connection to community. We’re trying to be creative about what the walls look like, what the floor plan looks like, lighting, signage – demonstrate that this is a place of community.

We’re also working on our largest initiative, I think in our history, and that’s the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo. We’re one of many partners, and it’s an education focused initiative, looking at cradle to career educational opportunities for the community. We invested $5 million over a five year period, with next year being the last of the first investment, anticipating that we will be in it for a long time.

We are really thinking about how we as a community invest in education, whether it’s pre-school for all, or third grade reading scores or after school time for middle schoolers, college readiness – really focusing on using The Promise, which is a wonderful scholarship, to inspire the community to make Kalamazoo the education community. There’s a lot going on with that, and a lot of people we have to get involved. We are taking a look at what one part of the community is doing, what’s working for them, and how can we replicate that, and how can we help tell that story to inspire others to get involved in a part of it that interests them.

The other cool project I have going right now is that I’m part of a national group of CEO’s from Community Foundations in a program called the Executive Leadership Institute. There are 13 of us that get together every three or four months and talk about how Community Foundations can be a catalyst for community engagement. We’re getting together to learn what others are doing, and then bring ideas back to Kalamazoo to make our work better.


Are there any upcoming events that you’re particularly excited about?

I always get jazzed about the Girls on the Run 5K. I’m really excited about the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. I have tickets to go see John Legend, real excited about that. The Community Foundation’s annual meeting this year is late summer, early fall, and that’s going to be really cool. I can’t reveal who the speaker is because we haven’t confirmed details, but it’s going to be really cool.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

It’s the community attitude that you can, and should, do what you can to make the community a better place. Even when I talk to young people, like my kids’ peers, there is an expectation that they ought to be giving back to Kalamazoo, and they’re fierce about that. I think it’s unique to Kalamazoo; they don’t feel like it’s an obligation, but like their inheritance.


What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

I think for a community that is as blessed and gifted as we are, there are some social problems that are shameful. Our infant mortality rate for African-American children is equal to Flint, MI. And our homelessness rate for urban children is higher than it should be for a community of our size and resources. What I see are amazing non-profits and amazing individuals who want to tackle those problems, but they struggle with the complexity of the system, and they don’t know where to go to be helpful. What I think we should do to make the community better is to simplify the way we attack social programs, and to do it in collective efforts that really make use of the talent that everyone has here.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

It’s very eclectic. Everything from Johnny Cash to a little bit of rap. I live with an 18 and 14 year old, so I have all of their music in my mix, too. Van Morrison is a favorite, and I’ve been into Bruno Mars lately.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

As dark as I can get it, black, and in large volumes. All day long. It’s my addiction. I do love Waterstreet; we serve it in the office.


What is your favorite app to use?

I like Flipboard, and I really like my Euchre app. It’s one of the few apps that I’ve paid for.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Yes, lots! If I’m meeting friends for a bite to eat, it’s Food Dance. If I’m trying to hide and get some alone time, it’s East Campus. Family night out, we like Shakespeare’s Pub before it gets too late.


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I went through a phase where I thought I was going to be a fighter pilot, and then I realized that women couldn’t be fighter pilots. I then was going to be an Ad Executive, and then I went into a hippie phase and decided I was going to save the world, which lead to social work, and now here I am.


If you could bring any national event to Kalamazoo, infrastructure aside, what would it be?

I’d love to see something like the International Peace Negotiations. If there were a summit of that scale here to show the local community how leaders can dissect a problem, set aside differences, and focus on reconciliation, I think that would be really powerful.


If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

I’d tell myself to start earlier with finding your passion and pursuing it. I’m not that old, but I feel that in some ways I’m kind of a late bloomer. I didn’t get my first degree until my late 20s, and I just feel like I could’ve been doing a whole lot more earlier. I see my kids and their peers giving back to the community as 13 and 14-year olds, and I think, gosh, what would I have learned if I had started this earlier.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

During the transition period from VP in Community Investment to the CEO position, we were doing some reflection around one of our policies around diversity and inclusion. There were several transitions in that exploration where we realized as an organization, and I realized as an individual, that we made some mistakes in the rigidity of the policy, all with really good intentions. We were trying to do the right thing, and we ended up creating quite a box around our work.

When I became the CEO, there was a moment where I decided to just be really honest and transparent about the missteps, and when I did that, and openly said, this was wrong, we are going to shift, the whole organization responded in a very different way. When leaders, when anybody really, openly discloses that there was a mistake, and there is an attempt to learn from it and correct it, it gives everyone the opportunity to just breathe deeply, and own their own mistakes. It was one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever had as a leader. When you’re a leader, people expect you to stand up in front of them and know all of the answers and lead with bold courage, and never fail. I set a very different tone within the first few months of saying this was a mistake, we need to shift. It was a huge lesson for me.


Carrie, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Carrie and the Kalamazoo Community Foundation on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.