Not all heroes wear capes, but if Donna Murray-Brown wore one, it would match the style and grace of a woman constantly pushing to support Detroit and Michigan nonprofits.
After 12 years at the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the first Black woman to lead the statewide organization will leave her post at the end of this month. A longtime Detroiter, Brown spent the last decade supporting capacity-building initiatives, advocating on behalf of the nonprofit sector, and creating space for Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. Brown announced her resignation earlier this year.
Brown said she hopes to see the same commitment to support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that “change the narrative” for Detroit and increase the state’s greater good long after she’s gone. MNA has announced that Kelley Kuhn, vice president at MNA, will step in as the new president and CEO in January. Kuhn has been with MNA since 2008.
MNA is a statewide association that aids nearly 800 nonprofits and the communities those nonprofits serve. Most of those entities are in Detroit. Murray-Brown’s resignation was prompted by her spouse’s job change, which is taking their family to Kentucky.
“I’m open to whatever the future may hold for me, but right now, it’s about my family,” she said.
Murray-Brown joined MNA as the director of Metro Detroit Partnership after working in the banking industry. She was named senior director for capacity building and has been CEO the last eight years.
Though she said being a female CEO has had its challenges, the intersection of race and gender has made Brown feel like she has to work even harder. She’s praised by her staff at MNA, but Brown said she “always felt like the stakes were higher” as a Black woman leading at the state level.
Brown said she often felt like there was no room for error.
“Looking at my own leadership, it’s more facilitative, a very inclusive team approach,” she said. “I wanted to be a winning leader.”
During her time at MNA, Brown has managed strategic alliances to leverage opportunities for nonprofits, and said she relied on heavy relationship-building and trusted partnerships.
One such partnership is with the Council of Michigan Foundations, whose president and CEO, Kyle Caldwell, also sits on MNA’s board. Caldwell said the organizations’ relationship support of the state’s social-sector system and having strong leadership from MNA has been — and will be — “paramount in ensuring the health and vibrancy of that system.”
“Those are going to be really, really big shoes to fill,” Caldwell said. “She’s brought a really clear, practical point of view, given her background in banking, as well as her engagement with the nonprofit sector that I think is unique.”
Throughout her tenure, Brown pushed MNA to step outside of the traditional nonprofit framework by engaging underrepresented voices.
“I’m not the only one, there’s so many others but they’re invisible, not to their communities, but to the system,” she said.
Part of that work was through MNA’s support for the 2020 Census. Hassan Jaber, president and CEO of ACCESS, co-chaired the Michigan Nonprofits Count Campaign with Brown. Their goal was to mobilize nonprofit organizations to lead a complete count for the state. They wanted to build trust with residents who historically have been undercounted or not included on the federal decennial census.
“Donna has been a great friend and partner, not only to me, but also to ACCESS and to the community,” Jaber said. “She is a gifted leader who genuinely cares for community members.”
To ensure more diverse voices were heard statewide, Brown hired more women and currently leads a staff of 21 people. She has recruited diverse candidates and has been unafraid to speak up in rooms full of men.
“I always know I’m a Black woman, that’s obvious to me, but I never felt more Black than when I was leading in the pandemic,” she said. “And what I mean by that was everything was just so clear in terms of the inequities that our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) leaders were experiencing and our nonprofits not getting the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds. Everybody else was getting them in the private sector and then every other white-led organization having access that they just didn’t have.”
Brown says nonprofits are often well-positioned to help their communities, but aren’t always in a position to help themselves. That’s why MNA’s role as a statewide association is so important. She says she tells the truth about the “unique assets nonprofit leaders bring to their work,” for greater support across Michigan.
“When I think of the many talented people driven to help build justice and opportunity in southeast Michigan, Donna’s name rises to the very top of the list. She is wise, brave and effective,” said Allandra Bulger, executive director of Co.act, an impact hub for nonprofit and community organizations in southeast Michigan.
Over the last few years, Brown has sat on several boards, including Detroit Public Television, Candid, the National Council of Nonprofits and the Board of Governors Skyline Club in Southfield.
*In the interest of disclosure, reporter Olivia Lewis is a former Council of Michigan Foundations employee.