Exec brings expertise to new arts role

Caroll Velie

Carroll Velie was pretty sure, when she retired in December at the age of 70, that she wasn’t really going to be retired for very long.

She was right.

Less than six months later, Velie was back in the workforce. After a career spanning more than 30 years with Grand Rapids-based Varnum LLP, Velie has joined the staff at the Grand Rapids Art Museum as its manager of fundraising events.

A longtime resident of Grand Rapids — she’s lived there nearly 40 years — Velie brings her passion and expertise in building community connections to her role focused on stewarding, cultivating, and growing excitement and attendance at GRAM’s large-scale fundraising events.

Corp!: What made you want to leave the legal field for the nonprofit world?
Carroll Velie: I officially retired at age 70 in December after a great run with Varnum. I loved everything I did there, I learned a lot and I had a lot of opportunities to do a number of things. I also had a lot of involvement with diversity and inclusion in the community. That is something I really missed when I retired.

I did all the normal things one does when they retire — I traveled, I procrastinated more. (Then) I saw this ad for this part-time job at the GRAM. I have long had affection and great respect for the leadership and the direction and mission for the GRAM. It piqued my interest and I thought, if I was going to work someplace, I’d go somewhere I can share my talent and my passion for the community.

The fact it’s a nonprofit is certainly different, but many of the goals are the same, in terms of service and being a high-quality institution that cares about the community we serve.

Corp!: How will this role differ from your position at Varnum?
CV: It’s not a director of human resources, for one thing. I’m managing fundraising. I’m working on parties, on great events for people that will attract them to the GRAM, which connects people through art, creativity and design. One of GRAM’s core interests is in the area of inclusion, so I look to seed events that will involve all of the people in our community. To have an opportunity to reboot and learn new things … it’s challenging, but learning is forever.

Corp!: You’ve lived in Grand Rapids for a long time, and you’ve been involved. Why is community involvement so important for you?
CV: I think in Grand Rapids we’re very fortunate to be able to have profits and nonprofits that seem to share a common desire to make this community the best it can be and as good as we want it to be.

Grand Rapids has certainly changed and progressed, and it’s due to a lot of partnerships that are corporate and community based, which is exciting. We have a symphony that’s world-renowned, we have a ballet, a small opera company. I sit on the board of the Ebony Road Players, which promotes African American plays and African American actors. Who’da thunk you’d have that in Grand Rapids, and that’s exciting to me.

Corp!: The GRAM folks said you were brought in because you’re “a strategic thinker.” So what do you have in mind for the museum?
CV: The first thing I have to do is understand how and why they do what they do. They obviously have been successful. I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been the recipient of requests (for donations) and invitations (to events). I bring a unique perspective about what it’s like to be asked for money or time. I have a different set of eyes that will be able to add value to the organization.

Corp!: The tax cuts that got passed a couple of years ago didn’t do any favors for the nonprofit world. How have they affected what you’re trying to do?
CV: I think it just makes fundraising more and more challenging, which means you have to have events that people will find value in. You have to try to perceive what those values are, you have to have different price points for different events. If you’re trying to bring in a larger group, you have to raise more money. You have to be mindful and you have to do it really well.

Corp!: In light of that, how do you keep donors engaged and, more importantly, giving?
CV: If you walk out of (GRAM) and you had a really good experience, you’re going to want to join, you’re going to want to participate and, at some point, maybe you’ll want to give. We want this to be a place that is welcoming.

Corp!: How important is that to the community?
CV: It’s critical. When people are making a decision about coming to Grand Rapids, they want to know what’s going on in the town. They’re moving their family here. They’re not just coming for the job, though that’s important. The company can give me a great job Monday through Friday, but what do I do on the weekends? Where can I go if I’ve been stressed all week and I need to blow off some steam?

What if you walk around and you just sort of take a pause, and suddenly you’re able to slow yourself down. I think the cultural aspects of a community are huge, but it has to be the community as a whole that feels as though it’s there for them.