Marsha Smith and Rotary Charities – A Dynamic Duo

Communities are in a constant state of evolution. They grow or regress, and the successful ones evolve with purpose, vision and inclusiveness.

There’s little question over the direction of the Grand Traverse region’s evolution. The fortunes of our modest city by the bay have ridden a steady wave in recent decades – almost too much progress for some – that we’re poised to ride for the foreseeable future.

Beyond enjoying the ride, it’s important that successful communities step back to understand, appreciate and continue to emulate what’s made them great. To that end, there’s no overlooking the tremendous contributions of Rotary Charities of Traverse City and its retiring executive director, Marsha Smith, over her 25-year career that will wind down at the end of 2018.

Our region forever changed when oil was discovered back in 1976 on property near Traverse City owned by Rotary Camps & Services. Local Rotarians displayed tremendous foresight when they established a corporate structure to protect their assets and create Rotary Charities, a nonprofit public foundation that received the royalty payments from the oil production. The foundation has since grown to over $48 million. Since 1977, Rotary Charities has invested more than $58 million through more than 1,300 grants awarded in the five-county region.

That’s an impressive figure, to be sure. But under Marsha’s tenure, working with an engaged board and a talented, dedicated staff, Rotary Charities dramatically changed the way philanthropy is done in our community. It created a template that charitable foundations across the country are utilizing to create impactful and enduring local improvement.

Beyond its grant dollars, Rotary’s philanthropic work under Marsha and her team approaches the region’s opportunities with context and vision. It uses its resources to address the root causes of community challenges, connects people and programs with the best experts and information, and engages as many parties as possible in the effort. It helps communities grow, protects the environment, strengthens our social safety net, bolsters our infrastructure, creates breakthrough approaches to learning and provides seed money to start-up projects that lead to larger, long-term impacts. It’s taken on some of our region’s biggest issues in areas including housing, transportation, land use and economic development, while also providing a hand up to thousands of our region’s less fortunate individuals and families.

One great thing about Marsha is that she’s leaving the cupboard full at Rotary Charities and exiting with such grace. There is no question Rotary Charities will continue along its successful course after she leaves. Of course we’ll miss her smiling face and warm personality every day here in the Traverse City Area Chamber building. Her staff and organization will miss her knowledge, insight and vision; the community will miss the respect and admiration that she’s earned across Michigan and beyond. Her effectiveness is only exceeded by her modesty while getting the job done.

But great leaders create organizations that continue their work – and take it to new heights – long after they’ve left the scene. Rotary Charities is well positioned to continue to expand its regional impact under incoming Executive Director Becky Ewing – who’s been at Marsha’s side for a decade – thanks to the vision, direction and partnerships they’ve worked to establish.

Our region would not be where it is today – nor our outlook as bright – without the work of Marsha Smith and what she’s accomplished at Rotary Charities. It says a lot about an organization when it can help create a prosperous vision for our region’s future and chart a course for getting there – while also working to ensure that all our citizens can be part of the journey.

Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at