Detroit: Leader in Philanthropy Innovation

Detroit’s economy has long been in the doldrums. The slow decline of the city’s once-great auto industry – along with the deleterious effects of the housing bubble and 2007 economic crash – rendered Michigan’s largest metropolitan area perhaps the poorest of its size in the United States.

Adversity, however, can breed innovation. With a little assistance, Detroit is quickly becoming a laboratory for community empowerment and grassroots organizing. The city’s nonprofits are benefiting immensely from these trends, and could point the way to the future for the nation’s philanthropy sector in addition to revitalizing this great U.S. city.

The Ford Foundation – the nation’s largest grant-maker and beneficiary of Michigan’s historically dominant economy – made waves earlier this year when it announced that it would revamp its guiding principles for awarding grants, directing all of its efforts toward combatting economic and racial iniquities as well as committing more funding toward nonprofits’ overhead as opposed to programmatic funding. This underutilized funding methodology itself could revolutionize the way that nonprofits succeed. With actual investment and the ability to acquire capital assets, nonprofits can hire, develop, and retain staff as well as grow operational capacity without having to worry about rigid line items delineated by myopic grant conditions.

The Ford Foundation’s scope, while including Detroit, is national. Detroit-focused foundations and initiatives are also similarly rethinking the game, and are generating an innovative philanthropy climate as a result.

A collection of stakeholders called Detroit Future City offers an exciting vision: unity between business, community, and philanthropy groups working to produce a just environment that improves quality of life and increases economic opportunity. The ad hoc organization grew out of the technocrat-authored Detroit Future City Strategic Framework. The document explores what assets the city of Detroit has, and expounds on possible ways to utilize them with the ultimate goal of pulling Detroit and its citizens out of the morass of economic depression and urban blight.

According to the group’s website, Detroit Future City is predicated on a holistic approach to addressing the city’s ills:

It’s not based on a vision of only how the city looks, but also how it works. It is based on a realistic understanding of current resources; is flexible enough to respond to changing needs and opportunities; and can evolve over time as it’s used and conditions change.

A look at the organization’s list of chartered initiatives yields an impressive array of ongoing and completed programs ranging from small business development to neighbood solar initiatives. A number of foundations – including The Kresge Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – have pooled millions of dollars to distribute to the various initiatives, which involve nonprofit, business, and community partners working together.

Looking to grow both businesses and community groups through joint charters, Detroit Future City heralds an interconnected local economy that strives toward the greater social good. This trend may be catching on, evident in Philadelphia’s pro-start-up climate. In the City of Brotherly Love, new businesses can defer certain taxes by contributing to local nonprofits. These initiatives spread the benefits of economic development, grow local philanthropy cultures, and create essential ties between private and nonprofit entities that benefit the community.

A number of businesses from the private sector are also stepping up to help nonprofits improve the quality of life in Detroit. This month, J.P Morgan Chase announced that it would continue offering its support to a number of area nonprofit organizations. Twelve managers from different sectors of the company’s operations – divided into four teams – will assist four organizations in their areas of expertise. The recent round of advisors will assist Eastern Market, EcoWorks, Greening of Detroit, and TechTown.  Executives from J.P. Morgan Chase have committed to sending two sets of teams to assist Detroit nonprofits per year through 2018.

While there is still a great deal of hard work to do, Detroit is making great strives towards revitalization. Part-and-parcel with this process is the growth and success of the city’s philanthropy sector – a fact that is not lost on those leading the charge for Detroit’s rebirth.

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