March 26, 2010 at 1:00 am

Foundations take action for Detroit

From schools to riverfront fix-up, nonprofits grasp leadership roles

With the eyes of the world on Detroit, old-line philanthropic organizations are leaping into the vacuum, joining forces to reinvent the city.

Instead of toiling earnestly in the background and writing checks, they're filling a void by deploying their combined clout of $30 billion in assets and decades of experience to build organizations, fund entrepreneurship and reshape the city and its schools.

They're bent on sparking transformation, their leaders say, rather than change by dribs and drabs, seizing on both opportunity and need.

"We can be a model of how to turn around a city and a region," said Carol Goss, president of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, which organized a proposed $200 million Detroit school intervention.

"This is a moment in time for Detroit," said Rip Rapson, who has reinvented the $3.1 billion Kresge Foundation to focus on Detroit's crisis. "How much time do we have? Maybe 18 months."

But if most hearts leap at the promise of help being provided to reimagine a more vibrant, economically viable Detroit, some city residents are alarmed by this emergent power shift.

They wonder whether foundations, with their wealth and the opportunity created by crisis, are reimagining themselves so completely they're becoming a fourth branch of government, reaching into city politics, land-use planning and Detroit public and charter schools in unprecedented ways.

Detroit's economic fragility and political scandals have opened a potentially dangerous door, some worry.

"Increasingly it seems (the foundations) feel this is a time to make a move to recapture, if you will, the city of Detroit and determine what its destiny will be," said Detroit City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta, who welcomes their help, but warns that these are unelected officials who should not be setting the city agenda. "The danger is that the voice of dissent is also being painted as a relic voice of maintaining the status quo ... That's not true."

The fact that the Kresge Foundation is based in a bucolic farmhouse setting in Troy, or that many of the foundation leaders live in suburban Detroit or beyond, pushes familiar buttons in a hunkered-down city that's traditionally wary of outsiders.

Shift to leadership role

In a few short years, reacting to unprecedented economic travail, Detroit's foundations have transformed themselves from passive givers to dynamic leaders.

"It used to be they'd have a form and you'd fill it out," said Matt Cullen, the Rock Enterprises executive who also is CEO of the M1 Light Rail project. "They responded to grant requests. Now they're being very proactive in setting an agenda."

That shift from responder to leader is evident in the Excellent Schools Initiative, organized by Skillman, that calls for mayoral control of the schools and promises to support "excellent schools," charter or public. It's in Rip Rapson's vision at Kresge Foundation of spurring a "creative corridor" between West Grand Boulevard and downtown: a potential "synergistic explosion" of innovation and capital investment created by hospitals, university, foundations and government.

The New Economy Initiative -- a coalition of 10 foundations, local and national -- is working as one body to ramp up the regional economy with $100 million in hand, focusing on Detroit.

"We weren't thinking holistically about strategies that would impact the economy before," said David Egner, the group's executive director.

Randal Charlton, the British entrepreneur who heads Wayne State University's TechTown, says the philanthropy is a beacon amid Detroit's forlorn landscape. With $10 million from Kresge and the New Economy Initiative, TechTown has grown from a modest jobs incubator to an engine of entrepreneurship. It now houses 170 start-up companies -- up from 60 a year ago -- and has graduated 700 would-be entrepreneurs from its training program last year. It's also home to Bizdom, Dan Gilbert's elite nonprofit boot camp for entrepreneurs.

"We have to keep reminding ourselves of the scale of the problem," said Charlton, pointing to the city's 25 percent unemployment rate. "I think it's inconceivable that (the foundations) could reach too far."

They are reaching, though. Since Rapson moved to Kresge in 2006, the foundation has doubled its staff and focused its giving on Detroit economic development, pumping energy, almost $100 million and focused attention into the Detroit Riverfront, the M1 Rail project and the New Economy Initiative, among others.

Kresge kicked in funds -- along with the Eli Broad Foundation -- to pay Robert Bobb's salary increase and has agreed to pick up the tab for urban planner Toni Griffin, who will work with City Hall. Those are seen as bold, generous moves by some, but they also stretch traditional boundaries between the public and private sectors.

'Risk is alienation'

Detroit foundations used to speak politely to each other, once or twice a year; now they're divvying up projects according to their individual missions, cheering each other's successes and finding new ways to collaborate.

"Before we were doing our own programs," said Egner, who also is CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation. "We weren't being strategic about our programs and they were seldom connected."

Egner credits Mariam Noland at the Community Foundation and Allan Gilmour, its board chair, with conceiving the New Economy Initiative. Leaders of the 10 organizations meet regularly, not occasionally. Their vision is creating a Detroit that's alive with energy and innovation -- a spirit they are trying to model with their newly bold initiatives.

Last summer, for example, the Community Foundation raised $5 million in a couple of days for local arts organizations.

The unexpected emergence of such collective energy is being viewed as an exciting stimulus, or as a potential power grab by those outside the group. To Detroiters still upset about a Detroit schools takeover, the role of philanthropy driving -- not just reacting to -- the agenda is unnerving.

"They seem to be thinking that they know better than the community what is best for our children and what is best for our families," said Detroit community activist Helen Moore. "It's just another takeover so they can control our destiny."

Others think like Anthony Adams, a school board member, who recognizes the city's urgent needs and appreciates the assistance offered, but remains cautious of the help. "We are in survival mode ... but you have to look at this carefully," Adams says.

Bill Ross, president of Detroit's Booker T. Washington Business Association, says distrust may grow as the philanthropies act if they don't sincerely seek input from the Detroit community. He suggests a need for the community to be heard up front, not at the end of the conversation.

"The risk is alienation ... that someone else is telling us what to do," Ross said. "There must be an effort to hear from everybody."

Steeped in cultures that emphasize working together and social justice, civic engagement and inclusion, the nonprofit executives sometimes sound mystified by such criticism.

Skillman organized its recently released Excellent Schools report by tapping into the community, teacher's union and city officials.

"Our missions are aligned to working around supporting the public good," said Skillman's Goss, whose organization is dedicated to helping children and fighting poverty. "You can't do that being silent."

Light rail

What's involved: A collaboration of individuals and philanthropic groups are funding the first phase of a Woodward Avenue light rail train that will stretch from the riverfront to New Center.

Players: The Kresge Foundation is the largest donor, at $35 million. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation just kicked in $25 million.

Excellent Schools Detroit

What's involved: The coalition announced a $200 million proposal to open 70 new school programs by 2020, graduate 90 percent of high school students and disband the Detroit Board of Education and put the mayor in charge.

Players: Fifteen organizations, organized by the Skillman Foundation, and including the Kresge Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank.

Downsizing Detroit

What's involved: Mayor Dave Bing has said he's forming plans to potentially relocate residents from empty neighborhoods to more populated areas to reflect the city's decline in population to about 900,000 from 1.8 million in 1950.

Players: Last week the Kresge Foundation announced it will foot the bill for noted architect and urban planner Toni Griffin to help create a plan for Detroit. Griffin, who teaches at Harvard University, worked on a plan for Newark, N.J. Kresge will pay Griffin's salary -- but she'll report to the city's planning and economic development department and the mayor.


What's involved: The Riverfront Conservancy, co-chairman Matt Cullen pictured at right, formed in 2003 to develop public access on the Detroit River and has completed the nearly 3.5-mile portion of RiverWalk east from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park. The completed walk will run from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park, linking other park projects also under way.

Players: Major funders for the $140 million project include the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Kresge and the W.K. Kellogg foundations.

Campus Martius

What's involved: The downtown park was built in 2003 for $20 million with a mix of corporate, private and foundation donations. The Detroit 300 Conservancy, a nonprofit group, runs the park and provides security, cleanup crews and live entertainment, such as outdoor movies in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

Players: The park was built and is maintained with support from the Skillman, Hudson-Webber and Kresge foundations, the McGregor Fund and the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan."> (313) 222-2032

Kresge Foundation

President: Rip Rapson
Based in Troy
$3.1 billion in assets as of December 2009
Kresge is pouring millions into economic development from West Grand Boulevard to downtown -- the so-called "creative corridor." They've donated staff expertise and dollars, with an emphasis on light rail, the Detroit RiverWalk and the New Economy Initiative. Recently hired an urban planning expert for the city.
"Nowhere else in the country do you have these national foundations -- Kellogg, Ford, Kresge -- and local ones concentrated in a place," said Rapson. "It is unique... I would say we're re-imagining Detroit."

Rendering Courtesy of M-1 Light Rail (M-1 Light Rail)
Oakwood Middle School students walk in the main hallway between second and ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Campus Martius (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
A piece of the roofing is taken down as a crew with Wayne County and ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Riverfront Conservancy co-chairman Matt Cullen