Howes: Business, foundations target Flint fundraising

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Pistons owner Tom Gores, a Flint native, isn’t the only business leader preparing to raise money for his hometown.

A loose coalition of corporations and foundations is holding informal talks to identify potential donors and to prioritize needs in Flint, whose lead-tainted water is deepening concerns of long-term health consequences for the city’s residents, especially its children.

“Yes, we’re involved,” Tony Cervone, chairman of the General Motors Foundation and General Motors Co.’s senior vice president for global communications, said Thursday. “There is talk about coalescing around what the business community can do.”

The corporate and foundation talks are so far separate from Gores’ commitment to raise $10 million for Flint from civic and business leaders. They come as the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is canvassing would-be donors, and a leading development consultant — the Remington Group — is preparing a fund-raising plan at the request of Gov. Rick Snyder.

Flint crisis is daily struggle for young and old

The plan, being developed pro bono by founder Peter Remington, aims to work with community and political leaders to develop a “needs list” to garner private-sector support. The likely focus: early childhood development, medical support in Flint schools and helping kids who may have been impaired socially or cognitively by exposure to lead in the city’s water.

Also under discussion are opportunities to use private dollars to bolster vocational and job training, as well as establish “Promise Scholarships” like those pioneered in Kalamazoo: if Flint high school graduates gain admittance to one of Michigan’s public colleges or universities, their tuition would be paid.

“The private sector is not going to do infrastructure” like replacing lead pipes, said a source close to the situation and familiar with the limits of corporate and foundation participation. “That’s a municipal responsibility.”

The situation is fluid, people familiar with the situation say, as is any specific fund-raising goal. The aim is to marshal private dollars to do things for Flint, its local leaders and its residents that government cannot do easily, affordably or without furious public pushback.

Coordination is key. Without it, organizers run the risk of making duplicate asks of corporations, foundations and high net-worth individuals, a free-for-all that can reduce the total amount of commitments. That’s why the Gores effort is likely to be combined with the corporate and foundation push in the coming weeks.

Gores has “indicated he definitely wants to be part of something big,” Rich Baird, senior adviser to Snyder and leader of the governor’s Mission Flint Team, said in an interview. “Nothing is definite yet. We have a blueprint for a major campaign.”

What shape that effort will take, or the involvement of the business and philanthropic community, is unclear. A critical point is identifying the gaps in the government’s response to the state-induced Flint water crisis and then marshaling private resources to address needs that taxpayer dollars cannot.

The Mott Foundation hosted a conference call Thursday with 40 potential funders from across the country to discuss Flint’s predicament and gauge interest in joining the effort. Those talks conjure rough parallels to the “grand bargain” that bolstered Detroit pensions and rescued the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts — a coming together of private-sector interests to help address a public-sector problem.

“There isn’t a grand bargain, so to speak, right now,” Ridgway White, president of the $2.65 billion Mott Foundation, said in an interview. “We still firmly believe this was a government-caused problem, an epic fail of bureaucracy at all levels.”

His message: Flint is not a “throwaway city,” and neither are its kids. “You’re seeing people come in,” White continued, characterizing an interest among funders to help. “There was a feeling that we were not alone here in Flint.”

Organizers expect any fund-raising target for Flint to be dramatically smaller than the $816 million raised from foundations, corporations, individuals and the state Legislature to settle the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. But the commitments will be expected to last long term, chiefly because the effects of lead exposure can linger for years.

There are “a lot of moving parts,” cautioned Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation. “I suspect that one dimension of it will in fact be to assemble some kind of philanthropic fund to address health issues. But in support of exactly what approaches isn’t yet clear.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.