Howes: Foundations open cash spigots for Flint

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

While the politicians stall, Flint is getting its own Grand Bargain.

Not to offset losses in pensions or to secure city-owned art, but to organize, finance and answer social service needs exacerbated by a lead-tainted water crisis now more than two years old. The Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s move to commit a whopping $100 million to a $125 million fund — more than the $71.7 million the state of Michigan has so far delivered to Flint — establishes a “bridge” for other would-be funders to join the 10-foundation effort announced Wednesday.

There will be more. Michigan is on track to deliver another $166 million by next month. Congress is preparing to offer Flint a portion of $100 million for water infrastructure upgrades, if legislation bottled up in the Senate can be shaken loose. And more foundations, corporations and individual donors are likely to donate, because money tends to beget more money in philanthropy.

Ten foundations donate $125M for Flint recovery efforts

“This was really a Mott initiative,” says Peter Remington, principal in the Beverly Hills-based Remington Group and a consultant to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “They’ve been very quiet about it, very much working behind the scenes. They built a great bridge. There’s a lot of money yet to be raised. People need to understand this is just the beginning. It’s not the end.”

Not even close. Just weeks after Gov. Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama separately declared emergencies in Flint in January, a loose coalition of corporations and foundations organized by Mott began talks to identify potential donors, to prioritize needs and to establish a management mechanism capable of effectively turning donated cash into deliverable services for the people who need them.

That last part could prove the most difficult. It’s one thing to marshal hundreds of millions from the public sector to repair or replace aging infrastructure and from the private sector to begin to address the collateral damage wrought by corrosive Flint River water on the community, its residents, its property values and its image.

Who is best equipped to manage it all is another thing — especially in a city like Flint, with its long history of political and managerial dysfunction at City Hall. It churned through four emergency managers. Two mayors in the past decade have been recalled. Just this week, a former city administrator filed a federal lawsuit alleging she was fired because she questioned instructions to redirect charitable contributions for the water crisis to a political fund controlled by Mayor Karen Weaver.

The mayor labeled the charges “outrageously false.” But if they gain any traction in the courts — whether in the civil suit filed by former City Administrator Natasha Henderson, or subject to the state and federal investigations already underway on Flint — the implications could be profoundly negative for philanthropic support of Flint under its current leadership.

Behind the scenes, foundation CEOs, members of Congress and state officials are discussing who could shepherd the process of managing and distributing the public and private dollars to ensure they reach their intended beneficiaries. A ranking executive of JP MorganChase & Co. this week told a contact in the foundation community that his company is prepared to write big checks to benefit Flint — but where would they go? Who would manage it?

“Yes,” Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson replied when asked whether the so-called grand bargains for Detroit’s bankruptcy and Flint’s water crisis are remarkable stretches of philanthropy as it is traditionally practiced. “As a philanthropoid, I would caution us not to assume that money can solve for strategy. There’s strategy, there’s money and there’s implementation.”

Executing the third part is every bit as difficult as conceiving the first part and delivering the second. Without a robust, effective and trusted organization to manage the flow of dollars from donors to recipients, the biggest losers would be Flint and the same folks and institutions the money is intended to help.

Flint’s Grand Bargain is slightly larger per capita ($1,262) than the $816 million public-private effort ($1,218) that foundations, corporations, the state of Michigan and donors to the Detroit Institute of Arts raised to settle the city’s historic bankruptcy. But the Flint case is potentially more fraught, because the donations would be distributed far more widely than they were in Detroit, encompassing social services agencies, funds for children and family health, economic development and other non-profit agencies.

These philanthropic efforts for Detroit and Flint should be neither diminished nor underestimated nor taken for granted by people who think such massive funds are raised regularly around the country. They aren’t, which says as much about the ingenuity and risk-tolerance of Michigan’s foundation community and like-minded peers as it says about the deep dysfunction of the recipient cities.

The Mott-led mission for Flint, which the governor and the mayor are likely to tout at a news conference Thursday, could help pave the city’s road back to normalcy — so long as it’s executed properly and transparently.

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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.