Howes: Detroit’s giving generation leaves rich legacy

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

They don’t make many more like Marjorie Fisher.

The philanthropist with outsized generosity for many things Detroit died Sunday at the age of 92. Her passing sounds a grace note for those who pause to listen, the coda for a great generation of Detroit philanthropists succumbing to the march of time.

Their collective legacy lives by example and in charitable foundations measured in the billions — her late husband, Max Fisher, and his good friend, A. Alfred Taubman; Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. and former Pistons owner Bill Davidson; and longtime Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, whose $1.2 billion bequest must be disbursed during the next 20 years, among others.

“In the last several years, you’ve seen this enormous transfer of philanthropic wealth,” says Peter Remington, a prominent fundraising consultant and principal of The Remington Group. “They’ve all left rich legacies” and had “an enormous impact on the community. That generation is passing.”

Many, but not all, used largely self-made fortunes to lift their adopted hometown from the turmoil of the late ’60s and the change of the ’70s. They persevered through the economic decline of the ’80s, the drift of the ’90s, the recession and corruption of the 2000s. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not.

With Henry Ford II, who died nearly 30 years ago, Fisher and Taubman conceived the Renaissance Center, an iconic development arguably too far ahead of its time. Fisher was a driving force behind creation of Detroit Renaissance, the CEO roundtable that morphed into Business Leaders for Michigan.

“They’re a generation of philanthropists who have passed away and given us the benefit of their legacy,” says Phillip Fisher, the son of Marjorie and Max Fisher, whose past leadership of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation testifies to the example set by his parents.

Their kind is increasingly rare, as reshaped by change as the Detroit they once dominated. The corporate landscape is smaller, less dominated by hometown companies led by native Detroiters. No longer is the city home to super-regional banks such as National Bank of Detroit or Comerica; no longer are all three automakers headed by Detroiters when leaders who live elsewhere will do.

Fisher and her peers didn’t talk about “giving back.” They did it. They gave money and time, dispensed advice and offered leadership. It would be easy, in this work-a-day town buffeted by fate, circumstance and cynicism, to assume every city the size of Detroit boasts such a legacy of philanthropy.

They don’t. When corporate leadership merged, acquired and moved, they stayed. Before the New York-based Ford Foundation rediscovered its Detroit roots and once again shared pieces of its prodigious fortune with the town that created that wealth, that generation of hometown philanthropists tried to fill the void.

“Who picks up the phone today and makes Detroit Renaissance or New Detroit happen,” asks David Egner, CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and former CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation. “Max Fisher was perhaps the most influential business and civic leader in Detroit of the past 75 years. The market is so radically different than when Max was driving things.”

The Fishers and their ilk are gone, their brand of civic stewardship disappearing. They’re replaced by moguls such as Dan Gilbert and the aging Mike and Marian Ilitch, their largesse tied as much to managing their complex business holdings and redevelopment arbitrage as they are to the community.

The void also is being filled by a cadre of activist foundations. Forged from fortunes made in Michigan — from Ford and Kresge to Hudson-Webber, Charles Stewart Mott and W.K. Kellogg — the foundations are the vanguard of contemporary philanthropy best exemplified by the “grand bargain” of Detroit bankruptcy fame.

That’s not necessarily bad. It’s different, a symbol of generational change in leadership and evolving notions of what philanthropy is and how it can be reshaped to meet challenges in a time of decreasing government resources and rising demand for charitable funding.

Phillip Fisher sharpens the point: Do you know how many 501(c)3 nonprofits there are in Michigan? There are 72,000, he says, out of 1.3 million nationwide — and almost every one of them is angling for grants, annual donations and bequests to satisfy whatever their mission might be.

“It’s staggering,” says Fisher, founder of Mission Throttle, a self-described Michigan-focused local impact investing firm. “There’s a tremendous demand for capital efficiency. We’re starting to think about philanthropy as a public-private partnership. It’s a movement now instead of individual leadership.”

To a point, anyway. Individual giving, from small one-time donations to multi-million bequests, still account for 71 percent of the $373 billion in charitable donations made last year, according to Giving USA. Foundations provide another 15.6 percent of the total, corporations 5 percent.

“They drove strategic change through the organizations they either founded or got involved with,” Phillip Fisher says, calling his mother a “model leader” who “inspired others to follow her lead. We have a tremendous opportunity to bring philanthropy to those who are going to succeed us.”

Marjorie and Max and their contemporaries wouldn’t put it any other way — because that’s what they did.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him @DanielHowes_TDN or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on 91.7 FM.