New Detroit hire works to keep philanthropy aid flowing

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

For the last four months Ryan Friedrichs has been pounding the pavement, building the framework to continue and strengthen Detroit’s relationship to the philanthropic community.

Friedrichs’ business card says he is chief development officer for the city’s office of grant management — a post reinstituted under Mayor Mike Duggan in February.

It’s his job to usher in new investments from foundations and others to help move city initiatives and services forward at a time when public money is scarce and private funds are in high demand.

The unprecedented “grand bargain” of 2014 — an $816 million gift from foundations, private companies and state taxpayers to shore up Detroit’s pension funds and protect city-owned art during bankruptcy proceedings — created a huge wave of momentum in Detroit, prompting increased interest and investment by local and national foundations that pledged to cough up millions more to help the city move forward.

Friedrichs must tap into that momentum and goodwill. Every day, he meets with nonprofits and foundation leaders in Detroit and across the region, trying to link the needs of the nonprofits to the dollars foundations can provide.

“There isn’t a tax base to do all the things we want to do. The key is to find private and public partnerships to do that. Partnerships with key organizations and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), local, state and national foundations into the city,” he said. “Success is bringing in new resources. It’s not slicing existing ones more thinly; it’s trying to grow that pie, bring in new foundations that haven’t been there before.”

After earning a Harvard graduate degree, making a national name for himself in civic engagement organizations and dropping it all to enlist in the Army’s parachute infantry company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in 2011 — inspired by the events of Sept. 11 — Friedrichs found himself back in Detroit.

“I asked myself ‘How can I be the most valuable to the city?’ This is a fascinating time. For most of my professional life, I wanted to revitalize Detroit,” the 38-year-old said. “The role seemed like a good fit and meeting the (mayor’s) team kicked me into the ‘yes’ category.”

With the advent of the grand bargain, the city continues to benefit profoundly from philanthropy’s investment in its downtown, neighborhoods and social services. The city’s plan of adjustment when it exited bankruptcy required the mayor to have a central person on staff to coordinate the solicitation of philanthropy initiatives.

“We wanted there to be a central point to tell the department heads who was out there in philanthropy to work with, and to make sure to stay close with heads of philanthropy groups so if there were problems, we could get an early warning,” Duggan said of Friedrichs’ job.

‘Pulling for Detroit’

The last two mayoral administrations — Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing — did not have a person focusing on philanthropic investment. The last mayor to do so was Dennis Archer. He gave the job to David Smydra, who served as main liaison with philanthropic and community organizations.

Still, Friedrichs has counterparts in other urban cities such has Newark, New Jersey; Oakland, California, and Philadelphia. The state of Michigan has a foundation liaison, too.

Four months on the job, Friedrichs has traveled across the nation meeting with foundation leaders who are new to him and to the city. Locally, he has met with dozens of teams from organizations such as the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Global Detroit, Crain’s Homecoming Detroit, the Music Hall Center and the Public Safety Foundation.

Part of the job is getting private money that can leverage additional federal funds, which is a larger pot of money in most cases.

“If you can compete against other states and win, that’s what I want to do for Detroit. A lot of people are pulling for Detroit. The more I can lean into that moment, by asking can you invest here and here, that’s a win,” he said.

In cases where investors are ready, it’s an issue of finding the right places for them to invest, such as project initiatives for development, business development and the right public-private partnerships, Friedrichs said.

“There is a lot out there. As I go around and do the meetings, what I have been trying to do is ask, ‘Is there a new vehicle to hold grants or are existing ones OK?’ ” Friedrichs said. “A lot of foundations don’t like to write grants directly to the city. I don’t see my role as raising money into city coffers. It’s to bring funds to the streets of Detroit.”

Phillip L. Clay, a professor of housing policy and city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as a Kresge Foundation trustee, put together the grants management operation at City Hall that Friedrichs leads.

“The initiative to do this comes from the fact over the last 20 years, cities have been able to put together deals, raise money, create partnerships that advance the city both in terms of additional resources and initiatives. Ryan is leading and I am assisting him in doing it,” Clay said.

Building relationships

Friedrichs is the ideal person for the job, Clay said, because of his experience working for nonprofits in Michigan and his work engaging young voters in Washington, D.C., and Detroit in Youth Vote Coalition, State Voices and Michigan Voice.

“He has the personality for the outreach and the relationship building the job calls for. This is is a job that requires you go out and build relationship and deal with opportunities as they come up,” Clay said.

Last month, Friedrichs spent an hour with staffers at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, getting an update on redevelopment progress that included new work on the Dequindre Cut’s 1.3 mile pedestrian pathway, a new DRC logo and plans for this month’s River Days festival.

Then the conversation shifted to fundraising, foundation interest and public perception of the conservancy’s work.

Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the conservancy, told Friedrichs of the diverse group of people who visit the 3.5 miles of RiverWalk where amenities include playful water features, a butterfly garden and a carousel.

“Yet the public, they don’t know we exist,” Wallace said of the conservancy, which has raised $120 million since 2003 to pay for redevelopment projects and needs to raise $3 million a year for new projects. “Most people think it’s tax dollars that pay for it to be safe and clean.”

Friedrichs asked which national, regional and local foundations the conservancy did not have a relationship with yet. The plan moving forward is to make those connections.

“At the riverfront, we have had tremendous partnership with foundations. We are hopeful Ryan can help introduce us to new funders and help us focus our message and achieve our goal” of finishing the RiverWalk, Wallace said.

Bettering the world

Friedrichs, a native of Scio Township and spouse of WSU Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson, says he has made a point in his career to surround himself with talented teams and select posts that have a tangible impact on people’s lives. He moved to Detroit with Benson in 2004. After his enlistment, he returned in 2014.

“I want to be able to see concrete improvement in the world ... I want to see the work I am doing every day matters. My background has focused on that,” he said.

Friedrichs helped found the Youth Vote Coalition, headquartered at the national League of Women Voters. Over the years, he’s served as chief executive of several national organizations, most recently State Voices, dedicated to empowering underrepresented communities. In those positions, he said when he mentioned the Motor City, most people would politely change the subject, he said.

“Now all of them are fascinated by Detroit,” he says. “They want to understand the Grand Bargain, who was involved and what the second act is. What is the follow up to the national moment in the philanthropy world?”