$5.7 million fund to aid Detroit nonprofits led by people of color

Alex Harring
The Detroit News

Six prominent foundations have teamed up to establish a $5.7 million fund supporting Detroit nonprofits led by people of color.

Like many of its peers, the Detroit Residents First Fund aims to use its assets to "transform neighborhoods in Detroit with the least access to power and social capital," according to a press release issued Wednesday. But the fund will operate differently than most others in Michigan.

One difference: The fund will exclusively support organizations that are led by Black, indigenous and other people of color. Leaders have pointed to research showing that organizations led by people of color typically receive less monetary support than those run by white people.

There will also be differences in who decides where assets go. Community leaders and representatives of the foundations will collectively agree how to disperse grant funds, creating a shared-power structure that is considered unique among Michigan nonprofits.

"We're all at the table together," said Daija Butler, assistant director of planning for the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency who oversees the DRFF. "We're sharing decision power. Residents are at the core of all the decisions we make."

This style of participatory grantmaking, in which multiple stakeholders have a say, will help "advance equity in philanthropy," organizers say.

“The Ford Foundation has long supported efforts that activate the voice and leadership of communities who have been traditionally kept away from the decision-making tables," said Kevin Ryan, Detroit program officer for the Ford Foundation, in a statement. "We are proud to support the Detroit Residents First Fund’s work to support and elevate the voices of committed, compassionate and engaged citizens who are working to transform the city we call home.”

In addition to the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and Skillman Foundation have all signed on to the fund.

Once accepted, Butler said organizations in the fund receive $50,000 annually for up to three years. The fund does not plan to put any stipulations on which specific projects or areas an organization in the fund can spend their grant dollars on — unlike some other funds, Butler said, which require that funding go toward selected initiatives. 

"They have the freedom and the flexibility to invest the money in the projects that are specific to their particular neighborhood," Butler said.

Avalon Village, People's Water Board and We the People of Detroit are among the 15 organizations participating in the fund's pilot. The fund has given $1.4 million in total to the pilot organizations.

Community Movement Builders Detroit has used the grant money to start a T-shirt printing business that can provide apprenticeship opportunities and generate funds for the community. Given the spending freedom the fund gives grantees, CMBD President Yusef Shakur said the fund has also been able to use some of the money for micro-grants to community members in need.

"There's not much red tape that prevents you from just supporting people in the way that they need," Shakur said.

These organizations become part of a cohort that also receives peer guidance and mentorship. Leaders of these organizations also receive training in leadership and organization infrastructure development so they are "set up for success," Butler said.

She said the fund anticipates accepting more organizations in the fall.

The fund aims to increase its assets and provide $10 million to organizations over the next five years.

CMBD's Shakur said he is hopeful the fund is a step in the right direction for grants across the board. He said it is important to support people close to a problem, as they are most likely to find effective solutions.

"For too long, folks in academia and the foundation world have used a systemic racism approach to these little people that can contribute," Shakur said. "If you don't have three letters behind your name, you aren't considered an expert."

"That's the good thing about this fund, it's thinking outside the box," he added. "It's providing inspiration for how to do that, for how to get resources to the ground."


Twitter: @alex_harring