Mott Foundation leader Bill White was 'a lion defender of philanthropy'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s longtime leader, Bill White became a renowned figure in philanthropy by supporting efforts aimed at improving lives and communities across the state and overseas.

Mr. White died Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, representatives said. He was 82.

“Bill White has made an incredible impact on our community and communities around the world that will be felt for generations," said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, in a statement. "Bill’s intellect and big heart were focused on improving the lives of people less fortunate. His philanthropic leadership at the Mott Foundation and work supporting after-school programs bettered the lives of millions of Michigan’s children and families.”

William S. White addressing the European Foundation Centre in 2009.

The philanthropist’s death came days after the Council of Michigan Foundations, which he helped found, celebrated his leadership during its annual conference and announced a permanent endowment fund named after him.

In a video presentation during the event, colleagues and friends noted his influence on programs from New York to South Africa.

Mr. White “was a fervent champion for the sector, a lion defender of philanthropy,” Kyle Caldwell, its president and CEO, told The Detroit News in a statement. “His leadership will be sorely missed but his legacy in organizations like CMF and so many others will endure because of his life’s work.”

Many milestones marked Mr. White’s 50 years at the Mott Foundation.

Among them: introducing an environmental grant-making plan focused on protecting the Great Lakes; launching a national Neighborhood Small Grants Program; overseeing grants in response to South African apartheid; serving on a presidential economic and business development mission to Bosnia and Croatia during the Clinton administration; granting $25 million to the University of Michigan Health System to build a new children’s hospital in Ann Arbor; and securing a multimillion-dollar grant and commitment to boost the federal government’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, according to the foundation.

In the 1980s, he approved funding for a New York-based program that helped low-income youths launch careers in construction, the group reported.

“Bill did what foundation presidents don’t often do. He came to East Harlem. … He sat down with the students and the staff, he listened, he learned and he said yes, this is consistent with our values of empowering local communities to rebuild their lives and their communities and to be empowered to make a better world,” Dorothy Stoneman, the YouthBuild USA founder, recalled in a video accompanying the Council of Michigan Foundation’s presentation this week.

That approach was typical, said Bill Piper, a Mott Foundation trustee for more than 30 years. "He believed very strongly that the foundation's mission was heavily focused on personal relationships as much as possible and understanding the life situations of the people the foundation was trying to help."

Mr. White also was among the philanthropic leaders who committed millions of dollars through “a grand bargain” that helped resolve Detroit’s bankruptcy.

He was a major booster of Flint, where the Mott Foundation started. Achievements included partnering with Michigan State University to expand its College of Human Medicine to a new campus downtown and, in response to Flint’s water crisis, approving a $4 million grant to help the city reconnect to the Detroit system, colleagues said.

“The work that the Mott Foundation has done in this community under the direction of Mr. White is immeasurable and the number of lives impacted both in Flint and around the world is innumerable,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement. “Flint is certainly a better place to live because of his vision and philanthropic leadership.”

Mr. White "has been a giant in the community, using his philanthropic platform to advance the lives of the Flint residents," said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in a statement. “You can find Bill’s fingerprints on just about every major initiative to improve Flint’s education and health, clean up the environment and revitalize our downtown.”

Born in Cincinnati in 1937, Mr. White was raised in Westchester County, New York, as well as Boston. He was the only child of Nathaniel Ridgway White, a business writer and editor for the Christian Science Monitor, and Mary Lowndes White, a civil engineer. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth University in 1959 before completing an MBA at its Tuck School of Business and serving in the U.S. Army, according to his biography.

In 1961, he married Claire Mott, a granddaughter of industrialist Charles Stewart Mott, who created his namesake foundation.

Mr. White was hired as a consultant in 1969 and helped overhaul the group's administrative, financial and grant-making procedures, officials said.

He went on to serve as president from 1976 to 2014, chief executive officer from 1979 to 2018 and board of trustees chairman since 1988.

During Mr. White’s tenure, the foundation became a world-renowned philanthropy with assets of more than $3 billion, officials said.

Over the years, White relished collaborating with other groups to boost initiatives to promote some of his passions, such as early childhood development and after-school programming, said David Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. "He was unselfish and he was about moving forward philanthropy and moving forward the sector. He was a great innovator."

Honors included the Council on Foundation’s Distinguished Grantmaker Award in 2002; the European Foundation Centre’s first Compass Prize in 2009; a Republic of Poland Cross of Merit award for contributions to developing civil society in Central and Eastern Europe; and the 2016 Outsized Impact Award presented by Exponent Philanthropy, associates said.

Outside his charitable endeavors, Mr. White was a board chairman for the U.S. Sugar Corp., earned five honorary degrees and was active at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Flint, colleagues said.

Survivors include his second wife, Louise Hartwell; daughter Tiffany White Lovett; son Ridgway White, the Mott Foundation's president and CEO; stepdaughter Kathryn Pickett Davis; four grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife and a son-in-law, Robert E. Lovett Jr.

A public celebration of life is scheduled for Nov. 4 on the Flint Cultural Center campus. The service will be from 1-2 p.m. at The Whiting, followed by a reception from 2-4 p.m. at the Flint Institute of Arts. Attendees can register online.

Memorials may be made to the Flint Institute of Arts Endowment Fund.