Mariam Noland: Ultimate problem-solver, dealmaker

Mariam Noland loves making deals.

So when Noland was challenged to round up the leaders of heavyweight foundations in Michigan and the nation and ask them to leap from their comfort zone by donating millions to bail out Detroit’s pension system and protect the city’s art collection, she was at the top of her game.

The end result was the “grand bargain,” an unprecedented $816 million collaboration that allowed Detroit to exit bankruptcy and begin a new chapter.

“I love to make deals. This is a deal place. In Detroit it’s not raising money, it’s going to go make a deal,” Noland said. “There has never been a better time to make things happen in Detroit than today and that is what makes every day exciting for me.”

Noland arrived in Detroit more than 30 years ago to take the post as the first president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Based in Detroit, the Community Foundation takes a regional approach by investing in nonprofit organizations across all seven counties of southeast Michigan.

It has distributed more than $700 million through more than 53,000 grants to nonprofit organizations and supports activities that benefit education, arts and culture, health, human services, community development and civic affairs.

As leader of a public foundation, Noland said she views herself as a public servant. There is no single rich benefactor, she said, to pay the bills. It’s people in the community who want to give back. And she makes it happen for them.

“We started from zero to a billion dollars. Don’t tell me this isn’t a generous community. It is. We’ve given away $700 million and have $750 million left. Endowments work,” she said.

“Every fund is a story. For me it’s all about the people. It’s amazing how generous people are and I can make those little deals happen. It’s a very privileged and very special kind opportunity that I have.”

Noland and the Community Foundation will continue to help Detroit in its recovery and renewal by managing grand bargain fund dollars through a vehicle known as the Foundation For Detroit’s Future for the next 20 years.

“It proves there is a real need for a Community Foundation. We know how to manage money in perpetuity. We are pleased to step up and do that in the next 20 years. No other community foundation has done this before,” she said.

Gerald Rosen, chief judge for U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan, called Noland one of the heroes of the grand bargain deal, one of a group of foundation leaders who recognized a moment of opportunity and acted upon it, creating an unprecedented partnership in philanthropy.

“Nationally, she is a major force in the foundation world,” Rosen said. “She is really one of the quiet playmakers in Detroit. She is involved with the city and region at so many different levels. She knows everybody, she has enormous credibility and wide respect.”

During grand bargain talks, Noland was the person people came to with ideas.

“When she speaks, people listen. She is a self-effacing powerhouse,” he said.

Jennifer Chambers

Mariam Noland

Age: 68

Occupation: President, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Western Reserve University; master’s degree, Harvard University

Family: Husband, James A. Kelly

Honored for: Her efforts to galvanize the philanthropic community to contribute to Detroit’s “grand bargain”