This City Runs on Donations

Small family foundations are increasingly funding parks, neighborhood revitalization, education and more. What’s next for urban-focused philanthropy?

Story by Scott Atkinson

Photography by Scott Atkinson

Published on

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The July 11 press conference at Berston Field House looked more like a party. A staple on Flint, Michigan’s north side, the community center has basketball courts inside and out, as well as exercise rooms. Opened in 1923, Berston’s facilities have produced a Heisman Trophy winner and an Olympic gold medalist. It’s a safe haven for many kids on the north side — a part of the city where high crime, blight and homelessness are common.

The reason for the midsummer celebration: The Friends of Berston received $280,000 to operate the center and fund youth programs. Bryant Nolden, the unpaid executive director for the last six years, will now get a $55,000 annual salary. The money came from the Ruth Mott Foundation, a slice of a total $1.3 million it awarded to 10 Flint organizations this year. When Mott died in 1999, she left money behind for a foundation to support arts, beautification and children’s health in the city. (She was the widow of auto industry magnate and former Flint Mayor Charles Stewart Mott.) Over the years, the philanthropy gave money to the Flint Downtown Development Authority and other organizations for planting flowers, and to arts organizations including galleries and a local youth music club.

But around 2012, the foundation started making moves to shift its focus to the north side of Flint. With its annual budget of around $5 million, according to Nolden, who grew up on the north side, the new strategy is a “game-changer.”

The change is, of course, about much more than one foundation and one community center. As small philanthropy organizations follow a trend initiated by the industry’s heavy hitters and adopt a more place-based and more data-driven approach to directing money in cities — many struggling to pay for basic services — the shift is reverberating through urban America. And make no mistake: There are winners and losers.

Changing the Rules of the Game

“The trustees had always had a question in their minds: What does it all add up to? Are we really changing conditions?” says Handy Lindsey, Ruth Mott Foundation president.

When Lindsey arrived at the organization in 2014 with 30 years of community foundation experience, there was already a plan in the works to shift the focus to the north side of Flint. But Lindsey didn’t just want to throw money in a certain geographical direction. He wanted to talk to the people in the neighborhood. He wanted data to back up the decision-making. So Ruth Mott held community meetings, conducted surveys and interviews, and looked at past surveys and studies done in north Flint, including the work that went into developing a master plan that was updated in 2013 (its first update in more than 50 years).

They also added multiple staff positions to help with their new data-based approach, including a learning officer who is “responsible for data collection, evaluation and, perhaps most importantly, providing technical assistance to Ruth Mott Foundation grantees so they can also evaluate and improve their programs,” Lindsey says. “As [the staffer] describes it, her role is not only about finding out what the organizations need and what their clients need, but also discovering if they’re reaching all the people they should be reaching with their services.”

From their research, they eventually settled on four areas to focus on in north Flint: youth, safety, economic opportunity and neighborhoods. In November 2015, the foundation gave about $1.4 million to fund police and new crime-fighting strategies. In April, they announced the awards for 10 new grantees, including Berston Field House, all located in north Flint. Some of those looked like programs from Ruth Mott’s earlier days — two arts programs targeted at youth, one of which focused on children in a detention center — but others, like a sports facility and an employment program, reflected the organizational change more clearly.

“It’s not just the geography,” Lindsey says. “There are lots of foundations that work in a specific community. However, the way that they strategize about their work is a top-down application. They’re not necessarily talking to the people who are on the ground there in those conditions. They’re basing their strategy on what happens to be currently in vogue as practice. Whereas truly place-based foundations really try to connect with the people they’re trying to serve. We call it shoe-leather philanthropy. And shoe-leather philanthropy is defined as walking with, talking with, sharing with and learning from the people who are impacted by the work you’re going to do.”

Handy Lindsey is the president of the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint.

Ruth Mott is one of many giving organizations — and governments — using a place- and evidence-based approach. This growing trend in philanthropy is upsetting the current model of how money is spread around. Traditionally, nonprofits wrote grant applications seeking funding for various services; organizations then reviewed the proposals before deciding where best to send their money. The power of how that money was used ultimately rested with the grantee. But many foundations, from community-based organizations like Ruth Mott to major international players like Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation (Ford and MacArthur provide grant support to Next City), are taking a more active role in where and how their money gets spent, and are keeping better track of the impact it has by conducting their own research, rather than relying on service nonprofits themselves to submit reports. Earlier this year, another Michigan philanthropy, the Kresge Foundation, launched the American Cities Practice, a new initiative supporting urban-focused research and place-based efforts. The initiative is building on the foundation’s own work in Detroit and its learning there.

The money on the table in current and future American philanthropy means that any redirection from business as usual reverberates loudly now and into the future. According to a 2013 Johnson Center for Philanthropy report on the next generation of donors, people born between 1964 and 2000 (think Gen X-ers and millenials) will have a combined $40 trillion to put toward philanthropy — and they want to do it their way.

“They see previous generations as more motivated by a desire for recognition or social requirements, while they see themselves as focused on impact, first and foremost. They want impact they can see, and they want to know that their own involvement has contributed to that impact,” the report states.

Jon Baron is the vice president of evidence-based policy at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. His job, in part, is to push for more government programs and policies that base their efforts and funding on projects that are heavily monitored and researched — in other words, on programs that can prove they work.

“[The traditional model was] something sounds good, it has a good theory, and the assumption has been, without the evidence, that it’s helping people,” Baron says. “The problem with that approach is that those kinds of programs, including the government programs … when they are rigorously evaluated, most of the time, unfortunately, the projects are found not to produce the hoped-for effects.”

Time will tell in north Flint and at Berston Field House, but for now, Nolden couldn’t be happier. “I think it just gives the kids and the neighborhood hope,” he says of Ruth Mott’s new place-based strategy. “We’ve had so many things that have been devastating to this community, so to be able to have a positive light, it’s always great for the community and the neighborhood.”

Lindsey is excited too. He believes in the new approach. But he also knows that a change in strategy means saying no to people who have depended on Ruth Mott for years to exist. Those left out, while not a fit with the new mission, are still doing good work. Talking about it in the Ruth Mott office, Lindsey leans over a conference table and brings his hands together in front of him, forming a circle. “You’ve got everything you’re saying yes to in the circle, and outside the circle you’re saying no to everything,” he says. “That’s tough.”

Parks Aren’t Free

Kearsley Park is one of the defining places of Flint’s east side. There’s a perfect snow-sledding hill, two playgrounds, and softball and soccer fields. The park was once home to a public pool and a miniature city called Safetyville, both long gone. A condemned former martial arts school sits vacant and spray-painted on a nearby corner, across from an open field where an elementary school burned down. The park is something of an island on the east side, which shares many challenges with the north side. In fact, much of Flint’s east side is included in Ruth Mott’s definition of north Flint, including Kearsley Park. But the programming that kept the park going didn’t align with Ruth Mott’s new mission.

For the past 14 years, through an agreement with the city and with funding through Ruth Mott, Kay Kelly has looked after the park while also running and directing the Kearsley Park Players, a theater troupe that performs an annual Shakespeare comedy in the park’s pavilion. Before Kelly, the park was known as a place where you would find drug dealers and prostitution. The foundation’s funding for it has changed over the last decade-plus, but most recently, money for the troupe ended.

When Kelly first heard about the change in Ruth Mott’s strategy, she was disappointed but encouraged by the fact that she was one of the organizations that was asked for a proposal for an “exit grant,” a process by which Lindsey says they sat down with organizations to talk about the impact of losing funding and planning for the loss.

When I first spoke with Kelly, she said, “It’s their money,” and talked about how grateful she was that they’d gotten the support they’d had for so many years. When we met at Kearsley Park in August, after that exit grant had been denied, she could only describe herself as “heartbroken.”

Four teenagers were sitting on or around the small stage in the pavilion that day, their bikes strewn around them, eating Chicken in a Biskit crackers and Fritos, and sipping bottles of water. Karen Neighbors, 15, told me they go to the park every day.

“There’s too much violence for anyone to go anywhere anymore,” she said. She said she sees people every day having picnics in the grass or relaxing under one of the shade trees.

Karen Neighbors, 15, laughs with her friends at Kearsley Park while they eat snacks and talk. She says they go to the park almost every day, as it is one of the few safe places in the neighborhood.

Typical of most 15-year-olds, Neighbors had no idea that foundation money had been helping to maintain the park. Kids don’t question how a Dumpster and portable toilet got there — or that those things cost money.

Beyond Kearsley Park, Kelly’s also concerned about the loss of funding for arts in the community. She doesn’t discount the stream of needs in the city, but says, “I believe arts feed the soul. … The arts are what make us human.”

Lindsey notes that the arts won’t necessarily go away. It all depends. In Ruth Mott’s research and conversations with the community that informed the revamp, issues related to youth topped the list over public safety, economic opportunity and neighborhoods. If an arts program supports youth — or even neighborhoods, then there’s potential. But whatever is funded must be in service of those larger missions. Art for art’s sake? Not anymore.

Kay Kelly comes to the Kearsley Park pavilion armed with spray paint to cover graffiti.

“We had to make some tough decisions about our available grant dollars, recognizing that some programs we had funded no longer fit our new focus even though we feel their work is valuable,” Lindsey says of Kearsley Park, also noting that while the park does lie within the north Flint boundaries, many of the parks Kelly visits with her theater troupe are scattered throughout the county. (The grants were technically made to Genesee County Parks, for Kelly to use for her programming.)

“Our partnership with Kearsley Park Players began over a decade ago,” Lindsey continues. “We have appreciated that partnership and would welcome the opportunity to consider working with them again should the program become aligned with our strategic focus on north Flint.”

Of course, while Kelly’s most recent round of funding was for a theater troupe, there was a decided ripple effect for Kearsley Park. Kelly was able to leverage what funds the troupe raised to continue mowing grass and trash pickup. (Over the years, she put in a playground, restored the tile roof of the pavilion, maintained the softball field and made a soccer field.)

Unless you personally knew Kelly, those might be the kinds of things that you’d think the city provided. And that, says Beth Gazley, professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, points to the tricky relationship between local governments and foundations.

“The philanthropist is always going to want to choose [what to fund]. It’s just natural,” she says. “That may or may not be what a public service needs.”

However, while that source of funding has dried up for Kelly, Amy McMillan, director of Genesee County Parks, is optimistic. The county parks system has a formal agreement with the city of Flint to look after several Flint parks, many of which are located in Ruth Mott’s boundaries.

“We understand and really applaud Ruth Mott for focusing on north Flint and think it will provide many opportunities,” she says. “We’re very excited.”

Genesee County Parks doesn’t rely on general fund dollars, but instead has its own millage (voters recently approved an increase) that covers about 60 percent of its budget. The rest comes from revenue generated by different programs and philanthropic support.

Toward the end of the year McMillan will be filing funding requests, some to Ruth Mott, and she’s ready to show numbers that will help.

“We keep a tremendous amount of data for the Genesee County Parks programs,” she says. “I know that many of our programs and many of our projects fit the criteria. … Really, that responsibility is ours as a grantee to be successful.”

Philanthropy’s Next Generation

The idea of taking a multidimensional and community-based approach is both revolutionary and old school. Prior to the late 1800s, if you gave, it was likely that you gave locally, with funds being directed toward what was around you. But before the start of the 20th century, philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie launched larger institutions with broader missions, and that changed how philanthropy functioned for about the next hundred years.

Then, about 15 years ago, Jane Wales started to notice something. As the vice president for philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute, she helps budding philanthropists figure out the best way to give. Most come to her with a big, global problem they want to solve — hunger, say — but by the time they’re done talking they end up, literally, somewhere else. A place.

Part of that change, she says, has to do with how data is collected. For decades, any feedback on how well a program was doing would come from the organization getting the funding, but technology like online surveys have allowed philanthropists to go straight to the end benefactor.

“I can get that feedback, I can get it directly,” she says. “Beneficiary feedback led to the realization that there are multiple factors, multiple variables and the best way to tackle those is a place-based approached. If you think about Ruth Mott for example, it’s hard not to look at children’s health without looking at a lot of factors. [Philanthropists are] asking, ‘what are the views of the ultimate recipient of this grant?’ I’d argue that sounds very old-fashioned, it’s the kind of thing your grandparents would do but it’s also cutting-edge. It’s a new era in philanthropy.”

Larry Kaplan is a nonprofit consultant and a writer for Nonprofit Quarterly specializing in the relationships between state and city governments and their local foundations. He sees the landscape much as Wales does, and adds that it’s not only a question of place, but rather who’s “driving the agenda.” “For a long time, the nonprofits drove the agenda. Then maybe 10 or 15 years ago — I don’t know what took them so long — [foundations] said, wait, it’s our money, we should drive the agenda,” Kaplan says. Offshoots of that approach, he says, are the rising place- and evidence-based philanthropy.

“The goal is to sure, support them while they’re developing, but to help them develop in such a way that they build a broader base of support, that they have resident expertise that they need.”

In Gary, Indiana, the Legacy Foundation is starting to experiment with place-based funding. Legacy provides funding, not just for Gary, but also for the surrounding Lake County. Legacy President Carolyn Saxton says they’re starting to take a closer look at communities and neighborhoods within Gary and taking a more comprehensive approach to helping those neighborhoods, getting involved in collecting data and basing their funding on the needs they see. They still have what she calls more “transactional” relationships with grantees, but they’re also exploring the role place-based funding can have. Saxton notes that the word “scattershot” could be a good word to use in place of “transactional.” The money might be going to good causes, but those causes aren’t necessarily working together toward a larger goal.

“For community foundations it’s really outside the box,” she says. “Usually community foundations have been more transactional. Let’s say meals on wheels comes to you with their grant request along with 40 other groups … . We like what you’re doing, we like this program and it’s innovative and collaborative, and we’re going to fund you, [but] how can we be the catalyst for change? And not just as reactive but proactive in this process? And … it gives us the opportunity to say in the evaluation at the end of the first year, how are we doing? What’s working? And we’ve done that.”

Whether the rest of the small foundation community will shift remains to be seen.

“The evidence-based movement, while it’s growing, still has touched a relatively small fraction of philanthropy and government funding,” Baron says. “There’s no question it’s a movement, but whether it continues, which we hope, or doesn’t, we don’t know.”

The Legacy Foundation has put its approach to work in two neighborhoods so far, and has ended up targeting crime and blight. Like Flint, Gary was built for about two times the number of people now living there, down to 80,000 people from 175,000. (Flint’s population is now less than 100,000, peaking in the 1960s at about 200,000.)

Needs are great in cities with budgets stretched thin. But with foundations eyeing an opening to develop comprehensive approaches to urban revitalization — touching on everything from playgrounds to economic development — where does City Hall fit in? Could municipal governments become too reliant on their local foundations?

Kaplan’s opinion: “If only.”

In other words, it would be nice if local foundations could tackle all the problems a city faces, but he says that’s simply not the case.

“They’ll augment what the city is doing,” he says, adding that foundations for the most part pick up some of the slack for what are often called “softer services,” like parks and recreation. “It’s not going to impact police. It’s not going to impact garbage collection,” he says. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, however might soon be a case study on what happens when a heftier chunk of local philanthropic dollars might intersect with smaller municipal budgets. The city is exploring the idea of creating a foundation that will leverage combined donor money in order to introduce property tax cuts and pay for basic services.)

Meanwhile with a fairly modest $5 million annual budget — which, in a place like north Flint, Lindsey says, “doesn’t go very far” — Ruth Mott also works to figure out how they can convince other donors that a place like north Flint is worth putting dollars into — and that’s where the data comes in once again.

“The goal is to sure, support them while they’re developing, but to help them develop in such a way that they build a broader base of support, that they have resident expertise that they need in fundraising, programming, what have you, so that they don’t build a dependency on the Ruth Mott Foundation, and we can ultimately cycle out at some point,” Lindsey says. “What we can do, is we can function in the role of the person holding the spotlight, shining light on the issues … showing that those investments can have an impact.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Ruth Mott Foundation’s funding for Berston Field House does not include money for a new playground. There is a new playground in the works for Berston and Make an Impact Foundation is currently fundraising for that project.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Scott Atkinson is a writer based in Flint, Michigan. His reporting on Flint has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Belt Magazine and elsewhere. He teaches writing and journalism at the University of Michigan-Flint. You can view more of his work at

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