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Philanthropy Through the Eyes of the Beholder

About a week ago I gushed about a gushing story in Time magazine that crowed about the fantastic work being undertaken in Detroit by local and national foundations to help bring Motor City back from its slump.

To me, it was an example of all the good things that come from foundations being open about their work and being on message.  Today, I’m feeling a bit more humbled about the fact that — try as we do — there’s still miles to go before people will see foundation work as we hope they would. 

In particular, my concern comes from reading a story in the Detroit News that similarly discusses the foundation efforts to remake Detroit. While overall an extremely positive piece, which gives credit to the Kresge, Skillman, and Broad Foundations, for how they are “joining forces to reinvent the city,” there are some disturbing comments from people who are very wary of what this group of grantmakers is doing.

For example:

But if most hearts leap at the promise of help being provided to reimagine a more vibrant, economically viable Detroit, some city residents are alarmed by this emergent power shift.

They wonder whether foundations, with their wealth and the opportunity created by crisis, are reimagining themselves so completely they’re becoming a fourth branch of government, reaching into city politics, land-use planning and Detroit public and charter schools in unprecedented ways.

Detroit’s economic fragility and political scandals have opened a potentially dangerous door, some worry.

“Increasingly it seems (the foundations) feel this is a time to make a move to recapture, if you will, the city of Detroit and determine what its destiny will be,” said Detroit City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta, who welcomes their help, but warns that these are unelected officials who should not be setting the city agenda. “The danger is that the voice of dissent is also being painted as a relic voice of maintaining the status quo … That’s not true.”

Other quotes in the story — that use words and phrases like “potential power grab” or “philanthropy driving — not just reacting” or “it’s just another takeover,” and finally “you have to look at this carefully” — suggest that a big gap still exists in the public’s understanding of what foundations do and what motivates them.

At the same time, the one benefit of coverage such as this, it does help point out where the misperceptions lie and what needs to be countered in future communications with the public, the news media, and the policy community.

In making the case for why these foundations need to be very visible about the work they are doing and why they need to talk openly about their goals and intentions, Skillman President Carol Goss sums it up best:

Our missions are aligned to working around supporting the public good. You can’t do that being silent.

Bruce Trachtenberg


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