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It’s About Time

I was disturbed recently by a blog post written by Joel Orosz, Distinguished Professor of Philanthropic Studies at The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University. It wasn’t the problem that Orosz thoughtfully outlined in his commentary.  Like Orosz, we’ve commented here and here about research the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative (PAI) has done to show how — because of a “knowledge deficit”  — many Americans have little knowledge of foundations and the work they do. What I took issue with were the following comments…

If ever there was a wake-up call to foundations to do a better job of
sharing their wins, losses, and learnings with their natural allies in
the social sector, the PAI survey has rung it up. There is no guarantee,
especially in these straitened economic times, that engaged citizens
will continue to blame the gap between their perceptions of high
foundation potential and low foundation performance upon ineffective

In fact, it seems likely that, sooner or later, the conclusions will
shift from “they’re doing a lot, but don’t tell us about it” to “they
don’t tell us much because they aren’t doing much.”

As I said in a comment about the post:

I’m not ready to say it’s a failure of foundations to communicate.

There are far too many examples of thoughtful and well-implemented
programs practiced by foundations large and small.

Granted, all the communicating foundations do is no guarantee of success or that all the messages are hitting home. But there is no lack of trying, or willingness of foundations to be open and share what they are doing. And sometimes this effort proves to be quite successful. And when that happens, it’s a cause for celebration, even if just for a moment.

A case in point is an article in the March 17 online edition of Time magazine which describes a major effort underway to help Detroit climb out of its hole.

Anyone reading the article will have no difficulty understanding the very major role a group of foundations — including two from Detroit, Kresge and Skillman, along with Eli Broad from Los Angeles — are playing in this massive effort that the magazine describes as the “most ambitious urban makeover in American history.”  As the article says in almost gushing tones:

Philanthropic dollars are seeding the reinvention of Detroit. Demographer Kurt Metzger heads up Data Driven Detroit (DDD), an agency that just completed a plot-by-plot analysis of the city’s 139-square-mile footprint. DDD is backed by $1.85 million from the Kresge and Skillman foundations. Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager for the Detroit public schools, draws one-third of his $425,000 salary from an alliance of philanthropies led by the Eli Broad Foundation. And if all goes according to plan, Detroit will break ground this year on a trolley line connecting downtown with an Amtrak station 3.5 miles (5.6 km) north. The project’s seed money is a $35 million grant from Kresge.

The icing on this cake, though, comes from a quote from Charles Pugh, recently elected president of the Detroit city council.  He says:

“Detroit is the textbook case of a city that needs this kind of assistance,” he says, “and we welcome it with open arms. I’m jumping up and down.”

After reading this story, so am I.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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