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Philanthropic Test Case: Helping to Revive Motor City

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Much as Haiti can serve as a test case for philanthropic efforts to rebuild a country destroyed by natural disaster, Detroit is emerging as a model for renewal domestically.

Carol Goss of the Skillman Foundation pointed out the promise in Motor City in a March 26 article in the Detroit News: "We can be a model of how to turn around a city and a region." Skillman is just one of several foundations collaborating to rebuild and rethink all aspects of the city, from its residents' educational needs to city planning to the arts.

Philanthropic efforts to revive the city's arts -- particularly in establishing a "creative corridor" downtown -- are drawing extra attention. "If we could ever try out all these ideas we've been cooking up about the arts as an engine of urban renewal -- and really do it -- this is the place to do it," said Andras Szanto of AEA Consulting in a March 29 airing of WNYC Radio's Soundcheck. The show's host, John Schaefer, compared Detroit to New York some three or four decades ago, when first punk music and then hip hop culture emerged as vibrant art forms and breathed new life into the city, before becoming global cultural forces.

Detroit does indeed offer a promising case for foundations: The city was struggling more than most American urban centers before the recession. And its nonprofits have long been too dependent on the severely depressed automotive industry.

But the clock is ticking: The Kresge Foundation's Rip Rapson told the Detroit News that the philanthropic effort has about 18 months to achieve its goals. And alarm bells are already sounding. The News quoted several community leaders skeptical of the efforts, seeing the work as a "takeover" from what appears to be an emerging, unaccountable "fourth branch of government."

The ever-astute Bruce Trachtenberg wrote in a March 26 post to the Communications Network's blog that such concerns testify to the still large gap between the public's understanding of what foundations do and what motivates them -- something the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative documents. Independent foundation consultant Bob Hughes wrote in an April 6 post to the Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog that it's not just that foundations need to be more open about their activities. A sustained conversation is also required, so that the public and organized philanthropy can be aligned.

It will take the whole village of Detroit -- as elsewhere -- to bring about true social change.