Flint Water Crisis Proves Mettle of New Foundation Leader

Ridgway White and a young student celebrate the opening of an early education centre in Flint, Michigan.
Mott Foundation president Ridgway White took quick action during the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, providing the city $4 million to switch to a safe water supply. Photo: Danen Williams

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Ridgway White had been president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for less than a year when calamity struck in the grant maker’s backyard. In the fall of 2015, officials in Flint, Michigan, publicly acknowledged after months of denial and stonewalling that the city’s water was unsafe.

To save money, the city had stopped buying water from Detroit and instead started drawing from the heavily polluted Flint River. Testing showed dangerously high levels of lead in children’s blood and quick action was needed, but the wheels of government were moving slowly. So Mr. White and the Mott Foundation sprang into action.

Mr. White, who rose through the ranks at Mott after being hired in 2004 as a program assistant, suddenly found himself in a blur of high-level meetings with local, state, and federal officials. Even before a state of emergency was declared, the family foundation gave $4 million, which was matched by an additional $2 million from the city and $6 million from the state, to switch Flint back to a safer water supply.

Meanwhile, the city became a national symbol of government malfeasance and deferred infrastructure maintenance. Making the initial grant was a “no-brainer” says Mr. White, now 37, because city residents’ basic needs weren’t being met.

But deciding what to do now — and defining where philanthropy should step in when government isn’t up to the task — is not clear.

“There’s no bright line,” Mr. White says.

Big Response

Most Flint residents have escaped immediate danger of continued lead exposure, Mr. White says, but the city needs to find a way to provide water over the long haul.

Ridgway White, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation President
Mr. White, now 37, had risen through the ranks to become Mott’s leader. He’d had the top job less than a year when the city acknowledged its water was unsafe.
Photo: Cristina Wright

Mott has responded in a big way for its hometown by committing $100 million over the next five years. Some of that will go to clean water. Other grants will be steered toward early-childhood education, health, and local economic-development efforts.

Perhaps the grant Mr. White is most excited about is a tiny fraction of the foundation’s overall response. Mott spent $75,000 to hire a consultant to develop a request for proposals for an entirely new water system. If all goes well, the city will be able to send out the request early next year.

The decision to hire a consultant was a gamble many cash-strapped municipalities like Flint might not want to take, preferring instead to spend $75,000 on a core city function, like putting another police officer on the street.

The relatively small grant, Mr. White says, allowed the foundation, rather than the city, to assume the risk of an idea that might fail. The grant, he says, illustrates that even though government budgets are much larger than those of most foundations, philanthropy can play a crucial role in encouraging fresh ideas. “We can help on stuff like that, but at the end of the day, they’ll have to pay for shovels and pipes,” he says.

The grant played to Mott’s strength as a local player that can solicit opinions from a wide selection of city leaders, Mr. White says. And if it proves successful, it will allow city leaders to consider innovations in water delivery that will safeguard the long-term health of Flint residents.

The city, he says, is sometimes too busy responding to immediate crises to see beyond the horizon.

“They’ll fix the main that’s leaking across the street” or just follow the minimum environmental standards set by federal regulators, he says. “We owe it to ourselves to think about the overall system. We’re trying to help the city, and others, think 20 and 50 years into the future.”