Kimberly Roberson: Mott’s approach to hometown grantmaking

Since 1926, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has helped its hometown of Flint, Michigan, respond to challenges and opportunities.

The Foundation’s local grantmaking is helping Flint reinvent itself in such key areas as workforce and economic development, children and youth, and arts and culture.

That local work helps inform — and is informed by — the Foundation’s national and international grantmaking.

When Charles Stewart Mott created his foundation in Flint, Michigan, in 1926, it was with a keen interest in the overall well-being of his adopted hometown. Over the years, as the city’s fortunes waxed and waned, the Mott Foundation continued to support the organizations, programs and initiatives that offered hope for moving the Flint community forward.

That effort continues, with grants from the Foundation’s Flint Area Program totaling nearly $24 million in 2011.

Kimberly S. Roberson, director of the Flint Area Program since October 2011, recently sat down with Mott Communications Officer Duane M. Elling to reflect on how the Foundation is supporting efforts to craft a new future for Flint.

Mott: What are some of the key challenges facing Flint?

Kimberly Roberson
Kimberly Roberson.

Kimberly Roberson: The challenges in Flint are similar to those faced by many post-industrial cities around the country and even the world. They include rebuilding the local economy, which in Flint was devastated over time by the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. The resulting erosion in the local tax base is tied to an aging, deteriorating infrastructure that was originally designed to serve a city much larger than what we have now.

Those economic challenges have affected area schools and public services, such as police and fire departments, and strained the community’s nonprofit sector. And the situation has been made even more difficult over the last several years by economic struggles at the state and national levels.

Ultimately, Flint is challenged with reinventing itself. I think the community will always be proud of its place in history as the birthplace of General Motors, but I also believe that most people recognize that the city’s future will look very different from its past. The best hope for Flint is turning that challenge into an opportunity, and I believe we are seeing that happen.

Mott: What is Mott’s approach to helping the community face those challenges?

Roberson: Rather than having a prescriptive “blueprint” for our local grantmaking, the Foundation seeks to be responsive to the community’s challenges, as well as its opportunities. For example, we’ve long believed in the importance of education, which is why we fund various afterschool and educational programs targeting area children and youth, including initiatives that seek to help the community’s most vulnerable kids stay connected to education.

We also know that a trained and skilled workforce is key to meeting the needs of local employers and to attracting new business and jobs to Flint. To that end, we support job training initiatives in a number of promising sectors, including health care, advanced manufacturing and the environmental or “green” economy.

The responsiveness of Mott’s local grantmaking to emerging opportunities is reflected in our support of various downtown and economic revitalization efforts. This includes the ongoing redevelopment of vacant properties and storefronts in the city’s downtown corridor, which is home to a growing number of restaurants, office and retail spaces, loft apartments, and housing for local college students. Those developments are helping to create a more vibrant urban core that can help breathe new life into the entire Genesee County community.

Mott: Could you tell us more about the Mott approach?

Roberson: As in most communities, Flint’s nonprofit sector plays a critical role in helping residents weather hard times and address local needs. The Foundation has long supported the nonprofit sector and, with the tremendous need facing the community during the nation’s recession, Mott has helped fund various emergency services that keep the local “safety net” in place for area families.

We also seek to support what we call “centers of strength,” those local institutions and programs that have historically helped to hold the Flint area together during good and difficult times, and that offer a solid footing for future work. These include several area colleges and universities; the local health care system; community and economic development programs; and arts and cultural organizations, including the Flint Cultural Center.

We recognize that the Foundation’s economic resources are dwarfed by those of the government and private sectors, and by the overall need in the Genesee County community. Ultimately, our goal is to leverage the available resources — financial, as well as human capital — that will help Flint to create a new, sustainable future.

Mott: How does the Foundation’s grantmaking in Flint intersect with its global programmatic interests?

Roberson: As I noted earlier, the challenges and opportunities facing Flint are shared to varying degrees with many other communities around the globe. The Foundation’s national and international grantmaking provide access to ideas, strategies and expertise that can help our hometown address its own unique needs.

At the same time, Flint is providing models and approaches that other communities are learning from and, in some cases, replicating. The Genesee County Land Bank and Center for Community Progress; Mott Middle and Early College; and the BEST program are a few examples of local initiatives, funded by the Foundation, that are helping to inform and frame broader conversations about community revitalization.

When Charles Stewart Mott created his foundation in Flint, Mich., in 1926, it was with a keen interest in the well-being of his adopted hometown. That commitment to Flint continues today, as highlighted in these videos on the Foundation’s Hometown Grantmaking.

Children and Youth

Workforce Development

Arts and Culture

Festivals and Events