Building on the legacy of its founder, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has continued to make grants in its home community of Flint, Michigan, even as it has expanded its philanthropy to communities throughout the United States and selected areas of the world. Mott is one of a handful of large, private foundations that has maintained a formal grantmaking program benefiting its hometown and surrounding region. Program Director Neal Hegarty, who has been involved in Mott’s Flint-Area grantmaking since he arrived at the Foundation in 2000, sat down with Communications Officer-New Media Ann Richards, to talk about the challenges of hometown funding, as well as the lessons learned through place-based grantmaking in a community experiencing ongoing and turbulent change.

Mott: From a grantmaking perspective, what are Flint’s most pressing challenges?

Neal Hegarty
Neal Hegarty.

Hegarty: The city’s most obvious and serious challenge is its weak economy, which is further compounded by its location within a weak state economy within a weak regional economy. The region has lost manufacturing jobs, which has taken a toll on its tax base, its schools and its political systems. I think there’s a tendency sometimes to blame all our local problems on political jurisdictions and turf issues. But in fact, the local economy in many ways is a reflection of the huge challenges that face the Midwest at every level — metropolitan, state and regional.

Mott: So how have these challenges influenced Mott’s grantmaking in Flint?

Hegarty: One of my co-workers used a boxing analogy to describe how Mott tries to make grants — we look for opportunities to “punch above our weight.” We try to fund programs and projects that make as great an impact as possible in relation to our investment.

One thing we’re clear about is that the Foundation can’t single-handedly reverse the local economic situation. Our annual grantmaking budget can’t begin to compare with public sector resources or the region’s gross economic output. But what we can do is make sure that organizations working on economic issues — locally and at the state, regional and national levels — are well staffed and have adequate funding to operate. We can provide support for the studies and analyses they need. We can encourage and underwrite partnerships and collaborations among nonprofit, governmental and private agencies. And we can use our money to leverage investments from these agencies.

The Flint area community has been aware of its dependence on manufacturing and its lack of economic diversity for quite some time. There’s a balance that we strive to maintain through our grantmaking — we don’t want to abandon efforts to boost the community’s core manufacturing capacity, but we do want to encourage and explore new markets that will provide some diversity to the area economy.

Mott has made, and will continue to make, grants to help the Flint and Genesee County community build on existing strengths and encourage and develop new economic niches. The trouble is, the jobs created by those new niches — health care, education, technology and specialized manufacturing — pale in comparison to the number of jobs lost through the automotive manufacturing industry.

Mott: The Foundation has endowed or provided long-term operating support for several local organizations to build their capacity to serve the local community. Could you talk a little about this strategy?

Hegarty: This is one of the unique elements of our local grantmaking. In addition to the targeted goals and objectives of our annual grantmaking plan, we also want to ensure that our community has well-funded and functioning “intermediary” organizations. Another way of putting this is that as a hometown funder, we want to make sure that we have a strong United Way, a strong community foundation, and strong agencies that support the development of individuals and area nonprofits.

Mott: What have been some of the significant lessons you’ve learned about local, place-based grantmaking?

Hegarty: Tread carefully. When you make grants in a medium-size community like Flint, you don’t want to be heavy-handed, but you don’t want to be timid, either. As best you can, you try to keep that balance.

It is fundamentally important to listen to the community and to be aware of the broad spectrum of ideas and opinions that come from all corners. Good ideas and fundable projects come not only from the large institutions, but also from small neighborhood groups and grassroots organizations. We can’t fund every idea and we won’t agree with every opinion, but I believe that it is important for our staff — to the best of our ability — be accessible and that we respectfully consider all ideas.

There is an inherent “push and pull” dynamic in local grantmaking. Mott staff should strive to bring new ideas, documented research and effective models to the community. That is the “push.” At the same time, we need to be open to being “pulled” by ideas, models and approaches that are bubbling up within the community. Some of the best ideas can come from right here in our own backyard, while others may need to be imported from proven experiences in other communities.

Mott: How do you measure the impact of your grants, and how does that affect your grantmaking strategies?

Hegarty: It’s very difficult to separate the impact of a set of grants on the overall health of the broader community. Each year, Mott invests millions of dollars in Flint, and yet you can walk anywhere in this community and see dire challenges. We can point to 1,000 abandoned buildings being torn down, but there are thousands more that need to be dealt with. We can make 50 great grants, but we still have a community that is struggling.

Despite those challenges, we try to keep learning from our successes and failures — and with over 80 years of grantmaking in Flint, we have plenty of both. It has helped us understand what we can and cannot do. We can’t replace the public — or the private — sector role in a healthy economy. We believe that there is an appropriate role for government, business and the nonprofit sector. And we have learned that we can be most effective when we can be part of a coalition and when we can leverage the role of the other sectors of the economy.

We also understand that successful projects and the long-term positive impact of our grants are predicated on good ideas, solid partnerships and exemplary leadership. Whether we are supporting a highly sophisticated institution or a less-formal grassroots organization, we know that the idea, the partnership, and the leadership will be the keys to success.

We also know, from experience, that we need to occasionally take risks. The key is to do our homework so that we can take risks that are calculated and clearly understood.

Mott: How does the Foundation develop a hometown grantmaking program that balances its founder’s legacy with current social and economic challenges?

Hegarty: That’s something that’s always in the back of our minds — trying to make the kind of grants that honor not only the intent of our original donor, C.S. Mott, but also the Foundation’s 80-year legacy in the community. We have to balance that history with the priorities set by the Foundation’s current board and management — as well as the current needs of the community. Those are the drivers that help shape our formal grantmaking plan each year — that guide the grantmaking decisions.

Our CEO, Bill White, has observed that foundations are institutions that can afford to take the long view — providing the kind of patient, long-term investing that can make a difference over time. That shows up in a lot of Mott’s grantmaking, but especially our long-time support for education — that’s where our legacy intersects with the present and future. Mott remains committed to education in Flint, particularly as it relates to preparing a responsive and productive workforce. We make a number of K-12 education grants: the countywide Bridges Afterschool Program, the Summer Youth Initiative, middle college high school development and replication, and summer tot lots for preschool children.

We’ve also provided a lot of support through the years to develop local colleges — Kettering University, the University of Michigan-Flint, Baker College and Mott Community College. We’ve provided grants to upgrade campuses, encourage community outreach, and expand curriculum — particularly in the area of workforce training. Education is likely to be the lens through which much of our region’s economic development efforts will be focused. That’s something I think our founder would approve.

Mott: What are the differences between local, place-based grantmaking and grantmaking elsewhere in the U.S?

Hegarty: I’ve worked in both the Foundation’s Flint and Pathways Out of Poverty programs, and that experience has brought home the differences between funding locally and nationally. I can fund a Goodwill Job Training Center elsewhere in the country and while I need to be well-informed, I don’t need to know the minutia of the local community. I need to know how they’re using the grant to accomplish a specific goal. It’s a more isolated set of outcomes.

In Flint, the situation is never that simple; issues get wrapped together. I’m more aware of the complex relationships and interdependencies that can affect a project. Everything is much more immediate and evident when you fund in your hometown.