Editor’s Note: Around the world, cities are at the forefront of creating innovative and meaningful social change. In many cases, philanthropy is helping to support that work and share the resulting lessons with other communities looking to address their own challenges and opportunities.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s interest and role as a local partner in our hometown of Flint, Michigan, was explored by Neal Hegarty, vice president of programs at Mott, in a guest article published in the Spring 2013 issue of Effect, the news magazine of the European Foundation Centre, a longtime Mott grantee. The article, which is reprinted below, is one of several in the magazine that highlight how philanthropy can support impact and innovation in urban areas.

Because no one can go it alone — A foundation brings partners together for change in Flint, Michigan.

Neal Hegarty headshot.
Neal R. Hegarty.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has been working in Flint, Michigan, since we were founded in 1926. Although the foundation has developed significant national and international grantmaking strategies and priorities, we have maintained a steadfast interest and commitment to our home community.

With the growth of General Motors’s presence in the city through the mid-1960s, Flint grew rapidly and offered an enviable standard of living. During this early “boom” period, the Mott Foundation’s grantmaking included support for infrastructure and education systems that could meet the demand of the growing population. Out of this work came our long-term commitment to education and, particularly, to afterschool programmes.

As the US auto industry began to decline in the 1970s, Flint’s fortunes turned downward. The loss of jobs, income, and opportunity for people living in Flint continued into the new millennium and the resulting economic drought hit the city’s downtown core especially hard. By 2003, despite the presence of more than 5,000 college students and 10,000 office workers, the downtown corridor was lined with abandoned buildings and offered few dining options and little residential life.

To support Flint’s revitalisation, we developed targeted grantmaking strategies that align and mesh with our Flint Area programme’s overall mission of fostering a well-functioning, connected community that is capable of meeting economic and social challenges. This revitalisation-focused grantmaking followed three guiding principles: no single entity can do it alone; local investment is essential; and no “silver bullet” project could single-handedly revitalise the downtown.

The foundation also knows that it possesses unique attributes that could increase the chances of success. It could have a more patient and long-term view than most other “investors”; the ability to help convene potential partners; and the capability to create leverage to gain a diversified set of funding partners.

Keeping the above in mind, our grantmaking for revitalisation started with planning and convening. We made grants to local civic groups to generate land use plans and reinvestment strategies. This work served as the guide to the public, private, and nonprofit partners that became engaged in revitalisation. It set the tone and generated buy-in around the notion that one entity couldn’t do this work alone.

Next, we worked to build the capacity of a nonprofit organisation that would serve as the lead in a series of events, partnerships, and real estate transactions. This became the vehicle for the public, private, and nonprofit contributions and activities in the redevelopment efforts.

Additionally, this led to partnerships with local business leaders in the community to ensure that local private sector investment was a core part of the efforts.

Finally, our grantmaking helped to ensure that a diverse set of ideas, events, and projects would be part of the downtown revitalisation efforts. Our grant partners included large and small projects with local universities, institutions, business associations, arts groups, and other community partners. The concept being that the overall sustainability of a vibrant downtown could withstand individual setbacks and not be dependent upon the success or failure of one project.

Ten years on from the start of our efforts, we can look to many visible successes and improvements to our city’s downtown area. The University of Michigan-Flint now has more than 8,000 students; we have gone from zero to approximately 1,000 residents in lofts and student housing; there are nine restaurants located downtown; and several exciting community events bring nearly 500,000 people downtown during the year. More developments are in progress, including a new Michigan State University medical campus. Additionally, Diplomat Pharmacy, the nation’s largest privately held specialty pharmacy is a homegrown success story that is providing hundreds of new jobs in the growing healthcare sector.

The Downtown Flint revitalisation effort has been a bright spot in an otherwise struggling region that continues to face significant economic hardship and struggles with a poor education system, too much crime, too much poverty, and not enough opportunity. That said, we believe that the downtown core will serve as a strong building block for the regional economy. As such, we will continue to support efforts to revitalise downtown Flint, but we will also continue to focus intently on education, arts, human services, poverty alleviation and economic revitalisation.