Philanthropy has acted boldly in Detroit to re-imagine the city’s future, and has contributed to a larger conversation in cities across the nation about how we can collectively confront and overcome some of urban America’s most intractable problems.

This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.


Philanthropy must increasingly become comfortable in engaging the changes and ambiguities of public-sector policies and practices.

There is an inherent tension between the accountability of elected office and the ostensible remove of philanthropy. As long as philanthropy stays in its “lane” by funding community-based nonprofit activity and by entertaining routine requests from City Hall, the relationship can remain on automatic pilot. But when foundations step inside the fence line of activities traditionally shaped and operated by the public sector, matters can get dicey.

The Kresge Foundation’s seven-year-long funding and advocacy for the M-1 Rail project casts this in bright relief. Kresge has been the lead investor in, and perhaps most passionate advocate for, the construction of a streetcar line in the heart of Detroit. The line promises to become the first leg of a high-performing regional transit system comprising high-speed rail between Detroit and Chicago, improvements to existing rail and bus connections, and state-of-the-art commuter transportation. And even in its early stages of construction, it has demonstrated its power to spur economic growth and social cohesion in the city for many years to come. The $170 million streetcar line is anchored by Kresge’s $50 million commitment, but draws on a combination of private, public and other philanthropic support as well. Its journey over the past eight years has drawn Kresge into the lair of federal Department of Transportation policy, Michigan legislative battles, and Detroit politics.

What is philanthropy’s appropriate role in giving birth to large-scale public works projects? Add your thoughts 

This effort began with tough questions about philanthropy’s appropriate role in giving birth to large-scale public works projects and meandered through such issues as Kresge’s willingness to serve as a backstop to potential public-funding shortfalls, our appetite to weather high-visibility public-policy debates about state legislative priorities, and our inclination to stay the course until the line is transferred to a public operating entity. We should have expected no less when trying to overcome a fraught history of mass transit in the place that put the world on wheels, one car at a time. But it has required that we lock arms with public entities in ways that have suggested that the boundaries separating the public, private, and philanthropic sectors are far more porous than they may appear.

A second example of how bold public-private partnerships have contributed to Detroit’s nascent rebound is Detroit Future City, which began in 2010 as part of an ambitious effort to re-imagine what the City of Detroit could become. Supported by The Kresge Foundation, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the project engaged city leaders, technical experts, city residents and other stakeholders in a process to develop a strategic investment framework for Detroit.

After three years of drawing on local and national talent as well as the insights of tens of thousands of Detroiters, the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework was released in January 2013. The framework lays out a vision for how the City of Detroit can more effectively utilize its natural and physical assets to grow and thrive – by reinforcing nodes of strength and transforming blighted and abandoned property to productive uses. It weaves together the building blocks of economic development, residential stability, transit mobility, natural systems, and widespread and continuing community engagement.

Although it is not the city’s first strategic plan, Detroit Future City is the first such plan to boldly consider the full context of city services necessary to make a vibrant city.

Although it is not the city’s first strategic plan, Detroit Future City is the first such plan to boldly consider the full context of city services necessary to make a vibrant city. It is the first to expertly engage citizens about their vision for Detroit, neighborhood- by-neighborhood and to suggest the vehicles required for sustaining that engagement. The first to confront the challenges of residential and commercial vacancy and blight. The first to marry suggest a prioritization of investments and policies needed to move from planning to action.

We coupled the announcement of the framework – a 400-page document, together with hundreds of pages of technical appendices – with the creation of an independent, nonprofit project implementation office dedicated to the successful execution of the vision created in the DFC Strategic Framework. The office – supported by the Kresge Foundation, the Erb Family Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the Americana Foundation, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the City of Detroit – serves as a steward of the plan’s long-term vision, brokering paths of forward progress among the multiple civic constituencies that have a stake in the transformation of the city’s municipal services, infrastructure, and problem-solving machinery.

The light rail project and the Detroit Future City effort are only two among many examples over the last decade of philanthropy in Detroit stepping inside the fence-line of complex challenges that have fallen in the past within the exclusive domain of the public sector. The management of the reclamation of programming of Detroit’s riverfront through The Riverfront Conservancy. The re-imagination and governance of the nation’s largest public market through the Eastern Market Corporation. The philanthropic seeding of neighborhood small business formation that grew into one of Mayor Duggan’s signature initiatives, the Motor City Match. The conceptualization and design by foundations, small banks, and federal, state, and local government of a Home Mortgage Program to address the need to make credit available for undervalued homes. And the list could go on.

The Detroit proof-points are clear. It’s not just philanthropy. It’s also the re-emergent role of the private sector…

These examples suggest the power of more fully distributive leadership at the municipal level. Responding to the increasingly intertwined, rapidly changing challenges that any city faces requires that we move away from a model of command-and-control problem-solving to an approach that invites negotiation of roles among civic actors equipped with differentially-shaped tools and leverage points. The Detroit proof-points are clear. It’s not just philanthropy. It’s also the re-emergent role of the private sector – led by the efforts of Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans – in the revitalization of downtown… The increasingly effective community-based nonprofit development capacity – anchored by the remarkable tenacity and skill of Sue Mosey and Midtown Detroit, Inc. – that have transformed the Woodward Avenue Corridor… . The creativity and grit of countless community-based lending and community development organizations – think of LISC or Focus Hope or Southwest Solutions – that have begun to bend the trajectory of neighborhood renewal.

It’s not neat and tidy. It’s not without conflicts over authorities, legitimacy, or power relationships. It’s not without ambiguity about the right equilibrium. But it is about the augmented civic capacity that attends multiple sources of ideas, investment, individual engagement, and buy-in. It is about a re-calibration of roles, responsibilities, and accountability.

Philanthropy has acted boldly in Detroit to re-imagine the city’s future. In the process, we have set in motion the fly-wheels of that re-calibration. And I like to think that we have contributed to a larger conversation in cities across the nation about how we can collectively confront and overcome some of urban America’s most intractable problems.

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