Real Change Takes More Than Money

“The most important lesson I learned in my years at the Ford Foundation is that we can’t buy change. Now, if one has enough money, we can rent it for a while.”  
 - Edward J. Meade, Program Officer in Charge (retired), Ford Foundation

Years ago when I first began to work at the Skillman Foundation I had the good fortune to work with Ed Meade, who had recently retired from the Ford Foundation after more than 30 years as a leading light in the philanthropic community. Ed helped me develop what became the Foundation’s first major initiative, the 10-year $20-million Comer Schools and Families Initiative. The initiative launched in 1992 in partnership with a committed set of parents, teachers, school administrators, union leaders and university professionals. Fast-forward to today, when the Foundation has recently completed its largest and most ambitious initiative to date, our 10-year, $100-million Good Neighborhoods Initiative.

Community Initiatives are the best example of the proactive, collaborative approach used by the Foundation to bringing lasting and positive change to the lives of Detroit children. Rather than simply responding with grant dollars to projects proposed by partners in the community, the Foundation plays an active role in identifying key issues, working closely with partners to shape a community-informed response to these issues, and using every tool at our disposal to pursue a real change in conditions for Detroit children. The Skillman Foundation’s experience over the past 25 years has demonstrated that this approach is powerful and often leads to sustained impact in the communities where we work.

Community Initiatives require the Foundation to bring a variety of tools to its changemaking work.  Often we recruit and convene community members and allies from the philanthropic, business and government sectors to share in the design and implementation of strategies. The smart use of data and strategic communications also play key roles. In many cases, we are able to leverage the Foundation’s reputation and relationships to open doors for our partners to reach key decision makers. And, through the collective pooling of resources, expertise, and networks, we are able to achieve results that are far beyond the capacity that any one of us can accomplish alone.

We are deeply grateful to our partners in these efforts, and to the families whose experiences and insights have guided us to greater impact for the youth of Detroit.

A brief summary of our four current Community Initiatives appears below. Each of these efforts began before our new strategic framework was developed, and our experience in each has had a profound impact on our thinking as we have prepared for the next chapter in the Foundation’s life.

Cody Rouge Initiative
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The Cody Rouge Initiative launched this year with an announcement of the partnership between General Motors, Quicken Loans, DTE Energy, the Cody Rouge Action Alliance, and the Foundation. While all partners have a history of support in the Cody Rouge neighborhood, the Initiative is a pledge to work collectively and collaboratively toward a shared, resident-led vision. Residents, youth included, took part in an eight-month visioning process in which they expressed their wants and ideas through a series of community meetings, focus groups, and surveys, led by the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance. Priorities areas emerged – neighborhood stabilization, safety, land use, strengthened commercial corridors, support for community groups, and expanded opportunities for youth – and the corporate and philanthropic partners banded together to bring funding, in-kind services and volunteer manpower to support the community’s goals. The partnership has also been able to draw in other allies that wish to help bring the residents vision to fruition, including the City of Detroit.

Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren
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The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren – a diverse collection of Detroiters from the city’s education, corporate, philanthropic, and social sectors – is back in full swing and is targeting eight priorities for the city’s public schools (Detroit Public Schools Community District and charter sector): 

  • Parental Support and Engagement
  • Student Count
  • College and Career Pathways
  • Financial Implications for Special Education
  • School Attendance
  • Recruiting, Compensating and Developing School Talent
  • Third-Grade Reading
  • Coordination across Detroit school districts 

Thanks to the Coalition’s efforts over the past three years, the state addressed many of the city’s most pressing educational challenges when the Michigan Legislature passed its sweeping Detroit school reform package in June 2016. Now the Coalition is focused on efforts that can be taken up locally by Detroiters. Recommendations have been formed and steering committee members will be engaging in conversations with community members this winter to receive their input on these. The Coalition intends to publish final recommendations and ideas for implementation in January 2018. 

Detroit Children's Fund
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The Detroit Children’s Fund staffed up this year, naming Jack Elsey as executive director, Nick Karmanos as chief advancement officer, Lisa Laurin as corporate relations officer, and Karry Dalton as events officer. DCF has also expanded its board to 14 members, chaired by KC Crain, president & COO of Crain Communications. 

Last Saturday, October 14, DCF held their first Inaugural Dinner, raising $1.55 million to support their goal to create 25,000 quality school seats in Detroit by 2025. Included is the event total is a very generous matching gift pledged by DCF Board member Adam Levinson and his wife Brittany. A $2-million grant from General Motors was also announced at the dinner. 

With great momentum underway, Detroit Children’s Fund plans to announce their first grant investments later this fall. Investments will support educator development, promising schools and networks operating in Detroit, and the recruitment of proven school models to the city. Every dollar donated to Detroit Children’s Fund goes directly toward these efforts. 

My Brother’s Keeper Detroit
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My Brother's Keeper is a nationwide initiative that launched in 2014 when President Obama asked communities across the country to take up the charge of closing opportunity gaps for boys and men of color. The Skillman Foundation, City of Detroit, and hundreds of local leaders came together to form MBK Detroit, setting five goals to ensure boys and young men of color were prepared for and connected to opportunity in Detroit.

A signature project, the MBK Detroit Innovation Challenge, was developed in 2016 by the Skillman Foundation and Campaign for Black Male Achievement. The Challenge called upon community members to put forth their ideas to increase opportunities for black and brown boys. Nearly 500 submissions were received. Twenty teams spent the summer of 2016 testing their ideas with the help of training, support and $5,000 in funding. In September, the teams presented their learnings and plans for their organization’s future to community members and a panel of judges. Six teams were awarded $50,000 and ongoing training to scale their work. Final awardees from the 2016-17 MBK Innovation Challenge are being featured at six-week-long Capstone Expo in downtown Detroit, running through October 31. 

The Capstone Expo showcases many of the finalists’ programs through interactive installations. These installations are accompanied by an exhibit entitled, “In Their Words,” which features photos and videos conveying the perspectives of young men of color in the city. It’s our hope that holding the expo in Detroit’s downtown business and visitor core will help inform a deeper understanding of the city’s neighborhoods, from its challenges to its tremendous talents. For more information, visit MBKdet.org.

We are excited to announce the launch of the next iteration of the Challenge in Spring 2018. In addition to a My Brother’s Keeper track for young men of color, there will also be My Sister’s Keeper track focusing on young women of color in the city. 

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