Heroic (but not Strategic) Philanthropy in Detroit

January 23, 2014

A while ago, we noted some provocative remarks about strategy and philanthropy by Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Speaking at a session of the Foundation Impact Research Group (FIRG), Mr. Gallucci pointed out that some of his foundation’s more interesting and important work is not strategic in nature. A lot of it is exploratory and tentative — recognizing a problem, trying out solutions, filling gaps, and hoping to learn from the experience. It was a welcome corrective to the common presumption that great philanthropy must necessarily, always, and everywhere be strategic.


I thought again about Bob Gallucci’s observation when I read that a consortium of nine foundations, led by Knight, Kresge, and Ford, have assembled a pool of $3 million (and possibly more to come) to prevent a selloff of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ magnificent collection. The plan is not yet sure to succeed, but at least some participants in Detroit’s ongoing bankruptcy proceeding think it offers a good way of providing capital for the city’s hobbled pension fund without liquidating a venerable institution. If this works, the foundations could achieve a double benefit: saving the art, and improving the chances that retired Detroit workers (most of them people of very modest means) will get more of the pensions they were promised.


I haven’t yet heard any criticism of the foundations for doing this — although I’m sure there must be some out there. Nor do I know all their calculations and rationales (which probably vary from one institution to another). As a native Detroiter who spent the best parts of his childhood in that museum, I confess to a bias on this issue, and I hope the effort succeeds. But as someone who pays close attention to foundations, I also believe that this is an unusually vigorous and swift act of smart philanthropy, and I admire the institutions behind it. (We’d welcome comments from anyone who disagrees.)


Detroit MuseumBut whatever you think of this, I don’t think you can call it strategic. It’s remedial. There’s been a political and financial catastrophe in Detroit that threatens to impoverish a lot of people. One of the few available solutions would entail destroying one of the world’s great cultural institutions. The foundations want to prevent one or both of those things from happening. Even if they succeed brilliantly, they won’t have altered the country’s vast retirement problem; they won’t have changed the fragile economics of urban museums. They won’t have come up with a solution to big-city mismanagement or settled any of the debates about public-employee unions or the declining strength of organized labor. They will, at best, have saved one museum and helped make good on some broken promises to pensioners and bondholders.


But what makes this great philanthropy nonetheless is that it’s something only they can do. Or, to be strictly accurate, only they are both willing and able to do it. Only they have the mission, means, and motive. And with remarkable speed and coordination, they have stepped forward to offer a solution.


Coincidentally, the Sanford School will soon be hosting a leader of this effort. On February 12 at 4:30 p.m., Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, will make a return visit to Duke to speak again at FIRG. It may be an opportunity to hear firsthand how the decision was made and where he thinks it will lead.

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Tony Proscio


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