Skillman Foundation

Chapin Hall Center for Children (University of Chicago)



Case Study Sector


Created in 1960, the Skillman Foundation’s mission is to help children in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan, by improving their homes, schools, and neighborhoods. With an annual grants budget of about $23 million, Skillman has made substantial investments in youth development programs and in school reform, school leadership, and an initiative that identifies and recognizes good schools in Detroit.

Detroit’s child well-being indicators, however, have not improved, causing Skillman’s leadership to conclude that its grantmaking was not intense, focused, or strategic enough to reach large numbers of those most in need. The Good Neighborhoods Initiative (GNI) is an attempt to focus the Foundation’s resources in six neighborhoods where, collectively, more than 65,000 children or about thirty percent of Detroit’s children live. Launching the initiative in 2006, Skillman expects to devote about $75 million over ten years to “transform communities with children in the most need and with the least resources into healthy, safe and supportive neighborhoods.”
For several years, Chapin Hall has been working with a group of foundations that have an uncommon approach to their philanthropic mission. These foundations are applying many of the principles identified as key for foundations attempting to promote positive community change. We have dubbed their operating style embedded philanthropy because what distinguishes them from conventional philanthropies is an unusually intimate and enduring engagement with the communities in which they live and work. A long-term, place-based commitment is the first criterion for embedded philanthropy. A second criterion is a commitment to direct and ongoing community engagement and relationships with a range of community actors. Thirdly, embedded funders don’t think of these relationships as incidental or secondary aspects of their community work; they constitute the very means and method through which embedded funders do philanthropy. Finally, whether or not monetary grants are part of an embedded funder’s approach, their community engagement and change efforts consist of a good deal more than grant-making. Beyond these four defining features, embedded funders tend to share several other characteristics: an unusually flexible and adaptive approach to their work; a high tolerance for uncertainty; an emphasis on respect and reciprocity in their approach to community relationships; and a willingness to sacrifice a measure of the power and authority that foundations ordinarily possess. In a philanthropic climate of growing eagerness for new perspectives and departures, embedded philanthropy deserves greater attention from the wider philanthropic community. Its distinctive operating approach offers novel insights and leverage on the challenges and dilemmas faced by all philanthropic foundations.



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