Across Michigan, groups are daring to collaborate

Early last week in Traverse City the trees were ablaze in full color; the sky a luminous blue; the clouds, white and fluffy. And the Council of Michigan Foundations’ annual conference was jammed with earnest and hopeful philanthropists.

To catch the flavor of the conference, “The Growing Impact of Michigan Philanthropy,” consider just a few of the discussion topics:

  • “The Status of the Great Lakes” summarized environmental initiatives under way in our waters, mostly through the multi-state Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which went into effect last year.
  • “Five Good Ideas to Strengthen Michigan’s Rural Economies” discussed how to improve things in our often-overlooked rural areas.
  • At lunch, the main address, “Pulling Together in the Same Direction – Philanthropy’s Role in Community Solutions” stressed how community groups can work together instead of fighting.

Panel member Bill Rustem, who retired earlier this year as Gov. Rick Snyder’s Director of Strategy, pointed out that “we are on the brink of seeing the return of a great city in Detroit,” something coming about as a result of collaboration among business entrepreneurship, philanthropy and common-sense politics.

Another panel discussed how early childhood “Pre-K” education can improve the futures for thousands of young men of color.

“Economic development is harder than it sounds,” explained David Haynes, St. Clair County’s director of business attraction.

“The old guard was solely interested in recruiting the next plant location through tax subsidies. That’s often ineffective and expensive,” he explained, arguing that “a better way is through linking a community’s improved quality of life with a business opportunity.

“We figured out that an event that launched 300 kayaks on the Black River does wonders for downtown restaurants.”

Remarkably, over and over, speakers pointed to a new paradigm for getting things done that is now emerging all around our state ‒ but perhaps especially in Detroit.

There, the bankruptcy crisis has stimulated a flurry of new approaches to solving old, stubborn problems. Instead of relying solely on government, the new emphasis on getting things done relies on finding ways to collaborate amongst philanthropy, the business community and practical local community leaders.

“Collaboration is an unnatural act among unconsenting adults,” quipped Dave Egner, who heads the foundation-funded New Economy Initiative in southeastern Michigan. Then he added, “but it’s actually the best way to get complicated things done.”

Examples abound:

Talent 2025 is a business-led coalition in West Michigan that aims at vastly increasing the workforce skill level to meet regional business skill needs by the year 2025.

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund is investing millions in more than 2,000 miles of trails ‒ snowmobile, RV, hiking, biking ‒ all around the state, an exercise in making Michigan a more attractive place for skilled people to live.

Led by local foundations which have pledged nearly $1 billion to collaborate with the city of Detroit, the Blight Removal Task Force is aiming its sights on a goal knocking down 1,000 blighted structures a month – twenty times what it has been. That task should be made easier, now that the city has a complete inventory of every parcel.

Back in the old days, most of these functions were performed by one government agency or another, separated into rigid little silos.

Not now. The arguments against relying on government alone are many. They range from libertarian ideological objections to government in general to the reality that government programs are usually too clumsy to cope with today’s complex problems.

Worse, as everybody knows, government activity is easily paralyzed by the festering gridlock now dominating Washington.

The new paradigm arises out of a driving realization that we actually need to see concrete results. We cannot depend on political infighting to improve workforce skills. Nor can we expect to turn the spigot on an old-fashioned government program and automatically stimulate economic development.

But we can’t expect laissez-faire capitalism to provide all the answers either. We live in complex times. And we need to focus on finding ways to assemble a critical mass of smart ideas, good people and adequate resources. Almost always, this involves a range of partners, from philanthropy to government, business and local leadership coming together for a common goal.

Collaboration may still seem to some like an unnatural act. But these days it works far better than anything else.

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Tue, 10/21/2014 - 3:53pm
The I-69 International Trade Corridor is another great example of regionally coordinated efforts to spur economic growth. The project includes 30+ municipalities along with Chambers of Commerce, EDC's and other numerous private sector entities stretching from Port Huron through Shiawasee County. Its efforts recently earned the project a 2014 International Economic Development Council Award for Regionalism and Cross-Border collaboration!
John Q. Public
Tue, 10/21/2014 - 7:22pm
Why is it when governments are a party to it, it's called "regional collaboration" and is celebrated, but when private parties do it exclusive of government actors, it's called "conspiracy in restraint of trade" and is prosecuted? Regional collaboration and public/private partnership are just euphemisms for protected rackets cloaked in legitimacy. The conspirators working for government or as lobbyists masquerading as not-for-profits (which don't show profits by hiring as many six-figure employees as it takes to make expenses equal revenues) are always loudly singing their praises.
Sun, 10/26/2014 - 12:08pm
Interesting comments! But what value are they adding to your environment?
Sun, 10/26/2014 - 10:02am
"And we need to focus on finding ways to assemble a critical mass of smart ideas, good people and adequate resources." It is good to hear about the successes in the article. There is much that is positive about these type of articles. The disappointing side is the lack of understanding or the lack of appreciation of how the successful ideas turn into successful results by those who read the article. These ideas were sparked somewhere out of sight and were nurtured by random chance, the people that have interest in the problem come together at the right time in the right place and were due to random chances. Ideas grow and take substance due to that same randomness; people with the right inclination are touched by the idea in right moment when they are in the right place. And then if the success is noted by the right person with the right means others will hear about that success. It is highly unlikely other will hear about how the idea happen and grew into the success, how the people had to come together because most will credit back to one person (with the initial kernel of an idea, the person with that spark of energy the stoked the system at the right moment, that contribution (well maybe not that), the person who was touched by an early success that touched others. All we will hear about the success, we cheer, but will it spark the ‘critical mass’ of ideas? We have the people in our state, from all corners, from all environments, with their own unique perspectives that can be the resources to create the ideas we need, that can be the ones the convert the ideas into successful actions and results. What we need is to quite relying on the randomness of the ideas, their conversion into actions, their creating successful results, and the awareness of success. What we need is a forum where we can bring that diversity of people together, a place that is provides the environment that opens the conversation for the competition of perspective that draws innovation out and turns it into ideas, that fosters the conversation of ideas into action and opens then up to scrutiny and draws in active support that will deliver results, and it keeps the public informed of those results, successes and places for change or replacement). The barrier to this is that it breaks with conventional wisdom, it breaks with deferring to the ‘experts’, it breaks with people being knowledgeable and skilled lack the understanding of how people act and react, it breaks with who and how people can come together. Most of all it would require a break with the belief that what we have can work or can’t be modified to work. It breaks with the way we have done things in the past, the ways of small groups that know each other meet over a meal or at a local establishment to talk and they discover an common interest and they build on locally. I believe Bridge has two legs of the ‘stool’ for becoming the place to start fostering innovative ideas, and exposing them to a resources of talent to turn them into successful actions across the state. Ah, but the problem is how to turn the want for ‘a critical mass of smart ideas’ in to ‘pipeline’ of innovative ideas with the means of turning those ideas into successful results. The ‘new’ reality is that with the tools such as Bridge we are now a local community call Michigan, we can meet here and have our conversation last for a week and still seem we are all talking at once. Thank for the article and the opportunity to dream/hope.
Sun, 10/26/2014 - 12:18pm
What you stated is so true! The missing link are those ideas and how to get them into the public domain and in a practical usable format. Anyone who is personally involved in a grass roots project involving the community does not have the energy or the time to share their successes. If it wasn't for working with a fantastic and diverse group of people with the same goal I would have packed up and gone home long ago. We celebrate our small steps of progress as a group and cherish every one. We live the dream in our small community!
Jill Rahrig
Sun, 10/26/2014 - 12:26pm
Duane - from my perspective, your points are well taken. Yes, through The Center for Michigan and similar orgs, and through the bringing forward of genuine engaged citizens, we just maybe can have all three of the legs needed for the 'stool'. In NW Michigan, little by little, we are taking steps to engage citizens, make public policy relevant to them, doing what we can to bring The People to the table, to get engaged such that indeed, the best ideas come out. The goal is to make cohesive the relationship between the people and elected leaders, non-profit and for-profit organizations, the business bring out the sensible majority. This effort comes under the umbrella of what is called the Project for Civic Engagment (PCE) - Northwest Michigan. Yes the importance of celebrating and bringing out the true American spirit is what is needed...let's get the best ideas out there...we all have something to contribute.
Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:25pm
Jill, dick, One of the challenges to developing an idea and turning it into successful results is connecting people with an interest in the results. It seems current society is becoming more fragmented, the social contacts in which conversation that may grow to common interests are rarer and rarer. Even when part of an organization there are few opportunities to talk about issues outside the focus of the organization. This is especially true when we consider connecting people around the state. The challenge is finding a place where people with an interest in changing things come together to hear what others have to say and have the opportunity to contribute their thoughts, a place like Bridge. Mr. Power and the Bridge staff have developed a place where people come to read what others are thinking and many share their views. Bridge has created an audience of interest that draws people together regularly. Much of the articles and comments are about different perspectives on issues/problem. This suggests a group rich in a desire to achieve results and contribute, even participate, in developing successes. With a disciplined approach a setting like that of Bridge could be a place where people with interest and energy could meet to address particular issues/problems. It could become the place where innovative ideas would be fostered and people could come together to turn those ideas into results. It could be a place where diversity of ideas creates more effective solutions