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.”
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.