A New, Rich Foundation Bets on Entrepreneurship in the Rust Belt

In the time of Trump, the concerns of America’s “Rust Belt” are fixed in the national spotlight. Whatever you think of the candidate and his claims, it’s hard to mistake the economic troubles affecting wide swaths of the Midwest and Northeast.

In cities like Detroit and Buffalo, racially diverse populations—including what's left of the traditional white working class—struggle in a business environment that offers few opportunities for employment or investment. Big forces, like globalization, have helped create this bleak situation and workable solutions for creating growth and jobs have proven elusive. 

This isn't easy terrain for philanthropy, and we've been watching what funders are doing in the Rust Belt and similarly hard hit places. 

We’ve covered efforts like the New Economy Initiative, a partnership between several funding giants to drive economic development in Michigan. And Ford, the Rockefeller Family Foundation, Kellogg and others have contributed to ease the plight of West Virginia coal miners as their employers vanish (rightfully, some would say).

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Local and regional funding is still a major piece of the economic development puzzle, with players like the William Davidson Foundation and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation focusing resources on distressed native regions. Now, in a philanthropic saga that began in 2014, the newly-powerful Ralph C. Wilson Foundation has become one of the foremost donors serving Michigan and upstate New York.

As we reported last year, when Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. passed away, he left what can only be described as a major gift to the region. The bequest, funded by selling the team for a billion-dollar war chest, catapulted his modest foundation into a powerhouse capable of giving away $60 million a year. And since the foundation must spend down its assets within twenty years, it’ll be able to keep giving on that level.

That's good news in Rust Belt where good news isn't so common. 

The fact that it won’t last in perpetuity gives the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation strong incentive to engage in the kind of strategic philanthropy that will—hopefully—solve problems and not just ease symptoms. One such grant last month, $2.5 million to startup incubator Launch NY, looks like just the ticket.

You might not think it, but Rust Belt entrepreneurship is far from a lost cause. The big corporations packed their bags and outsourced their labor, leaving room for newcomers. Cost of living is low. States and municipalities have every reason to reduce the cost of doing business. Talent from good universities is close by.

Boosters in places like Detroit and Buffalo see fertile ground for innovation, and they might not be wrong. At Launch NY, the Wilson grant will fund a number of initiatives including entrepreneurship-in-residence mentoring and seed funding for promising startups showing.

Wilson Foundation president David Egner pointed to Launch NY’s deep roots in the region’s entrepreneurial sector, hoping to foster a larger culture of innovation. As for the foundation, we’ll have to wait and see how innovative its giving will be.

Right now, there are encouraging signs for the economic development crowd. This spring, the foundation completed its Transitional Legacy Program, a palate of grants reflecting the personal interests of Ralph C. Wilson. But now it’s shifting gears (Detroit pun intended).

The foundation is staffing up and assembling a board as of last month, and both lists include people with long histories in southern Michigan and western New York. Tellingly, current president David Egner was longtime CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, another major contributor to economic revitalization in Detroit. He also headed up the New Economy Initiative since 2009. Anyone interested in building a 21st-century economy in the Rust Belt should pay attention to this space.

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