Grand Experiment: Behind An Influential Funder's Big Bet on "Equitable Neighborhood Development"

Marygrove College. photo: James R. Martin/shutterstock

Marygrove College. photo: James R. Martin/shutterstock

In a recent post looking at the Kresge Foundation’s efforts in revitalizing blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, we called it “something of a Petri dish for experimentation in philanthropy.” Recent developments confirm this analysis.

A couple of years ago, when Detroit’s Marygrove College was on the brink of insolvency, Kresge stepped in with a $16 million lifeline. Other funders chipped in, enabling the college to right the ship. Now comes the next phase: Kresge’s $50 million commitment aimed at rolling out a “cradle-to-career” educational model at Marygrove to revitalize surrounding areas. It’s the largest-ever philanthropic investment in a Detroit neighborhood, according to officials.

I’ll look at how Kresge helped to bring Marygrove back from the brink and its ambitious plan in a moment. But in order to get a fuller picture of what Kresge is trying to accomplish here, we must first travel back in time to 2006.

Revitalizing Detroit Neighborhoods

Twelve years ago, new President Rip Rapson began to steer the $3.6 billion Troy, Michigan-based foundation away from challenge grants for big capital projects. Six years later, Kresge placed expanding opportunity in cities at the core of its mission, altering the complexion of its programming activities. Its environment program, for example, transitioned toward the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities. 

In 2015, the philanthropy watchdog NCRP put out a report examining the foundation’s evolution, urging Kresge to “explicitly integrate racial equity across six programs in pursuit of systemic change.” Kresge subsequently reoriented its Detroit program, focusing on neighborhoods and placing the highest priority on working with resident-led organizations. 

Its Innovative Projects program found Kresge supporting community hubs, greenways, more walkable streets, youth engagement, and art in parks. Upon announcing its first round of recipients in 2015, program manager Laura Trudeau said that winning projects proved that Detroit is filled with neighborhood leaders who have the commitment and imagination to plan and execute projects that will have a profound impact on the quality of life.”

Last year, Kresge awarded another $2 million, bringing its total Innovating Projects funding to $5 million.

Kresge is also figuring out what to do with the tens of thousands of vacant lots scattered throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods. To that end, it has provided support for the Lots Mini-Grant program, which is tasked with converting unused land to improve quality of life in the city. 

Lastly, Kresge has emerged as a creative placemaking innovator, helping grantmakers and practitioners successfully integrate arts and culture into community development while addressing issues like gentrification.

Given this context, Kresge’s Marygrove gift could be seen as a natural progression in its ongoing Detroit revitalization work. But the gift is all the more intriguing given its size—Rapson called it “one of the foundation’s largest investments in its almost 100-year history”—and the dramatic backstory surrounding the recipient.

Kresge to the Rescue

The prevailing narrative in higher ed philanthropy finds universities turning to donors for critical financial support to fund the construction of buildings, endow faculty positions, and, euphemistically speaking, “keep the lights on.” But as far as Marygrove College was concerned, there were no euphemisms in sight. Just a cold, hard financial reality.

In February 2016, newly appointed Marygrove President Dr. Elizabeth Burns contacted Rapson to discuss a “precarious situation unfolding at the college.”

Marygrove would be out of cash within weeks. It was facing a $5 million shortfall for the calendar year. Total enrollment plummeted from 1,862 students in 2013 to 966 in fall 2016. The college’s endowment had dwindled to $500,000.

“Driven by the college’s status as an educational and cultural anchor in the neighborhood,” Kresge’s site read, and “coupled with Kresge’s recent commitments and investments in the area, the foundation was deeply interested in helping Marygrove shape a course of protection and preservation. The prospect of the college closing and the campus going dark was deemed unacceptable.”

Kresge responded with an initial operational support grant of $575,000. That spring, Kresge tapped other funders, leading to additional grant commitments totaling nearly $500,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McGregor Fund, and individual donors. Kresge also committed an additional $2 million to Marygrove for ongoing operational support, bringing its total commitment to $16 million.

Officials had to make painful decisions, as well. Marygrove eliminated undergraduate programs in an effort to reposition itself as a graduate-level and certificate-granting institution. Marygrove since has satisfied or restructured its most pressing debts, thereby enabling Kresge to pursue an additional goal laid out in 2016: exploring “the feasibility of establishing an innovative cradle-to-career educational complex as a potential future use for the property.”

A “Cradle-to-Career” Campus

By this point, it may be apparent that this isn’t your typical story of a funder bailing out a beleaguered institution. Rather, it represents an amalgamation—and if I may say so, an experiment—encompassing everything that is near and dear to the Kresge Foundation.

Rapson expounded on this vision in a speech titled “The Marygrove Partnership: An Unprecedented Model of Neighborhood Revitalization.”

“Detroit’s future now includes a cradle-to-career campus that brings an inter-braided, coordinated approach to educating students—from early childhood to kindergarten, through high school, and beyond,” he said. This approach calls for a K-12 school run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District, an early childhood center with programs aligned to K-12 education, and a teacher residency program in partnership with the University of Michigan.

“We envision that when at full capacity in a few years, this will be a campus serving more than 1,000 students and their families… from early childhood through high school and beyond.”

Kresge’s $50 million commitment will go toward Marygrove’s capital costs and operating funds, the newly formed Marygrove Conservancy, and the early childhood center. The gift’s “size and import stand on par with our lead investments in the Detroit Riverfront, in the revitalization of Midtown, in the creation of M-1 RAIL, and in the Grand Bargain that brought the city out of bankruptcy,” said Rapson.

A project of this nature also brings with it its own set of risks, like the idea that place-based development on such a massive scale may accelerate neighborhood gentrification and displacement. As a major creative placemaking proponent, Kresge is acutely aware of the potential pushback, here.

The foundation has been instrumental in developing Detroit’s QLine streetcar. Since its launch, however, it has been criticized as “transit gentrification” that serves real estate and business more than transit riders by gentrifying neighborhoods. Last year, Kresge published two case studies about creative placemaking stakeholders in D.C. and Cleveland working with residents to allay fears of gentrification and displacement.

Rapson acknowledged these concerns in his Marygrove Partnership, calling attention to the emergence of “Two Detroits,” a “burgeoning, ever-more-prosperous downtown and Midtown, juxtaposed with talk about the rest of the city falling further behind.”

By committing to “balanced, equitable neighborhood development” while working closely with neighborhood residents, Kresge’s partnership with Marygrove will “help to overcome this narrative.” 

I also suspect Rapson may take umbrage with the idea of calling Kresge’s Marygrove Partnership an “experiment.” After all, experiments, by definition, either support or refute a given hypothesis. The hypothesis here, to paraphrase Rapson, is the idea that a foundation, working with civic partners, can create “an unprecedented model of neighborhood revitalization centered on the programmatic intertwining of multiple educational investments on a single campus.”

It’s a pretty bold hypothesis. But according to Rapson, the outcome is preordained.

“Will it work?” he mused at the Marygrove Partnership public announcement, before answering his own question: “Unequivocally, ‘Yes.’”