What Should Philanthropy's Role Be When Public Systems Fail? Flint As Case Study

Ten foundations launched a major initiative yesterday to help Flint recover from its devastating water crisis. How do funders plan to help, and what's the right role for philanthropy in such a disaster—one caused not by nature or warfare, but by a failure of public systems that are supposed to be the responsibility of government?

Since news broke about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis—in which degrading infrastructure and a botched switch to a different water supply caused lead from pipes to leach into household taps—donors large and small have stepped forward to help with the situation however they can.  A quick rush of funds for things like emergency medical care and bottled water first came from the likes of local funders, concerned individual donors, and quite a few celebrities. 

While the crisis is far from over, and there are new headlines daily, philanthropy is now tasked with finding the right role it can play in the city’s longer-term recovery. It’s a challenge given the complex and persistent issues of infrastructure, race, and inequality involved. Beyond the specifics of Flint, there's the larger question of how much philanthropy should clean up the messes left by weak government. That question isn't new, of course, but it's likely to come up far more often in coming years as a fiscally strapped public sector faces recurrent crises or drops the ball at key moments. (Widespread suffering in a bankrupt Puerto Rico could be the next disaster dropped in the laps of foundation leaders.) 

Overall, there are some very good reasons to closely watch what a new collaborative of funders is up to in Flint. 

Ten local, regional, and national foundations announced today a funding initiative of $125 million to help the community recover in the coming years. The list of funders involved includes major names like Flint-based C.S. Mott (the largest funder committing up to $100 million), Carnegie, Ford, Kresge, Robert Wood Johnson, and W.K. Kellogg foundations. Funds will go to a mix of needs:

  • Continued independent testing of water supplies, and supporting experts in integrated water management;
  • Matching funds for donations to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which is intended to fund interventions to help children overcome effects of lead exposure; 
  • Funds to support area nonprofits stretched thin as a result of the crisis;
  • Promoting community engagement in local decision-making;
  • Funding to locate and prepare space for early education, with the program funding expected to come from the state;
  • Economic revitalization work such as job training and entrepreneurship.  

Experts we spoke with praised the initiative, due to its collaborative nature, the long-term and diverse set of priorities, and its emphasis on backing local organizations and involving residents. 

“It’s very important that this comprehensive approach is being taken, and to have 10 foundations come together … and really target resources in areas where I think the greatest needs are, and to look at this from a long-term standpoint and knowing that there is no quick fix or quick solution,” said Robert Bullard, dean of Texas Southern University’s public affairs school. Bullard is a thought leader in environmental justice and has written several books on sustainability, environmental racism, and emergency response. 

Robert Ottenhoff, president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy had similarly positive things to say, impressed initially by the level of collaboration—something that doesn’t always happen in disaster response—and the long-term nature of priorities like the health fund.

Exactly how philanthropy should engage during a disaster like the one in Flint is something funders have struggled with, trying to operate in a way that is fast, democratic, and respectful of the community’s wishes. Foundations have not always taken the longer view, or been engaged with the full set of issues. Flint also has its own unique dynamic, being so closely tied to the larger government problems of aging infrastructure and mismanagement. 

Mott’s President Ridgway White wrote an opinion piece in April noting the foundation’s early work in Flint, but also expressing hesitance to make a major commitment as the disaster unfolded. White made it clear that Mott firmly believes the responsibility for restitution and safe infrastructure falls on the state and federal governments. In the announcement of the new fund, White emphasized, “While some funds and services have been provided, we’re still waiting for the state and federal governments to step up, replace damaged infrastructure and make long-term commitments to the health and education of children.”

While Mott ended up making a pretty hefty commitment to this crisis, it’s clearly being cautious to not let anyone off the hook—trying to play a large role, but not too large.  

Similarly, water system and infrastructure problems in general are tricky issues that can scare off philanthropy due to complex laws and governance, and uncertainty about how to get involved. We wrote about these concerns recently, related to the new Water Funder Initiative, which launched to help offer strategic points of entry. 

Related: "Extremes Are Becoming the Norm." Why Water is the Next Big Issue For Philanthropy

The WFI doesn’t recommend that funders bear the costs of water management or infrastructure (it could never afford it anyway), but one of its main priorities is that funders should work to develop new and stronger funding sources for infrastructure, public and private, and promote better governance that is more transparent and less fragmented.  

Out of the $125 million initiative, there is some funding allocated to doing such work, developing what’s called integrated management of stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water. This is definitely an area that philanthropy can continue step up and help improve in Flint, and beyond, with only a handful of big funders making it a priority nationally.

One of the things WFI hopes to overcome is the common problem of a large crisis response from funders, but then a lack of big picture follow-up work or institutions built to improve systems, something Ottenhoff of the CDP emphasized as well. 

“Our research has found that 90 percent or so of all dollars given to disasters is given within 90 days after a disaster occurs. There’s a lack of attention given to the full lifecycle of disasters—planning, preparation, and in this case, long-term recovery. The fact that they’re thinking long term and holistically is something that I think is very good,” Ottenhoff said.

“Often some of the worst consequences of a disaster don’t occur immediately. They happen six months or a year later or two years later when you begin to see mental health issues and education issues and economic issues around employment.”

Another major challenge philanthropists face when funding disaster recovery is giving proper deference to people and nonprofits already on the ground. 

“I’ve seen too often where after major disasters, organizations parachute in, scarf up the money, and the locals are left on the sidelines looking at things happening around them, and to them, and not being a part of it,” Bullard said. So the new initiative’s emphasis on supporting community groups and engaging residents is encouraging. 

For example, the Flint Child Health & Development Fund is advised by local health centers, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and United Way of Genesee County. One of the six priorities mentioned above is to directly prop up community nonprofits whose reserves have been depleted. There’s also the community engagement component, which “aims to guarantee that people with the closest ties to the community will have the greatest say in determining its future.” 

While there are promising elements in the new funding initiative, foundations and the governments and communities in Flint they'll assist have their work cut out for them. That's both in terms of the scope of disaster recovery and the underlying race and inequality problems surrounding disasters like Flint, and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

“Looking at how you unravel and undo inequality is a major theme that has to run throughout all of the six areas that are being targeted,” Bullard said, pointing out the neglect, post-industrial decline, disinvestment and redlining that have been happening in places like Flint for decades. 

“You start looking at all those things, and race and class dynamics have a lot to do with why Flint looks like it looks, and why it looked like it looked before the water crisis. So I think those things have to be factored into solutions and how you’re going to measure success.” 

Ottenhoff at CDP also pointed out that, while foundations are beginning to be aware of the full suite of issues connected to these disasters, and the full lifecycle that needs to be considered, we’re not there yet in terms of taking the right action.

“Funders have traditionally said, isn’t that disaster terrible, let’s give some money and then we’ll get back to normal,” he said. The change that needs to occur is more funders building in resilience, disaster preparation, and recovery, outside of initial events that make headlines. That will be the case in Flint in coming years.

“Americans, and by that I mean both individuals as well as foundations, tend to lose interest. And when media loses interest, the public loses interest and therefore you don’t see charitable contributions,” said Ottenhoff. 

“So one of the things I have to worry about is how do we keep these issues that have happened in Flint front and center with the philanthropic community?”

Unfortunately, as hinted above, our prediction is that the impoverished island of Puerto Rico—which is close to defaulting on $70 billion in debt—will be the next place where many of these same issues come up again.