Pulling All the Levers: Mott's Long Battle to Rebuild Flint's Economy

The state of Michigan has been hard hit by the Great Recession, and few cities have been more devastated than Flint, Michigan. Flint's economy first got national attention when Michael Moore's Roger and Me gave America a glimpse of how damaged the community was by the loss of manufacturing jobs at the General Motors car plants. Flint has been struggling with high poverty and unemployment ever since. With few jobs, a school district's multi-million-dollar deficit, and the specter of bankrupt Detroit next door, things look grim for Flint.

On the other hand, it has a powerful friend in the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which is based in the city.

The Mott Foundation has a long history of supporting workforce development efforts across the U.S., with a particular focus on helping low-income, low-skilled workers get jobs and increase their financial stability. But, as you could imagine, the foundation seems especially determined to improve the economic situation in its hometown of Flint, where Mott also provides a great deal of critical support to the arts. 

Indeed, Flint is an interesting test case for philanthropy: Can a foundation with very deep pockets make a difference in one small city struggling with economic challenges that are driven by large national and global forces? 

That's hard to say, but Mott has been making a valiant push. Take, for example, its funding for the Genesee Area Focus Fund and its supported organization, the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, most recently with a $2 million grant to support its work in 2015. 

While you might not think of local chambers of commerce as especially dynamic, this one is up to a lot of cool stuff. It's working to support entrepreneurs and new business formation, and to help existing businesses expand, in part by helping them get more savvy about connecting with the right resources and knowledge.  

So that's one side of the economic coin: Creating growth and new jobs. But Mott is also addressing the other side: building human capital in the Flint area, with a keen eye on the next generation that will define Flint's future. 

Through this partnership, Mott's workforce development dollars are invested in programs like TeenQuest, a free, afterschool pre-employment and leadership training program. Teens who successfully complete this program are eligible to participate in the Summer Youth Initiative Job Fair, connecting them with local area employers. Another program, YouthQuest, provides free afterschool enrichment programs in the Flint public schools. (Afterschool, of course, is a signature issue for Mott.) 

These school-based community programs are actually a throwback to a model that began in Flint in the 1980s when schools became a community hub for all sorts of recreational and educational activities in the evenings and on weekends. Now, new community school directors are figuring out what kinds of programs will get people the skills they need to land jobs. Each building will also have a resource coordinator to help design and carry out activities.

It's all interesting to watch, and Mott's efforts in Flint include other things, too. It also sees higher ed, healthcare, and the arts as paths to revitalizing Flint. The foundation is pulling a lot of levers in the city. And while it's hard to isolate and measure the impact of its funding, Mott's efforts in this struggling city provide a great example of a foundation confronting the challenges posed by a broken economy in large swaths of post-industrial America.