Detroit 3: The Funders

On my last day in Detroit I spent the morning exploring the regenerated riverfront. A lot of effort, good intentions and money has gone in and there are some lovely touches – the framed artworks, the bird-filled wetland area and especially the beautiful maps integrated into paving and shelters. But overall it was a typical example of physical regeneration that goes no way towards bringing back the life and soul of the place. The cafe, the information point and the carousel were all closed, despite the sign that gave opening hours and the other sign that said all profits from these facilities go towards the upkeep of the riverfront!

Just as it started to rain for the first time, I had the privilege of lunch with two of the private foundations that fund organising – Dave Beckwith from the Needmor Fund and Cris Doby from the CS Mott Foundation. I love the way people here, brimming with contacts, knowledge and resources, start instead with ‘who you are’. My version was all about how I came to do the work I do, which I thought was a very personal story but when I finished Dave gently corrected me by telling me he’s married with three children, with their ages and interests. I got the message and reached for the phone to show off my beautiful Eve. With that clarified we quickly moved onto the programme. Here were two people who have the big picture and understand both the detail and the sweep of the challenges facing the programme from the micro-management to the grand ambition and it was great to be told – “now we’ve met you we’re on your team, in your corner!”

Some insights…

We have to create the political will for change AND the infrastructure for people to own the process of change. People look at community organising and think it takes too much time, so they retreat to community engagement, consultation and the provision of social services. They’re missing the point.

Funders find it difficult to structure the grants to fund field-building and outcomes in parallel. Organising is less like a project and more like ‘Whack-a-Mole’! It is hard for funders to cope with the idea that the outcomes are not predictable until they are achieved. [Phil Nyden gave a good lead on this – ‘Discovery by Grounded Theory’ is a recognised sociological research approach that does not begin with a hypothesis but allows the trained sociologist (organiser]) to explore the field and respond sensibly to what emerges].

The leadership ladder is a series of circles. The core is the paid CO and a few others who talk about the work, the effort we’re organising, as ‘us’. The next ring are those who always come, the key leaders, co-creators or consistent participants who can be relied upon. Next are the people who come sometimes, and the outer ring is the wider community. In terms of measuring what’s going on, a lot can be gained by analysing these rings, who is in them (numbers, demographics), trends and movements between rings. People in the central rings are on a path of personal growth and transformation and the work must develop their leadership if it is to keep them interested, but just as crucial to keep open the entry points from ‘community’ to ‘come’ and from ‘come’ to ‘us’.

Cris got me to the bus where I got chatting to Chad, a food and nutrition journalist who kept me entertained all the way to Chicago. Along with Lauren the driver who reminded us at every opportunity that there was to be “no foul language on the bus, We don’t want anyone to be disrespected in that way.”

Driving out of Detroit as the sun set was another exercise in heart-break and bewilderment. How can all these massive buildings – along the river’s edge, many of them really beautiful, every one a reservoir of embedded energy – be so mistreated? It would be bad enough if it was just this vast swathe; knowing that this blight stretches across the whole city makes me furious (more so given the occasional ugly-as-sin newbuild, such as by the casino). As we draw into the Wayne State University area the empties disappear and within an hour we are at Ann Arbor where the University of Michigan creates a dull kind of bustling with neither the charm nor the horror of Detroit. The answers for Detroit are the same as the answers everywhere – positive action by local people who care enough to come together, to challenge themselves and the people with power to imagine a different future. “Another world is possible”.

Next post: Chicago

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One Response to Detroit 3: The Funders

  1. Hi Jess, thanks for your fascinating posts from Detroit. If you’re in Chicago next then I’d encourage you to visit my colleagues at, whose large building Uptown houses a myriad of non-profits and I think you’ll find to be a fine example of a well deployed community asset!

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