Rip Rapson knows that $100 million is not a magic bullet. "The problem
is that it's a lot of money, but then it isn't a lot of money," says
the president of the Troy-based Kresge Foundation
he says, that same $100 million, put in a single pot by 10 foundations,
and strategically spread out to key nonprofits, could well be the
catalyst for significant change in Southeast Michigan.
the single biggest pooled investment that a consortium of foundations
has ever made in urban America," he says. "It's a very big deal on the
national scene in terms of the scope of the commitment by these
foundations and the NEI's level of ambition."
The money pot is called the New Economy Initiative
(NEI). The new regional initiative will dole out grants of up to $1 million to nonprofits that are working to:
• Attract, retain and train talented people in Southeast Michigan;
• Promote entrepreneurs;
• And change the overall culture of work, learning and innovation here.
The 10 participating foundations are:
• Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan
• Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation
• Ford Foundation
• Hudson-Webber Foundation
• W.K. Kellogg Foundation
• John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
• The Kresge Foundation
• McGregor Fund
• C.S. Mott Foundation
• Skillman Foundation
They started taking applications this week, and will spend the money over the next 5-8 years. (Click here for more info and to apply.
knows the goals are lofty. He knows the collaborating foundations'
reputations are on the line. He knows, as well, that for the people of
Southeast Michigan, when it comes to reinventing the economy here, the
stakes are high.
So is this just more money tossed into a sinking ship? No way, he says.
says the whole thing may seem "fuzzy" — a big pool of money, very few
guidelines for how to pass it out, and a lot of organizations lording
over it — but this money truly has the power to foster change.
that fuzziness gives them a lot of latitude, after all. The NEI, Rapson
says, offers an opportunity to take chances, get risky, and make things
happen here that will surprise the odds-makers and wow the pundits.
Rapson sat down with Model D
editor Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey this week to talk about the $100 million bet, and why he's willing to take it.
moved here a year and half ago from Minneapolis. What are your
impressions of our assets here? What does this region have working for
The calling card of this economy is
creativity. Certain economies are based on brawn. Other economies are
based on some quirk of nature, either the location or the existence of
one particular company that drives the whole economy — Silicon Valley,
or Seattle. What seems so clear to an outsider is there is an
extraordinary amount of innovation that drives this part of the world.
innovation has primarily existed in a monoculture, automobiles, auto
technology. … My sense is that if you combine the creative, innovative
talent pool that Southeast Michigan has with the clear need to break
out of the monoculture, there you have your solution. There are ways of
helping retool, recalibrate, redirect, reinvest some of that creativity
and innovative talent into other venues. I think we have plenty to work
with — absolutely.
We're in such an industrial sector that I
think it's going to take a real leap to imagine what different sectors
look like, what market realities are … You almost need an external
catalytic force, in the classic sense of that word. A catalytic force
is an outside agent that can create a chemical reaction that in turn
helps create unintended results, and I think that's a little bit what
we're talking about (with the NEI fund).MM
we think about Seattle, where would it be without Microsoft? Can we
build a Seattle here? Can we do something to lay the groundwork to make
it fertile to come in here with a great idea?RR
: It's a profoundly interesting question.
can just invest in a proposition or one or two or 50 and hope that one
of those will succeed. Or, you can invest on the infrastructure or the
climate that can drive those entrepreneurs.
It's easier, I
think, for foundations used to making grants to nonprofits to
underwrite a proposal, a single thing. It is more complicated; it seems
to me, for them to make a series of grants that over time creates a
different receptivity to or an ability to capitalize on the kinds of
trends you want to encourage.
So, for instance, one of the goals
of this initiative is entrepreneurship. You could invest in
entrepreneurs, right? Or you could say, "What do entrepreneurs need in
order to succeed?" We probably need a different way of training, we
probably need a way to form networks among them, and we probably need a
different way to underwrite their work to different funding
intermediaries. There are a whole series of gestures you could make if
you were interested in promoting a culture of entrepreneurship.
think it's probably too much to ask a group of foundations to figure
out whether we do one of those things or another, so I think what
you'll see is we do both.MM
of the things we do in Model D and metromode
is talk about the
importance of place, of having a livable, vibrant environment for
people to live work and play. Is creating that kind of place part of
your initiative? RR:
Building a sense of place, or livability, is something that I think is
going to be difficult for this initiative to get its arms around. And
it may not. As principal as quality of life is in a place, my sense is
this initiative will tend to focus on the infrastructure of economic
development, or investible propositions.
however, have to pay attention to that, because you don't build up the
economy without it. We can do this with a billion dollars and it won't
work if you have a place that is not tolerant of different lifestyles,
that is not conducive for creative people to be able to act out their
dreams, that is not walkable, that does not have public transit of the
highest order, that does not have environmental quality. That is my
bias, that's probably not the bias of everybody at the table.
am hoping that what emerges is a NEI that doesn't try do everything,
but is in line with what its constituent members are doing (to address
you talk about talent, and retention of talent and attract of talent,
it seems that livability and economic opportunity go hand in hand.RR:
Absolutely. People keep talking about "oh, you've got to have jobs,"
but the research is crystal clear. Talent is figuring out if this is a
place where they want to live and then they try to find jobs there.
That's what young people are doing. When you look at Carol Coletta
's work and the CEOs for Cities' Young and the Restless
study, all of that indicates place, place, place.
New Economy Initiative will create an economic opportunity structure
that will go hand in hand with the efforts of Kresge, Hudson-Webber,
Skillman, and the Community Foundation, and all these other folks who
are trying to build neighborhoods, downtown revitalization, and broader
It does go back to the chicken
and the egg thing. Those efforts are great, but without an economic
driver they won't go anywhere, and the economic driver needs arts,
culture and viable neighborhoods to go with it.RR:
One of the things this whole initiative raises in my eye is whether
these foundations can play a role an important lead role in helping
shape the future of the region. The nice thing about this coming out of
a consortium is that it forces us into a different way of working. We
have to be work more publicly, more accountably, and a little more in
concert with the private sector and public sector.
This is a
bold effort and we've but ourselves on the line. We're banking a lot of
money and a lot of our legitimacy on whether we can actually have an
impact on these issues.MM:
Locally we've seen these kinds of partnerships do great things. The Detroit RiverWalk
is a product of public, private and foundation partnerships. It's a
bricks and mortar example, but it's an example of a great success where
everybody works together and crosses old boundaries. …
look at it as building up a product, a Southeast Michigan product, the
NEI seems to address an important part of that, and that's developing
It brings me back to the
question of whether the product is Southeast Michigan, or is it
Detroit? The NEI will focus on Southeast Michigan because it has to.
There's too much talent in Ann Arbor or in the other counties. There's
too much potential to diversify for it just to be Detroit.
at the end of the day, this region rises or falls with Detroit. Our
ability to come at both sides of the question, the economic opportunity
side and the livability side, those two have to meet in Detroit.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey
is editor of Model D
. This piece originally appeared in the Jan. 10 edition of metromode
Photos:Kresge Foundation HeadquartersRip Rapson
Kresge Headquarters, Campus Martius and Riverwalk Copyright Dave Krieger