April 19, 2011; Source: Detroit Free Press |  What should nonprofits and foundations be doing to save—or not save—severely distressed older industrial cities such as Detroit?  The Kresge Foundation was one of the sponsors of a four-day American Assembly program in Detroit to brainstorm how to address Detroit’s problems—and those of other comparable cities.

Detroit perhaps is the epitome of the problem, a city whose people and jobs have been migrating away for decades.  What did the nonprofits and foundations, planners, academics, and politicians come up with as potential solutions?

It was just brainstorming, but the Detroit Free Press listed several, two of them somewhat contradictory on first glance—dissolving municipal governments and turning over their functions to larger county or regional governing bodies versus giving small, neighborhood-level nonprofits municipal government powers to govern their subcity areas.  What unites both of these ideas is the sense that the structure of municipal government is broken, maybe irreparably, necessitating moving governance functions to some other geographic footprint.

Will a neighborhood disaggregation of some governance functions work as well in small cities such as Flint or Gary or Camden or does the neighborhood-level model require the larger base of a Cleveland or Detroit or Philadelphia, so that the neighborhoods themselves have enough scale to support the nonprofits carrying out policing and other functions?  Is there a danger of devolving governance powers to nonprofits overseeing community “shards” that cannot sustain the organizations or their government-like operations?

As is typical in gatherings like this, the trope of taxing the tax-exempt, that is, exacting payments in lieu of taxes from tax exempt universities and hospitals in these cities received its share of attention.  The article mentioned the oft-cited situation of Rochester, where the University of Rochester employs more than twice as many people as the city’s famous private employer, Eastman Kodak.

The Kresge Foundation’s president, Rip Rapson, described the predicament that Detroit faces as “an invitation to true breakout thinking.”  Detroit has long been looking for ideas and strategies that will catapault it out of its multi-decade tailspin. Today, the galvanizing the effort to re-imagine Detroit is a collective of private foundations, Kresge and others.  Detroit has those philanthropic institutions within its borders.  But what about those smaller cities lacking major philanthropic champions?  The Assembly concluded that places like Detroit are still “worth fighting for,” but in some places, are there foundations that will help lead the fight like Kresge in Detroit?—Rick Cohen