Blueskiesfalling (Connor Coyne) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

September 1, 2019; East Village Magazine

It is no secret that the Rustbelt community of Flint, Michigan, has faced hard times. While Flint’s economic challenges stem from the decades-long decline of the auto industry, its most infamous problem came as a product of government decision-making—and an unelected government at that. From 2011 until 2018, Flint was run by state-appointed “emergency management.” Among the cost-cutting moves these managers made was a decision to use cheaper water in 2014, which promised to “save” $12 million a year but led to widespread lead poisoning, with over 8,500 documented cases among the city’s children, centered on its largely Black resident population.

When the crisis became apparent, philanthropy admirably stepped up. As Paul Rozycki writes in East Village Magazine, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has disbursed $93.5 million over the past four years. The Ruth Mott Foundation has paid out “between $4 million and $7 million annually in grants to Flint groups and organizations, with a particular focus on the north end of Flint.” United Way of Genesee County has allocated $3 million for local programs “and leveraged more than $15 million from other matching sources” And the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has disbursed “$130 million in grants in Flint and Genesee County and are playing a major role in the Flint water crisis.”

If you do the math, total grants just by these four funders since the Flint water crisis went public are well over $250 million in a city with fewer than 100,000 residents. Even though some of those dollars went to surrounding Genesee County (population 400,000), it seems safe to conclude that post-water-crisis philanthropic giving in Flint has easily exceeded $1,000 per capita and quite possibly has exceeded $2,000 per capita.

The philanthropic response has been highly valued by area nonprofits. So highly, in fact, that when a team of academics asked 138 Flint nonprofits to name who was the “most important community leader,” the local United Way came in first place, followed by the Community Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, and the Red Cross.

“The City of Flint government,” notes Rozycki, “came in last.”

This finding comes from a paper titled Governing without Government: Nonprofit Governance in Detroit and Flint, authored by Sarah Reckhow and Josh Sapotichne of Michigan State and Davia Downey of Grand Valley State. In that study, the authors also surveyed 385 nonprofits in Detroit, a city that declared bankruptcy in 2013 and where philanthropy intervened massively (an estimated $366 million) to save the Detroit Institute of Art and limit cuts in retiree pensions in what is widely known as the Grand Bargain. Still, Detroit nonprofits still ranked the city government as the “most important community leader,” followed by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, the Kresge Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Skillman Foundation, and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

So why has philanthropy in Flint become so dominant that nonprofits look to it, and not the city, for community leadership? Part of the reason may be the timing of the survey. In 2017, both cities were still under emergency management, but Detroit was emerging from its crisis by then, and Flint was not. In Crain’s Detroit Business in 2018, Chad Livengood noted that emergency management, while highly unpopular in both Detroit and Flint, performed better in Detroit: “Detroit shed $7 billion in unfunded liabilities in bankruptcy, freeing up tens of millions of dollars to restore basic services….Flint got lead-tainted water, indifference from state bureaucrats, and a two-year supply of bottled water.”

Another difference, as the study authors detail, is that Flint had a more severe contraction of city government than even Detroit had. The study authors write that, “even after observing Detroit’s dramatic decline in government workforce, things look worse in Flint:

Flint lost 22 percent of its population between 2000 and 2016—from about 125,000 residents in 2000 to just over 97,000 in 2016. Over the same period, the city government lost 56 percent of its workforce—from nearly 1,100 full-time employees (FTEs) in 2003 to 473 in 2016.

Flint’s budget, Rozycki notes, is roughly $55 million. This makes his statement that, “taken together, the foundations and non-profits may play a bigger role in our future than the city government,” while perhaps a bit of an overstatement, at least plausible.

But as Rozycki points out—echoing a theme that NPQ has noted before—there is a danger that philanthropic largesse can sometimes displace democratic government, rather than buttress it. Flint is now out of emergency management, and a mayoral election will take place this November. Let’s hope that whoever is elected can rebuild the city’s democratic capacity and community stature. In this task, too, philanthropy in Flint may have an important role to play.—Steve Dubb