Corporate giving has had an outsized effect on the response to the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo., local officials say. The dearth of large family-sponsored and other foundations in the region means that companies have set the local philanthropic agenda for years. As a result, some local leaders worry that important needs have long been overlooked.
St. Louis companies historically have been generous supporters of programs that offer social services and work to improve education and provide young people with summer jobs. But they’ve given less to organizations working to expand the capacity of nonprofits to provide aid to the region’s most vulnerable residents, says Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.
Although events in Ferguson have prompted some corporate grant makers to reexamine their giving practices, Mr. Wilson wants to see a more dramatic shift in thinking.
"We need to invest in the capacity of intermediary organizations that provide work related to racial equity, inclusion, and diversity ... and in advocacy and system change," he says.
The business community moved rapidly to put its assets to use as the Ferguson crisis erupted. Centene, a health-care-services corporation looking to open a new office building, purchased land in Ferguson and announced it would have 200 new jobs in the area. Emerson Electric, a Fortune 500 company with headquarters in Ferguson, donated more than $8 million to support local student scholarships, jobs for youths, small-business training, and early childhood education. Emerson called on other members of Civic Progress, an organization of chief executives from more than 30 of the city’s largest companies, to make contributions.
Mr. Wilson says he believes companies’ preference for responses like these is due partly to corporate motivations for giving, which he characterized as "social-investment models, public-relations interests, and community-relations interests."
Says Mr. Wilson: "It’s much easier for corporate funders to understand feeding a hungry kid. In some cases, there are better optics for it."
Amelia Bond, president of the Greater Saint Louis Community Foundation, agrees. "Corporations think short-term," she says.
But there has been some corporate investment in new infrastructure to deliver services in Ferguson, Mr. Wilson concedes. Emerson led the charge by establishing a job-training center on the site of a QuikTrip that was looted and burned in the aftermath of Mr. Brown’s shooting. The company convinced the convenience-store chain to tear down the wreckage and donate the land to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis for its Save Our Sons program. Several companies have donated money to the project.
Mr. Wilson is critical of what he sees as a lack of corporate investment in groups doing community organizing and advocacy work to change inequitable systems — groups like ArchCity Defenders, a legal aid nonprofit. ArchCity’s advocacy work led the Missouri government to pass a new law that responds to problems the Ferguson crisis exposed.
"No investment in youth programs is going to get that done," Mr. Wilson says.
Patrick Sly, the executive vice president at Emerson who manages the company’s charitable trust and serves on the Ferguson Commission, says many St. Louis business leaders advance the causes Mr. Wilson mentioned by serving on the boards of nonprofits working to fix systemic problems of inequity.
One change-seeking nonprofit Mr. Wilson mentioned, Diversity Awareness Partnership, which provides corporate diversity training, receives the bulk of its support from 27 companies who give annually, says the executive director, Reena Hajat Carroll.
She says the support has come about because companies now have a mandate to create inclusive workplaces.
"They are seeing diversity affecting their bottom line, so they are going to use as many quality resources to do that work as they can," she says.
Ms. Carroll says it’s foundations, not businesses, that have been neglectful of diversity programs.
"Now that our community has seen the very direct results of racism and unconscious basis, my hope is that foundations will mirror companies in their drive to really address diversity and inclusion," she says.
Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, a group of 100 chief executives of local companies, also defends the corporate response to events in Ferguson, especially the ability to act quickly. "We’re not a think tank. We tend to have a propensity to action," she says.
She was conscious, however, that the sensitive situation required a careful approach. One of her first moves, Ms. Osborn says, was to make the case that corporate charitable spending must reach beyond the city of St. Louis to include suburbs like Ferguson. She invited a representative of the Brookings Institution to speak to the council about the growth of suburban poverty.
"It was eye-opening to realize that terrible poverty was 20 minutes away from where anybody lived in St. Louis," Ms. Osborn says.
"We wanted to be very sensitive to not say, ‘Other people are coming in to tell you what you need,’ " Ms. Osborn says.
With donations from corporations and individuals, the council’s new Reinvest North County Fund raised $800,000.
"For people who didn’t know what to do, it became a vehicle," Ms. Osborn says.
She asked African-American business and nonprofit leaders to serve on the fund-allocation committee, along with a minister, a representative from a local university, and the owner of a Ferguson manufacturing plant.
"I wanted to have diverse voices, people who lived there," she says. "They were able to give us good information about where the need was."
So far, $240,000 has been given to four school districts, and $260,000 was allocated for grants of between $2,000 and $5,000 to 55 small businesses.
The council has taken small steps toward supporting community-organizing efforts. It used some of its own funds to bring representatives from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change to St. Louis to provide training in nonviolent principles. It also provided small amounts of money to Police, Parents, Kids, a program to encourage youth engagement with police founded by Clifton Kinnie, an African-American high-school senior and activist whom Ms. Osborn met at the Aspen Institute Community Dialogue on Healing the Racial Divide.
The council recently transferred its fund to the community foundation, but Ms. Osborn says its members will sustain their commitment to the region.
"We want to be here not just for the short term but for the long haul," she says.
Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Regional Business Council gave money to Our Destiny STL, a group founded by Clifton Kinnie. The council provided support to Police, Parents, Kids, another group founded by Mr. Kinnie.