News and analysis
September 28, 2015

Economic Matchmaker Revs Up Next Phase of Philanthropy in Detroit

Todd McInturf, Detroit News, AP Images

Ryan Friedrichs, the city’s new director of development, serves as a liaison between city departments and foundations, working to align local efforts with foundation priorities.

Last year, all eyes in philanthropy were on the Motor City.

Local and national foundations pledged $366 million over 20 years to support an $816-million plan to protect the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts and help pay the pensions of retired city employees. It was part of the settlement for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, a deal dubbed the "grand bargain."

Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit, wants to keep the philanthropic dollars flowing. In February, he installed Ryan Friedrichs as chief development officer, a position that remained unfilled during the two previous administrations. Mr. Friedrichs, 38, serves as the liaison between city departments and foundations, working to stoke investment in local programs and find ways to work with a deep roster of local foundations, among other things.

The Michigan native brings a unique professional background to the job. Mr. Friedrichs built relationships with the foundation community while leading three nonprofits focusing on civic engagement: the Youth Vote Coalition, Michigan Voice, and State Voices. He served four years in the Army’s parachute infantry company, which included stints in Afghanistan and Europe, and returned to Detroit in 2014 committed to helping with its revitalization.

Seven months into the job, in an interview at Detroit City Hall, Mr. Friedrichs talked about aligning local efforts with foundation priorities, gathering community feedback, and misperceptions about philanthropy in the city.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity:

How would you describe your role in the city?

The goal is to plug in investment that’s trying to do charitable good with major initiatives happening in the city, and to find federal or state grants that those investments might help bring in. The focus is not to bring all those funds into the city budget, but to bring them into Detroit and the key initiatives that are happening in the neighborhoods.

I have a matrix that brings together all of the different departments that are trying to use private investment — from police to our blight strategies with the Land Bank — and the initiatives that those departments and the mayor are prioritizing. My goal is to match those subject-matter experts with the foundations that are seeking to support their work.

A lot of what I do is meet with community organizations and local foundations or national foundations about which organizations are working in which neighborhoods and who the leaders are in whatever space they’re interested in supporting. Success in this job is bringing in new foundations or new funds that are not here already, versus just returning to the usual suspects who have already given so much in Detroit.

What are some examples of these partnerships?

People think there’s a lot of vacancy and open land, but the commercial real-estate markets aren’t functioning well outside of downtown and midtown Detroit. A new nonprofit or an entrepreneur who wants to start a business has a double burden now: the burden and costs of being a start-up and the burden of rehabbing a building. Motor City Match, which helps small businesses get access to capital, is rehabbing buildings, and is also providing a half-million dollars in grants per quarter to both building owners and business owners. The program tries to match them up. The John J. and James L. Knight Foundation, Erb Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and New Economy Initiative have committed funding, in addition to the city, which contributed Community Development Block Grant funds. Olga Stella, chief operating officer of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, who runs the program, is working to get the Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, JP Morgan Chase, and others to support it as well over the next three years we plan for it to be in operation.

One of the main criticisms of Detroit’s recovery plan was that it put too much power into the hands of philanthropists. Is there a danger in asking philanthropy to address problems that are traditionally handled by government?

It’s always a question of developing really healthy public-private partnerships, where both sectors have a role. We’re rebalancing now as the city comes out of bankruptcy and staffs up fully. For example, Detroit Future City, an urban-planning initiative, and its main funder, the Kresge Foundation have done a lot of work on city planning. Now that we have a planning director, he is assuming more and more of that role, in partnership with them. They provided a really good basis for him to work off of, but now he’s in charge of a democratic institution to lead that process and to engage with the community. It’s an interesting example of where there perhaps was a vacuum that philanthropy was helping to fill, and now the city is able to step in and start to fill it a little bit more.

How do you ensure that the priorities of foundations reflect those of the city’s residents? And how do you get input from a wide range of people?

We hold community meetings that are open to anybody. The mayor leads them in every district of the city and brings his entire cabinet. People stay as late as needed until every question is answered. They’re a really interesting way to get public feedback. People can voice what their priorities are.

Are you finding that certain issue areas are getting more attention from funders?

We’re seeing a lot around work-force issues and public safety. Because healthy police-community relations are on everybody’s minds, we’re seeing some engagement there. With work-force development, there’s so much to do. There’s some really creative thinking coming from philanthropy on how to create those middle-skill jobs and where to build something like a Detroit conservation corps, which is one of the ideas our planner has and is talking to foundations about.

As we work to rebuild neighborhoods, we’re looking at how you engage and really make the people who are living in neighborhoods equity investors in those neighborhoods. Finding those models where they can be investors in that revitalization is a big focus.

What do you see as the next steps in Detroit philanthropy? What do people get wrong? What stories need to be told now?

Because the grand bargain was so well covered, the danger is the perception that there’s an abundance of philanthropy here. That’s not the case. The grand bargain eliminated the city’s debt. It protected the city’s pensioners to a degree, and the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection — that’s it. It was a unique moment of partnership on the public-private front, but decades of challenges still have to be tackled.

As we look to tackle some of the chronic problems in the city, centered on education, public safety, and transit, partnerships are developing that the city may not have seen before. Last summer the Ford Foundation held its first board meeting in Detroit in 60 years. You don’t give the biggest grant in the history of the Ford Foundation and then walk away. There may be some new philanthropy coming on the stage with the rise of the William Davidson Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, but it’s yet to be seen what the major investments of Ford and Kellogg will be. They’re engaged, they’re funding, but I think they’re still trying to figure out exactly the best way to do that, and that’s what I’m trying to help them do.

It’s really the beginning of a new chapter that lots of folks can be a part of in many ways. There are tremendous challenges here, but tremendous opportunity and progress, too. It’s going to be both for a long time.

Send an e-mail to Eden Stiffman.