News and analysis
February 03, 2016

Flint Philanthropies Consider Long-term Response to Water Crisis

Jake May, The Flint Journal, AP Images

As those in government and the community grapple to respond to the Michigan city’s public-health emergency, charities and grant makers look to broaden their support.

More than $1 million has been raised in less than three weeks for a new charitable fund created to deal with water contamination in Flint, Mich., community leaders said this week. It is one example of the flurry of fundraising and other measures taken by charities and grant makers in response to the public-health crisis.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician who helped expose elevated levels of lead in the city’s water, gave the first gift to establish the Flint Child Health & Development Fund on Jan 14. The fund is housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and money is being raised through the website flintkids.org.

More than 3,000 donors have contributed, according to foundation officials.

"People are determined to use this tragedy as a way to address some of the systemic issues of inequity that were here long before this crisis," said Kathi Horton, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. "Our community is a highly distressed community. It was before this ever happened."

An advisory committee made up of health experts is expected to meet for the first time later this week to discuss initial grant-making efforts.

The first area of focus will likely be nutrition, said Ms. Horton. "While the impact of lead exposure is irreversible, it can be lessened by really beefed-up healthy nutrition."

Crisis in the Making

The crisis in Flint began when the city, which is majority black and poverty-stricken, switched its water source from Detroit’s system, which draws from Lake Huron, to the polluted Flint River in 2014 in an effort to cut costs.

For months, public officials continued to downplay concerns as residents reported symptoms such as rashes and hair loss, and the tap water became discolored and smelled bad. Activists, journalists, researchers, and others, including Dr. Hanna-Attisha, raised alarm about unsafe levels of lead.

The failure to effectively treat the tap water has led to lead poisoning of many children in Flint.

Earlier this month, the state and federal governments declared a state of emergency. Since then, donations have poured in to local charities working in coordination to support a response to the emergency. In recent weeks, a spotlight on the issue by the national media has brought huge donations of bottled water trucked in from around the country, as well as large donations from people including rappers, rockers, TV stars, and other celebrities.

Now, as the shock of the crisis lessens and government officials grapple with how to deal with the long-term fallout, the philanthropic response is broadening. Local and national groups are considering what steps they might take to help mitigate the irreversible damage to the health of local children.

A Fund for a Generation

Forty percent of Flint's population lives in poverty.

At the urging of community health leaders, including Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the foundation established a fund to deal with both short- and long-term needs of the city’s children.

As yet, the fund is not endowed, though Ms. Horton said the goal is for it to be in operation "for at least a generation."

Among the priorities are providing early-childhood education, tracking developmental issues that are likely to result from the lead exposure, and ensuring that affected families have access to comprehensive health care.

Nonprofits have played a major role not only in responding to the crisis but also in increasing public awareness of the problem of the contaminated water.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has been at the forefront of the lead crisis, thanks in part to a Ford Foundation grant that supported the inclusion of an investigative journalist on the organization’s staff. In late 2012, the foundation gave the ACLU a $250,000 grant to examine the consequences of decisions made by the city’s emergency managers. It was the group’s investigative reporter, Curt Guyette, who broke the news about an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo explaining that the state’s testing had been flawed. He worked alongside a professor at Virginia Tech, Marc Edwards, who was one of the first to warn the city of the unsafe lead levels and to call for residents to test their water.

"We wouldn’t have been able to do this work without a funder that was sensitive to both our programmatic needs and our capacity-building needs," said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Last week, Ms. Moss’s group, along with the National Resources Defense Council, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, and others, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Flint’s citizens that aims to compel the state to follow federal water-testing and treatment protocols and promptly replace all lead pipes in the city at no cost to residents. The plaintiffs say officials had knowledge of dangerous levels of lead in the water but did nothing to protect the public health.

Donors have contributed more than $84,000 to a GoFundMe campaign Mr. Edwards established to help cover some of his out-of-pocket research costs. Proceeds will ultimately go to a Virginia Tech Foundation account supervised by Mr. Edwards. Both Virginia Tech and Hurley Children’s Hospital, where Dr. Hanna-Attisha is employed, are asking for donations to support their work.

Bigger than Any One Foundation

Once the government’s role becomes more clear, foundation funders will have a better idea of where support will be needed most, said Ridgway White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, based in Flint.

The foundation already covered a third of the $12 million cost to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system.

"Not only do we need support for long-term infrastructure replacement from the government but we also need additional support for these nonprofits and the services they’re providing," said Mr. White. The foundation provides general grants to support local schools and charities, but many will need additional support to manage the crisis response. "Its pushing everyone to their limits," he said.

Now that the response is in high gear, local nonprofits are feeling some of that strain, said Jamie Gaskin, chief executive of the United Way of Genesee County, which has been leading the immediate response efforts. The group began distributing water and filters to groups like the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan even before the state of emergency was announced. United Way call centers throughout Michigan have been receiving about a thousand calls a day from people with concerns and questions about the crisis. The United Way has raised about $1.3 million far and is beginning conversations with institutional funders who can support longer-term efforts, Mr. Gaskin said.

More foundation support for the issue will be needed both in Flint and beyond.

"It’s a bigger issue than any one foundation can take on," said Mr. White. "Flint’s just one example and we’re getting the most attention now, but I’ve got to believe that every aging city in America has the same potential risk."

A Coordinated Opportunity

The American Red Cross of East Central Bay-Michigan has set up a reception center, staffed by volunteers, and has worked with more than 900 volunteers in the last three weeks to distribute clean water, filters, and tap-water testing kits. The charity is not soliciting donations but is directing donors to the community foundation.

Tony Lasher, the chapter’s executive director, has been convening meetings of local organizations to coordinate the relief effort and develop a community-wide recovery plan.

"We’re right at the point where we’re really starting to create a more coordinated response," said Ms. Horton, of the community foundation.

"The shock of the crisis is finally wearing off, and we are turning into understanding this as an opportunity. There is a mind-set developing that we are going to come out of this better, stronger, and with a much greater devotion to equity."

Alex Daniels contributed to this story.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s $4 million grant supported the replacement of the city’s decaying water infrastructure. The grant helped reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system.

Send an email to Eden Stiffman.