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Flint’s Crisis Raises Questions — and Cautions — About the Role of Philanthropy

April 08, 2016

Dirty-bottled-waterThe public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, continues to unfold before the eyes of the world. For nearly eighteen months, water drawn from the Flint River was sent without proper treatment into the city's infrastructure, corroding aging pipes and fixtures. Lead leached into the water supply and flowed to local homes, schools, and businesses. The results: a near doubling in the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, a wave of other health concerns throughout the community, severely damaged infrastructure, and despair regarding the city's prospects for economic recovery.

This terrible situation in the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's hometown has sparked numerous questions, including one that should be of interest to every foundation: What is the role of philanthropy in responding to a community in crisis? At Mott, we've felt the need to act immediately on some issues and with great deliberation on others. We've also been called upon to discuss the role of philanthropy in funding infrastructure projects. It's my hope that our experiences thus far might be helpful to other philanthropies that could face similar challenges in the future.

When the high levels of lead exposure among Flint children were revealed in September of 2015, Mott acted quickly to begin the long process of bringing safe drinking water back to our hometown. In addition to a grant of $100,000 to provide residents with home water filters, we pledged $4 million to help reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system. With an additional $6 million from the state of Michigan and $2 million from the city of Flint, that switch took place on October 16.

Our decision to help pay for the switch was a no-brainer. Since our founding ninety years ago, we've had a deep and unwavering commitment to our home community. We couldn't sit on the sidelines while the children of Flint were being harmed. Our role as a catalyst for the return to safer water speaks to one of philanthropy's most valuable attributes: the ability to respond swiftly when disaster strikes to help people meet their basic needs.

But after taking swift action, the question then becomes "What next?"

As important as it was to act quickly to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system, we also realized that it sometimes makes sense for philanthropies to fight the impulse to make major commitments while a disaster is still unfolding. Two aspects of Flint's water crisis show us why.

First, this disaster was government-induced. Decisions made by a state-appointed emergency manager for the city, failures of oversight at multiple levels of government, and delays and mistakes in the way government agencies communicated about the threat ultimately caused the harm and expense that the community has been forced to bear.

Government fault demands a government fix.

We firmly believe the state of Michigan and the federal government must provide the resources — financial and otherwise — needed to address the harm caused. There's little doubt that any government restitution Flint receives will fall far short of what will be needed to address long-term health, infrastructure, and economic concerns. That's all the more reason we must call on state and federal government to provide maximum resources to Flint. And it's partly why we haven't rushed to make subsequent commitments. We don't want government officials to think it's okay to send fewer dollars to Flint.

Thus far, headlines and finger-pointing have far outpaced government funds making it to the community. Federal support has been minimal. And although the governor has proposed a special allocation for next year's budget, the legislature has yet to vote on it. We want to ensure that philanthropic dollars are seen as a complement to much-needed government funds — not a replacement for them.

Second, a horrified nation has risen together to help its brothers and sisters in Flint. We're heartened by the outpouring of assistance — from Hollywood celebrities  to schools and scout troops across the nation. Donations of money, bottled water, filters, skilled labor, and volunteer assistance are flowing to Flint.

The community is grateful for the help. We're also aware that it won't last forever.

The influx of resources coming from outside the community, combined with the insight provided by Mott grantees that have been coordinating and providing services in response to the crisis, give us both an opportunity and a responsibility to identify and address unmet needs. As a foundation that's designed to exist in perpetuity, Mott will still be here and committed to our hometown for generations to come — generations that will feel the lasting impact of lead exposure. So we feel uniquely positioned and compelled to take a long view of the community's needs.

Does that mean we’re not doing anything now? Of course it doesn't. We're supporting many of the organizations that are helping Flint recover from the crisis. In fact, this crisis helps to underscore the importance of the long-term, general-purpose support we provide to many of our grantees, in Flint and elsewhere. It's the fuel that powers nonprofit organizations and helps them keep their communities strong.

For example, the Mott Foundation has provided nearly $23 million in support since 2011 to Flint's growing health and wellness district. Some of that funding has helped position two anchor institutions in the district, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Hurley Children's Center, to lead the new Pediatric Public Health Initiative that will address the many health and behavioral impacts of children's exposure to lead.

Our ongoing support in the areas of volunteering and community service, as well as funding for a new approach to community education in Flint, also mean the community will be able to approach this and any future crisis from a position of greater strength. All of these programs will focus on addressing lead exposure among children, while also serving the broader and ongoing health, education, and wellness needs of students and families.

In addition, we have long supported the growth of community foundations, in Flint and around the world. Because such foundations are created of and for their communities, they play an invaluable role when crisis hits home. For example, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has stepped forward to accept donations and administer the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, which will help to address the needs of Flint residents for the next twenty years. We encourage all who want to do something to help Flint to donate to that fund at flintkids.org.

Foundations located within a community challenged by crisis can play a major role in helping to convene others and leverage resources from outside of the community. To that end, Mott is working with partners on the ground in Flint, as well as other foundations from across the region and around the country, to gather and share information and ideas about how we can best assist the community.

That work must include a focus on the future. While helping Flint residents meet immediate needs related to lead contamination, we also must think ahead about how to help the community emerge from the crisis. We must not only repair harm but restore hope.

In a time of crisis, a foundation located in the affected community or region is likely to be more willing than funders or donors from outside the area to invest in long-term projects that are not directly tied to the crisis itself. That's why Mott will continue to strengthen neighborhoods by strengthening schools and helping them serve as centers of community life. It's why we will continue to support revitalization efforts that have been taking root over the last decade in downtown Flint. That momentum is more important than ever. It will help position the community to attract new investment in — and beyond — the downtown corridor. It also will affirm that, even in times of crisis, our town is "Flint Strong."

Finally, we can share the lessons that we are continuing to learn, and we can advocate to help prevent this kind of tragedy from happening anywhere else. What has happened in Flint should sound an alarm. Lead and other dangerous metals are common in America's aging water systems, many of which are at significant risk of failure. Updating those systems will be an expense that few communities could shoulder on their own.

Because Flint is viewed as a canary in a coal mine, Mott has received many questions about the role of philanthropy in funding infrastructure projects. My answer is always the same: government must be responsible for infrastructure that protects the health and safety of its citizens.

For argument's sake, let's assume that the one hundred largest foundations in the United States were willing to forego all of the charitable purposes for which they were created — education, environment, health, and so on — and devote themselves solely to funding infrastructure. Our combined assets would be a mere fraction of the estimated $1 trillion needed to overhaul the nation's drinking water systems. And that daunting price tag doesn't even include much-needed repairs to the nation's aging wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Ridgway_white_for_PhilanTopicThere's no getting around it. Upgrading our nation's aging infrastructure will require significant attention and investment at all levels of government. It will be absolutely critical to ensuring that the water we drink, cook with, and bathe in does not put today's children or future generations at risk of lead poisoning and its many horrifying complications. For the sake and safety of children across the country, it's time for government to demonstrate leadership on this looming threat to public health.

Ridgway H. White is president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan.

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