Blog: Beyond Philanthropy — The NextGen Role of Business in Michigan


In Michigan and across the country, people are becoming more and more skeptical of government in Washington D.C., frustrated by over-promising politics, and increasingly concerned about our regional economics. As an advocate for the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit in particular, I believe that there is an enormous opportunity and a need for businesses (small to large) to step into leadership roles and use their influence, reach, and assets for the greater good of our region. This includes social responsibility, executive philanthropy, and cross-sector collaboration.

We tend to think of the profit-making aspect of a corporation as separate from its service to society, and companies typically characterize the good they do in terms of the philanthropic contributions they make from their profits. From my experience, the “real equation” is not that simple.

For those who attended the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference, you probably saw firsthand the scenario that I am referring to. You heard fresh ideas surrounding mobility, education, economic inclusion, policy formation, health care, neighborhood sustainability, regional place making, and business sector leadership. Now more than ever, there is a very tangible focus on collaboration across these sectors as well as investment opportunities, which will drive our state’s next economy.

In this country we are now developing a “user economy.” Consumers in Michigan are making daily transactions with customized apps, folks are ride sharing and utilizing on-demand transportation such as Uber, and travelers are exploring urban hubs like downtown Detroit while purchasing services through Airbnb. As regional consumers and curious buyers, we have developed a newfound personal agency within our own lives. But when it comes to additional regional solutions for businesses, many of us are still waiting to hear the game plan.

In Michigan, the next role of business and entrepreneurial activity must shift from providing goods and services for people to working with people and leveraging our collective potential. Businesses and business leaders can play the role of convener and connector while providing citizens and consumers a platform to transform their newfound personal agency into a positive, collaborative impact.

From my observation, this is not a pipe dream, especially when you consider the shared vision that is coming to fruition in Detroit and Michigan. Consider recent projects and initiatives like the new Regional Transit Authority, our statewide plan for research and development, and then consider the following data as previously reported in DBusiness: “Middle market firms in Michigan, (companies with $10 million to $1 billion in annual revenue) ranked third in the nation for growth from 2011 through the first five months of 2016.”

For years, business, policy, and regional growth has been too influenced by unrealistic structures and non-collaborative leaders. As Michigan’s user-based ecosystem emerges and the roles begin to shift, it is clear that those who go at it alone will most likely be left behind. This is why we’re seeing an evolution in cross-sector collaboration and philanthropy here in Michigan, so that it aligns more closely with a shared regional agenda. We are now also seeing businesses across the state less as “givers” and more as an engaged regional solution providers and influencers. Achieving a shared value requires going outside the walls of the company, working with multiple partners, and finding new ways to work together. Shared value also drives a change in thinking from simply selling products and services to meeting the needs of the community.

In Michigan, shared value via comprehensive business sector engagement won’t ever replace philanthropy-based decisions, especially in regional hubs like Detroit. But companies and savvy executives now must focus on the trend we’re seeing towards deeper, smarter engagement that connects the corporate mission to achieving social solutions.

The door is open for the business sector in Michigan to use its skills, innovation platforms, and resources to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges including mobility, health care, and economic inclusion, and that’s good news for everyone.

Chris Polk is a senior fundraising executive and principal at Detroit-based Forté Management Group Inc. and a frequent contributor to DBusiness Daily News.