Guest Blog: Why Philanthropy is More Relevant Today than Ever


Recently, Detroit entrepreneurs Mike and Marian Ilitch decided to donate $40 million to Wayne State University. Additionally, the PNC Bank Foundation, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, and the Skillman Foundation have also announced a significant project collaboration. This is great news for Detroit and for the philanthropic model in Michigan.

But the fact is, it will also require a community-wide effort in order to comprehensively move the needle for the greater good in the region. It is in times like this where my Detroit Jesuit educational roots from The High remind me of the powerful yet simplistic mantra of “Men for Others.” 

As a professional fundraiser, a consultant on philanthropy, and a believer in the fundamental need for transformative change in Detroit, my entire career has focused on developing, packaging, articulating, and demonstrating impact for the good of the community in some way, shape, form, or fashion. In my opinion, that is the crux of our shared questions relating to philanthropy — “How do I create impact via my giving? Does it potentially align with my corporate priorities? And am I willing to invest my personal time, talent, or financial resources toward something which is meaningful to me?”

Transformative philanthropic commitments in Detroit from individuals, corporations, and foundations are continuing to shape the community and our shared future. The State of Michigan has seen its share of significant charitable investments and collaborative partnerships over the years, much due to the influx of dollars related to supporting higher education, health care, neighborhood development, and core social services. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s study titled, How America Gives, Michigan ranked 13th in terms of philanthropic output with more than $3.8 billion in philanthropic contributions for 2014.

However, there is now a new awareness of philanthropy, partly as a result of emerging projects such as those to redevelop Detroit’s riverfront, to revitalize failing neighborhoods, and to reinvigorate anchor arts, cultural, and educational institutions. What does this mean for us and how do we play a responsible role in the process? Philanthropy is a tool that can be used to share our voices and to communicate personal priorities as members of this rebirthing city. Even as our philanthropy grows internationally, it remains culturally influenced by the challenges and needs we witness here in our home environment.

In Detroit, many who study the sector also believe that philanthropy will be a central component of the new economy over next five to 10 years. But here are some of the questions that we must ask and answer with the utmost diligence and transparency: What roles will it play? Whose interests will it serve? Will it increase or decrease inequality? In what ways can new philanthropic investment be utilized in order to preserve opportunity, culture, and democracy as well as to encourage innovation and economic growth for the Detroit and Michigan? And lastly, what is my personal commitment to the next generation of philanthropic activity? As we have seen historically for both large corporate and smaller personal charitable commitments, philanthropic investment which is unhindered by shareholders or political agenda is ideally allocated to support innovative yet sustainable projects which impact the larger community. It can also act as a bridge between government and the market, providing unique resources and social innovation necessary to support a more productive region.

Economic inclusion, social innovation, and transformative giving may be warm and fuzzy buzzwords for some, but they are important pillars for many of Michigan’s philanthropic initiatives. They are also at the core of how we as individual members of the regional community must begin to assess our role in the process of creating impact. This will require personal investment and thinking in an interdisciplinary way about the systems that are key to creating opportunity and innovation. The work is hard, failures happen, but so do successes, both small and large.

For such a beautiful philosophy, philanthropy is an awkward word which sometimes holds rather outdated connotations of wealthy folk and big corporations with an agenda trying to avoid tax burdens. But the reality is that philanthropy here in Michigan can drive change; it can help in leveling the playing field for the underserved and it can surely continue support innovation and increased community value. But we all must be more accountable as members of the regional eco-system if it is to succeed.

Chris Polk is senior fundraising executive and is the principal at Forte’ Management Group Inc. based in Detroit.