Sherri Welch | December 3 2017
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is looking to fill a gaping hole in metro Detroit's support system for nonprofits — and it's turning to some experts in entrepreneurial cross-pollination to help.
The foundation is putting more than $5 million in grants over the next few years behind what could be a first-of-its-kind nonprofit support and innovation center. To run it, the foundation has tapped the TechTown business incubator in Detroit to transfer the supportive approach and collaborative, innovative environment it's created for entrepreneurs to the region's nonprofits.
That funding is just the tip of the $1 billion foundation's planned commitment to nonprofit support and innovation.
While there are many consultants and organizations offering various capacity-building and operating supports for nonprofits, there's no coordinated system of them in the region, the foundation found after a yearlong study. Just as importantly, there's no local, dedicated space for nonprofits to innovate together.
"It's not an uncommon notion that nonprofits don't have the greatest support mechanisms in the world," said Dave Egner, president and CEO of the Wilson foundation.
The center will be on the ground floor of the foundation's offices in Detroit's New Center neighborhood and open in mid- to late 2018 with services and events aimed at nonprofit operations and creating connections with other sectors.
The next step will be to bring innovation-focused services and meetings aimed at solving community problems the sector isn't looking at in 2019-20.
The foundation's in-depth look at the local support and innovation programs for nonprofits here and in western New York, its grant-making regions, showed services were "cookie-cutter," he said, with little, if any, customization.
Local nonprofit support programs are not well-coordinated, and there is virtually nothing in place to promote innovation, Egner said.
"Nonprofits here, like the rest of the country, are very focused on survival and running programs but are very seldom focused on innovation."
It's partly a matter of trust. Nonprofits compete for funds and look for ways to outshine the organization next door in order to do that. They have not been set up to jointly solve problems, Egner said.
"If we can get them in that space together, learning together, trusting each other, you've solved 90 percent of the problems."
Initially, the center will offer some yet-to-be-determined services on a walk-in basis and pilot other services in development with Wilson foundation grantees.
Exactly how it will operate, including the services offered, who will offer them and whether there will be fees attached has yet to be decided.
"We're going to learn as we grow and change as we go," Egner said. "But we think TechTown's experience in the entrepreneurial space translates directly."
Founded in 2000 by Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors, TechTown became an independent nonprofit a few years later.
Originally founded to support tech-based spinoffs from the university, it has evolved into a co-working, meeting and event space supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Its model has centered on providing those organizations with the services they need through referrals and holding their hands as they connect with that expertise, said Ned Staebler, president and CEO of TechTown and vice president for economic development at Wayne State University.
With its focus on project management and learning from entrepreneurial peers, TechTown's model translates just as well to nonprofits, he said.
On the innovation front, organizations sharing the same space have what Staebler calls "serendipitous collisions."
"Sometimes you don't even know what you need until you run into it," he said.
TechTown will take the lead in developing the new support center, working with the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Washington, D.C.-based Community Wealth Partners, a national expert in capacity and network building, and others.
"We will be very collaborative ... to figure out the best path to provide services to Detroit's nonprofit community," said Graig Donnelly, chief strategy officer for TechTown.
With a three-year, $4.75 million grant from the Wilson foundation, TechTown will manage the center's day-to-day operations, hiring operating, event planning, communications and marketing staff. It's currently in the midst of a search for someone to lead the new center and plans to hire three others soon after.
"Identifying the problem is one of the things we're really good at. (And) we think with our partners at MNA and CWP, we'll be able to do a really good job of helping to identify and diagnose problems."
The Lansing-based Michigan Nonprofit Association, which also has a Detroit office, brings relationships with more than 4,000 nonprofits across the state and a software assessment it has honed over the past 20 years to help identify a nonprofit's operating strengths and weaknesses in areas such as human resources, governance, fundraising and volunteer management.
It will help shape the services offered through the new center and provide initial operating assessments, referrals to expert providers in its network and case management with a $315,000 grant from the Wilson foundation.
The center will be a collaborative space where support is coordinated to help nonprofits navigate the system and get the support they need, "and that's not something that's been done before to this extent," said MNA President and CEO Donna Murray-Brown. "Coordinating the support is really the big takeaway, in my opinion."
Wilson benchmarked a number of national models in developing its placed-based concept. By and large, they were centered on social innovation and entrepreneurs rather than on nonprofits, said Jim Boyle, vice president of programs and communications for the foundations.
A number of local nonprofits and support organizations participated in the benchmarking trips, including: Michigan Community Resources, Data Driven Detroit, Detroit Creative Corridor Center, Southwest Solutions and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
The nonprofit support and innovation center is something that's badly needed in the region, nonprofit operations consultants said.
"From a service provider standpoint ... we see everywhere we look, whether it's tax reform or overall public policy, that the public sector isn't able to keep up with the human services demand," said Bill Liebold, principal of The Liebold Group LLC, which assists nonprofits with board and senior leader development and fund development.
"The more efficient nonprofits can be in terms of delivering services, be they social services, health or education, the better able they'll be to meet the demand the government is simply withdrawing from," he said.
To the extent the center can step up and help nonprofits sharpen their game, that will help them do more with limited resources, he said.
The local nonprofit sector is also facing a wave of executive retirements in the coming years, Liebold said.
"There would be a role for the center to help develop that next generation of nonprofit leaders to make sure the sector has the talent it needs to continue to deliver on its mission."
If the center's services include a look at staffing needs, allowing nonprofits to hire more strategically and less reactively, that would be a great thing, said Gary Dembs, president of the Non-Profit Personnel Network, a local consultancy that helps nonprofits fill key positions.
A key question is whether the Wilson foundation plans to provide grants to nonprofits to use the center, he said.
"That's the stretch the nonprofits need in order to be less hand to mouth," Dembs said.
The Wilson foundation does plan to make grants to nonprofits to help them tap the services at the new center, said Communications Officer Carly Strachan. But exactly how that would work hasn't been decided, she said.