InFocus Event Highlights New Philanthropy in Southeast Michigan

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

At a recent InFocus event sponsored by the Council of Michigan Foundations, Southeast Michigan foundation leaders learned about the new and exciting funding plans and initiatives being developed, implemented and in the works by three area grantmakers who are impacting the metro Detroit area in different, but significant ways.

Top executives from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Michigan Health Endowment Fund and The William Davidson Foundation all shared their goals, missions and strategies with fellow Detroit area foundation philanthropists.
All three speakers at the “New Philanthropy in the Region” event took on their current posts in 2015: Dave Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation; Paul Hillegonds, CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund (MHEF); and Darin McKeever, chief program and strategy officer, The William Davidson Foundation.

A long-time and respected leader in the philanthropy sector, Egner said he accepted the challenging role at the Wilson foundation at a time when it announced plans to spend $1.2 billion over 20 years on programs and causes targeted in the Detroit and Buffalo, New York areas.
Egner was president and CEO of the $175 million Hudson-Webber Foundation since 1997, which focuses heavily on economic revitalization and the arts in Detroit. He also led the New Economy Initiative (NEI) for Southeast Michigan.
NEI is a $135 million collaboration of multiple foundations, which pooled their funding to help drive economic growth through entrepreneurship and small business development.

Discussing the mission of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Egner described how the assets of the foundation come from the estate of Wilson, a Detroiter who founded and owned the Buffalo Bills NFL team. Wilson, who died at age 95 in March 2014, also owned several Grosse Pointe Park-based insurance and investment firms.

“The foundation is dedicated to supporting a variety of areas that align with Mr. Wilson’s priorities, such as healthy lifestyles, caregivers, early childhood and youth development, community development and economic growth,” Egner said.

In March, Egner said the foundation completed what it calls its first phase of giving, which included providing $60 million in grants awarded in 2015 and 2016 to date as part of the organization’s legacy grant program.

“With the foundation’s four life trustees – (Mary M. Wilson, Mary M. Owen, Jeffrey C. Littman and Eugene Driker, along with board trustees David Colligan and Jerry Mazurkiewicz) – we are now focusing on the development of plans for long-term grant cycles and are mapping out important future decisions such as grant guidelines, staffing, and the annual grant process and calendar.”
Egner stated that the foundation will announce grant proposal requests in the coming months, but is not seeking them until the final planning stage is completed.

“The first of the $1.2 billion and related investment income that (the foundation) will spend will be spent over the course of 20 years as directed by Mr. Wilson,” noted Egner. “We now have 18 years left to complete that task. Each individual grant has the ability to make a difference. When you put that together with what has been done thus far, it’s exciting. And when you begin to imagine what we can do over the remaining lifespan of the foundation, it’s absolutely inspiring.”

Hillegonds, MHEF’s CEO, described how that fund was created in 2013 by state legislation that allowed Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to convert into a nonprofit mutual health insurer. The fund will receive $1.56 billion over 18 years from BCBS.

“That money,” explained Hillegonds, “is going to support efforts to improve the health and wellness of Michigan children and seniors, while reducing costs, through the funding of programs throughout Michigan. We place a significant focus on issues of infant mortality, behavioral health, healthy aging, wellness and fitness programs, access to healthy food, technology enhancements, health-related transportation needs and foodborne illness prevention,” he said.

Hillegonds brings a wealth of experience to the MHEF table. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and from 1979 to 1996, served in the Michigan House of Representatives and was also Speaker of the House.
In 1997, he was named CEO of Detroit Renaissance, a policy and economic development organization of Southeast Michigan corporate CEOs. From 2005 until his retirement in 2014, Hillegonds was DTE’s senior vice president of corporate affairs.
Noting his overwhelming respect and support for foundations throughout Michigan, Hillegonds reported that during MHEF’s 2015 and 2016 grant cycle, 29 foundations and numerous nonprofit organizations received millions of dollars in grants from the fund and that giving trend is expected to continue.

McKeever told the InFocus attendees that The William Davidson Foundation is in the midst of some longer-term planning, but has two primary goals in its funding efforts: preserving and enhancing Jewish identity and tradition in the U.S. and Israel, with a special interest in Southeast Michigan; and strengthening and revitalizing the Southeast Michigan region. The foundation’s namesake - William Davidson - was president, chairman and CEO of Guardian Industries, one of the world's largest manufacturers of architectural and automotive glass. He was also owner of several North American professional sports teams, including the Detroit Pistons.

“The areas that Mr. Davidson was passionate will continue to be at the heart of our mission and work,” McKeever said. “With so much going for Detroit right now, we believe there is an especially unique opportunity for us to make a significant impact on the lives of many people here.”
McKeever noted that the foundation’s interested in building strong partnerships with other funders in the region and across the issue areas in which it works. 

"I have been so impressed by the Davidson family’s ambitions – not just what they hope to achieve, but how they want to go about it,” he shared.  “We have more work to do to build the team and flesh out our strategies, but fundamentally we are an organization that recognizes the fun, joyful, and inspiring exchange of ideas and sense of meaning that can come when people work in close relationships with one another.”

A graduate of Harvard University, McKeever earned an MPA as a Reynolds Foundation Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is a former Echoing Green fellow and has served or serves on boards and committees for Alliance Magazine, Global Philanthropy Forum, the Council on Foundations and the Harvard College National Advisory Board for Public Service.

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