Philanthropy Impact

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William S. White: Making connections, building communities

Impacting investing: trends, issues and capabilities

William S. White is chairman, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foun
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William S. White is chairman, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a private, grantmaking foundation based in Flint, Michigan. The Foundation funds in four programme areas: civil society, environment, Flint area, and Pathways Out of Poverty. White is the just announced winner of a Special Beacon Award for Services to UK Community Philanthropy, presented jointly by Community Foundation Network and Beacon Award. As a community champion Philanthropy UK asked for his vews on how communities are built and sustained.

Philanthropy UK (P-UK): As you may know, ‘community’ is very much at the centre of the UK’s government ideological ‘Big Society’ concept, which proposes the ‘rolling back’ of the state and the ‘empowerment’ of the individual to take greater responsibility for themselves and their communities. As a community champion yourself, in your experience what are the key factors needed to create a thriving community?

William S. White (WSW): I think there are several important elements – and I cite these based, in part, on the experience we’ve had in the Mott Foundation’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, where there have been some encouraging signs of renewal in the past few years.

First, you need leadership. Ideally, that would come from several sectors: the business community, the non-profit community, government, philanthropy and individual citizens. In Flint, we also have a number of key institutions – among them several colleges and a vibrant cultural center – that I often refer to as “centers of strength,” which help enrich and enliven the community.

Second, I think you need an atmosphere that is open to partnerships. Clearly, more can be accomplished through partnership than through individual effort. That’s why it is so important not only for people to be willing to work together, but also to have people in leadership positions who have the desire and the ability to build partnerships.

Third, you need adequate resources – and by that I don’t mean only money. You also need people, talent and skills, plus a willingness to apply energy and elbow-grease to the task at hand.

Finally, I think you always need a few risk-takers. It’s very helpful if someone – or some group – is willing to be the “pioneer,” to go first and blaze the trails. That often is enough to get others to come in, which can create real synergy. But obviously, not everyone has the resources, the patience – or the stomach – to take a gamble. 

P-UK: What are the barriers that stand in the way of building and sustaining community?

WSW: When you lack many of the factors I mentioned (above), it certainly becomes more difficult to build and sustain a sense of community. Moreover, a true community requires a sense of connectedness. So when people build walls – whether real or imagined – when there are sharp divisions among people, there can be no true community. Cohesive communities emerge when people work in partnership with each other and with various organisations and institutions. From my perspective, partnerships and civic engagement are really what undergird a sense of community.  

P-UK: How do you believe disaffected people can be re-engaged with their communities?

WSW: In the US, there has long been talk about people being apathetic and uninterested in civic participation. And although it may well be true that membership in traditional service clubs or fraternal and volunteer organisations isn’t what it used to be, I’m not convinced that means people are disengaged. Maybe they are just moving to a new social/civic space.

Look at the phenomenal number of people who are connecting via social networking sites on the internet. People my age may prefer more direct contact with each other, but a whole generation is establishing a form of community online.

But if you are asking, how can we get people more involved in their local community, I think it starts when people begin to believe it is possible to create change. And that often happens when people are able to actually institute a change. Even small changes can become contagious, leading to more changes that can eventually help re-energise a community.

So we have to help create opportunities for people to reconnect with each other through projects and activities they choose – and they care about.  

And, of course, going back to your first question, strong, effective leadership that values partnerships can help re-engage people who are uninvolved or simply standing on the sidelines, waiting.

P-UK: There is much talk in the UK that private funding will be expected to fill the gap left by severe government cuts as it grapples with a huge deficit. In principle, should philanthropy pay for the things government can no longer afford?

WSW: I’ve been in meetings with my counterparts from other US foundations recently who are struggling, as we are at Mott, with how to find a balance between using our philanthropic dollars to support innovation or trying to meet basic human needs that are going unmet because of the harsh economic times. Do we invest in innovative education and job training programmes in various communities nationally? Or do we ensure adequate police protection and wholesome recreational opportunities in our home community? These are the tough, tough choices we are facing today.

Still, I don’t believe it’s possible for private funding alone to meet all the needs out there. But I think one thing we as philanthropists can do is take a thoughtful look around us to see where we could have a significant impact.

It may sound trite but we really do need to work with others. We need all sectors rowing together – government, business and the nonprofit sector, which includes private philanthropy – because the job is too huge for any one of us to go it alone.

William S.White is winner of a special award for services to UK Community Philanthropy. Read more...