The Fixers: Bankrolling Detroit's turnaround
Mariam Noland raised $100 million for a Detroit business development program and will give out another $40 million this year. But It is enough to put the city back on track?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sometimes you need a little starter cash to get things going.
Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, took that idea to a whole new level.
Nolan and her organization raised $100 million for Detroit's New Economy Initiative, which aims to diversify the area's businesses away from the automobile industry.
The money doesn't just stop with the New Economy Initiative. The community foundation uses big sums of money from foundations, donors and a healthy endowment to fund a variety of public initiatives around the Detroit area. This year they'll give out over $40 million.
"Anything can get done," said Noland, who started her career in college admissions offices before getting a mid-level position at a sister community foundation in Cleveland over 25 years ago. "My job is to figure out who can do it, and where to get the money."
The New Economy Initiative is striving to diversify the area's current auto-reliant business mix to one that incorporates information technology, biotech, advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, and a host of other emerging industries.
New Economy was also a major sponsor behind a recent entrepreneur training workshop in Detroit, helping Detroiters put themselves to work.
The Community Foundation for South East Michigan is part of a national network of community foundations that all work on community development.
Other recent initiatives undertaken by Detroit's community foundation include an effort to convert some of the city's vast tracts of vacant land to greenways. There's now over 100 miles of greenway trails snaking around southeast Michigan.
The foundation has also worked on programs addressing childhood obesity and helped local arts organizations build long-lasting fundraising programs in what is undoubtedly a challenging environment to raise money.
"It's about money, but it's also about knowledge," said Noland. "Once the money is used you want people to be better able to do whatever it is they need to do."
Raising money in Michigan is a challenge itself, said Noland. Many people that make it big in Detroit often leave the area for warmer weather, and bring their money with them. Keeping that money in Detroit is one of the group's challenges.
Going forward, Noland said journalism is one area her group may focus on. She said the cutbacks at struggling news outfits is leading to less information for the community, information that's vital for people to make good decisions. Funding non-profit news agencies might be something the foundation would do, although no plans have been made yet.
Working to raise money doesn't come without it's odd stories.
One gentleman, who appeared homeless, would come into the foundation on a regular basis saying he wanted to start a fund, as Noland tells it.
The staff would give him food or make sure he was ok, but no one really took him seriously. Finally they contacted his lawyer, who told them to make preparations for a fund. When the man died they found out that he was a former cab driver who had evidently been quite frugal with his earnings. He left a six-figure endowment to help the homeless.
One donor gave $1 million with the stipulation that the grants be chosen by high school students. Another sent in a dollar every three months to atone for a shoplifting incident as a young girl that had apparently been weighing on her conscience.
Getting Detroiters to give is one thing. Getting them to change their mind set is another.
Noland is confident Detroit can grow in the next 5 years, but she said it will take strong local political leadership and a recovering national economy to do it.
But like many in Detroit, she said moving the city from its old way of thinking is key to putting it on track to compete in the 21st century economy.