We Don’t Give Up: Mott Plays the Long Game on Clean Water in Flint and Beyond

Linda Parton/shutterstock

Linda Parton/shutterstock

It’s becoming harder to take clean, potable water for granted in the U.S., especially with the Trump administration’s rollback of portions of the federal Clean Water Act, a core protection for American waterways. More philanthropists are now engaging in freshwater giving; a set of key funders and collaborative efforts has emerged in recent years to move water systems from a niche topic into a major philanthropic priority that addresses systemic problems.

Fresh water and drinking water issues and related funding areas include pollution, degrading infrastructure, population growth, waste and inefficiency, climate change and drought, environmental health and justice, and others. A few years ago, the contamination of Flint’s water sounded an alarm that many parts of the country with old water infrastructures were in danger. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, established by a GM director and vice president, has been a stalwart funder of water stewardship for decades, from the Great Lakes, which account for one-fifth of the surface freshwater on the planet, and its nearby hometown of Flint, to the many crucial rivers of the Southeast.

During the Flint water crisis, and dating back to 1926, the Mott Foundation has invested heavily in Flint, surpassing the $1 billion mark in giving to the region in 2017. This constitutes about one-third of its entire grantmaking. In 2016, it committed $100 million to address Flint’s water crisis, with Carnegie, Ford, Kresge, Robert Wood Johnson, W.K. Kellogg and other funders committing another about $25 million. Along with directly helping residents get clean water, it also prioritized other issues like education, the economy, family health, community engagement and shoring up the nonprofit sector. This broad approach makes sense, given that Flint’s social and economic challenges preceded, contributed to, and continued beyond the tainting of its tap water. The umbrella of programming also draws on several of Mott’s areas of expertise; it gives locally, nationally and internationally to protect the environment, strengthen civil society, and support education.

During the last 20 years, Mott has also been grantmaking to restore and protect freshwater resources in the Southeastern United States. But in 2018, it ended this line of funding in order to better focus its resources closer to home, on the Great Lakes and the region’s ongoing drinking water struggles. This decision underlines the fact that despite substantial investments by Mott and others, there is still much left to be done in the foundation’s backyard. But what did Mott accomplish in two decades with Southeast rivers and communities? And how has it continued to address water issues in mid-Michigan?

Freshwater Stewardship and Movement-Building in the Southeast

The Mott Foundation chose to start grantmaking to protect waters in the Southeast in the late 1990s, in part because it's a biologically diverse area with world-class rivers. And the region was going through a population and construction surge, which led to increased water use, river erosion and sediment. Also, several major hydropower dams were coming up for licensing renewal, offering an opening for Mott grantees to contribute to the formation of federal river policies.

The Mott Foundation wanted to support a stronger regulatory environment and felt local advocacy groups lacked capacity. It based the Southeast programs on its previous freshwater grantmaking experience in the Great Lakes region. During its two-decade commitment in the Southeast, it supported diverse water-management and advocacy efforts, and gave $35 million to 50 groups in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Its grantees fueled local buy-in and community power and contributed to multiple shifts in water stewardship policies.

One of Mott’s grantees, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, helped persuade a chemical company to stop using mercury, which kept the toxin out of local waters. Other grantees worked to develop a new operating license for hydropower dams on the Catawba-Wateree River, which flows through the Carolinas. The dams now operate in a manner that restores wildlife habitat, improves streamflow and creates recreational opportunities. Sam Passmore, director of the foundation’s environment program, wrote, “Because we helped our grantees build their organizational strength, they will continue their efforts for years to come—even though we have exited the region.”

The Georgia Water Coalition, which was established in 2002 with funding from Mott and the Georgia-based Sapelo Foundation, is an influential group that grew and flourished with sustained funding from Mott. It successfully brought together diverse community stakeholders with a shared goal of protecting local water and helped develop Georgia’s first statewide water management plan.

The number of groups in the Georgia Water Coalition rose from four in 2002 to 256 in 2018, and its membership consists of conservationists, home and business owners, farmers, civic groups, religious organizations, lake associations and others. Passmore tells us it “united people around the principle that protecting water resources is in everyone’s interest and used that message to bring about change.”

“The Georgia Water Coalition and its leaders are very inclusive; they don’t view management of the state’s water resources as a liberal or conservative issue, or one that’s limited to rural or urban areas,” he says. Bringing people with different backgrounds and agendas together is essential when addressing an issue as universally important as clean water. Ridgway White, Mott president and CEO, says partnership is a “guiding principle for all of Mott’s grantmaking,” including in Flint, where it now continues its work as the Southeast water funding chapter closes.

Funding Community Recovery and Empowerment in Flint

In 2014, Flint’s water supply was switched to the Flint River to save money. Water that was not properly treated corroded old pipes, and high levels of lead and dangerous bacteria entered the drinking water of a majority-black city with a 40 percent poverty rate. The city denied and prolonged the problem, children were poisoned, and people died from Legionnaires’ disease. Government officials were criminally charged—some pled guilty, and investigations are ongoing. Flint received hundreds of millions in public and private assistance, and has replaced many service lines. Its lead levels now test below the federal action level and Michigan has the strictest water standard in the nation. But the damage to public health persists, and as is now oft said, community trust for the government corroded like the city’s old pipes.

When high levels of lead exposure among Flint’s children was revealed in September 2015, Mott gave $100,000 to provide residents with home water filters and pledged $4 million to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system, which bolstered parallel funding from the city and state. The foundation has now granted more than $93.5 million of the $100 million it committed to Flint’s broad water and community needs, in line with its original multi-sector plan. A total of $5 million has gone to drinking water, with the remaining $88.5 million spread between education (where more than half of the funds were directed), the economy, family health, nonprofits and community engagement.

As we’ve reported, it’s important during and after a crisis or disaster for funders to listen to and bolster the work of nonprofits on the ground and to engage community members in building sustainable solutions. This is particularly important in an area like Flint, where communities of color have been under-resourced, red-lined, and sidelined.

“Looking at how you unravel and undo inequality is a major theme that has to run throughout all of the [funding areas] being targeted… race and class dynamics have a lot to do with why Flint looks like it looks, and why it looked like it looked before the water crisis,” environmental author and thought-leader Robert Bullard, dean of Texas Southern University’s public affairs school, previously told Inside Philanthropy.

A 2017 Michigan Civil Rights Commission report highlighted segregated housing and education, a dearth of environmental justice for Flint residents, and the flawed structure of Michigan’s emergency manager law as key contributing factors to the water crisis. It concluded “a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions and consequences in Flint that would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids.”

Over the years, in Michigan and beyond, Mott has supported groups addressing racial issues and solutions like representation in media, access to after-school programs, anti-racism initiatives by community foundations, pathways to graduation for black and Latino students, professional development for black people in philanthropy, investigations of national racial segregation and poverty, and more. But race is not an explicit focus of its response to the water crisis. If it chose to prioritize racial equity in this branch of its giving, Mott could support programming relating to the Civil Rights Commission’s recommendations, such as implicit bias training for government officials and others in positions of power. It could purposefully prioritize black-led community groups and efforts. The foundation is running community conversations about quality of life in Flint in the fall of 2019, and race could be integrated as a central topic.

In the years since the water was contaminated, the foundation has invested significantly in empowering local organizations and Flint residents to play an active role in managing water safety in their communities. It has helped the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and Genesee Health System operate community help centers in Flint, which offer a “one-stop-shop” for bottled water and filters, fresh food access and other services. It funded the United Way of Genesee County’s provision of filters and the Genesee County Habitat for Humanity’s work. Mott backed the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, established by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which is advised by local health centers and the United Way. In the spring of 2019, the foundation stated that grantees are trying to “rebuild the Flint community’s trust of water monitoring programs” by training and working with local teens to collect water samples and teach residents about appropriate filter usage.

And like other prominent water funders such as Bechtel and Pisces, Mott funds integrated water management, a strategy that aims to better connect communities with the authorities who oversee drinking water, stormwater and wastewater. These branches of water systems are often managed separately in municipalities, which can be inefficient and even dangerous when interagency communication and oversight are lacking.

“Integrated water management unites utilities with community groups, as well as environmental and agricultural interests,” said Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance, a Mott grantee. “Bringing community groups into the conversation, and ensuring utilities are good community partners in project design and contracting phases, can benefit cities across the country, including Flint… The Flint water crisis [helped] people realize that public engagement is required to ensure safe, affordable and efficient water systems.”

Passmore says about two-dozen Mott grantees are currently working to inform the development of new funding mechanisms that can ensure all residents of Flint and other Great Lakes cities have access to safe, affordable water. He says, “Our grantees and partners don’t have all the solutions yet. Solving it will take time and new ways of thinking about longstanding challenges.” One idea under exploration is a water affordability program, which could be similar to an income-based model in Philadelphia, or that could mimic the federal Home Energy Assistance Program.

Mott also gave money to the City of Flint to support the development of its action plan to replace water service lines. Among Mott’s many efforts in Flint, White says its most important accomplishment to date was the swift $4 million grant in 2015 to help Flint reconnect to Detroit’s water system. He says the foundation couldn’t sit idly by “while the children of Flint were being harmed.”

Mott has given more than $58 million to support education in Flint as part of its $100 million response to the water crisis. These funds have established new early childhood education centers and after-school programs, supported the Flint school district in delivering in-school and community-based educational programs, and backed other projects. Given the serious consequences of childhood lead exposure, this focus on youth makes sense.

Mott also spent $19.8 million on economic revitalization efforts like riverfront restoration in Flint’s downtown district, programs addressing urban vacancy and abandonment, job training and small business support. Mott funds mental health services, a community fitness center, pollution reduction, and more; when it comes to Flint, it’s safe to say the foundation is all-in. This multi-pronged, long-term response goes well beyond disaster relief to promoting community resilience and investing in Flint’s future. As Bullard said at the outset, “It’s very important that this comprehensive approach is being taken… and to look at this from a long-term standpoint, [knowing] that there is no quick fix or quick solution.”

The Scope of Mott’s Clean Water Funding In Flint and Beyond

Besides connecting and partnering with local communities, philanthropies have to step back and take a bird’s-eye view of the topics their grantees are addressing. As we’ve covered, it’s important for funders to realize that siloed, place-based philanthropy has its limits in solving widespread issues, and that broader, systemic solutions may also be needed. We know most problems do not develop in a vacuum, and are part of a web of interrelated issues that replicate, evolve and compound across states, nations, and often countries. Flint’s many challenges, like racial segregation, exclusionary zoning practices, post-industrial decline, disinvestment, fallout from the 2008 recession, and aging infrastructure extend well beyond the city limits.

To fuel systemic change, Mott has given millions over recent decades to influence state and national policies. White says Mott has worked with local, regional and national nonprofits and government agencies to develop both rapid and long-term responses to the water crisis. “Some of those organizations have different perspectives, but they’re all committed to helping Flint recover and rise from the [crisis],” he says.

In addition to local organizations, Mott has funded regional groups like Freshwater Future, the St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and the Alliance for the Great Lakes, among others. It has backed national groups addressing freshwater issues and policies like American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation and the River Network. It funds organizations that work across the country to build the capacity of nonprofits and individuals working to preserve freshwater ecosystems, as well, like the Institute for Conservation Leadership and the Environmental Leadership Program.

One question that Mott has faced in its work on water issues is how far private philanthropy should go to address the failings of public systems—a dilemma that’s likely to grow for many funders in an era of crumbling infrastructure and budgetary shortfalls. “Over the years, Mott has sometimes made grants in Flint for services that typically would be considered the realm of government,” White says. In 2016, he warned of philanthropy taking on too much responsibility for problems that extend beyond its domain and exceed its capacity. He said, “Government fault demands a government fix.” The appropriate scope of philanthropy’s power has long been a highly contested topic, and is receiving ever-more attention from people within and adjacent to the field.

White still says philanthropy “cannot and should not be expected to replace public funding streams,” but that it can “help to forge the [public-private] partnerships that are so important to addressing major problems.” He says when Mott steps into public realms, it’s because the foundation recognizes “that the loss of services in a city already challenged by economic hardship would further diminish quality of life and undermine the community’s ability to chart its own future.”

We’ve pointed out that during Mott’s 90-plus years of grantmaking, progress in Flint has flatlined in some regards, and in areas like water safety and community health, even reversed. But we’ve also acknowledged the foundation’s loyal, long-term commitment and its savvy in looking and working beyond its hometown. In a community with the pervasive challenges of Flint, the big picture is also about how much worse things would have been without the Mott Foundation’s help as about whether the community’s problems are yet fully solved. And now that the Southeast funding programs have wrapped up, Mott will give even more attention to its hometown.

The significant decrease in lead levels in city water is an important success for Flint. In 2018, White acknowledged that Flint parents still fear the dangers and long-term effects of lead exposure, and that “a lack of trust in government likely will be the wound that takes longest to heal.” On the upside, he said families have obtained services to mitigate lead impacts, more children can now access improved educational experiences, “and we’re seeing new sparks that could reignite the economic revitalization that was emerging before the crisis hit.”

In the summer of 2019, Mott created a publication and related website called “Focus on Flint,” which includes findings from its survey of 900 Flint residents “regarding top priorities for improving quality of life in the city.” It sent the publication to every mailing address in Flint. Quality of life was rated 2.5 stars out of five by survey recipients. The issue of water was given a rating of 1.8 stars. Water-related areas targeted for improvement include the cost of water service, pipe replacement progress and proper water filter usage—areas Mott’s funding is already addressing. Mott will follow up in the coming months by inviting members of the community to participate in more community conversations about local life and improvement efforts.

White says, “We want to hear the perspectives of as many community members as possible, so we can think about how our local grantmaking can best help to meet community needs.”

White wrote that keeping up momentum in Flint with multi-faceted, long-term funding affirms that “even in times of crisis, our town is ‘Flint Strong.’” As one survey participant told the foundation, the best part of living in Flint is that “the people who live here, they don’t give up.”