Of Cars and Communities

Philanthropy411 is currently covering the Fall Conference for Community Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Nick Deychakiwsky, Program Officer at The Mott Foundation.

By Nick Deychakiwsky

Last night I got a macho ego boost when I compared my NASCAR race car simulator best lap time with COF staffer Will Heaton who is originally from North Carolina and a self-described NASCAR fanatic.  When I showed him my best lap time, which was a couple tenths of a second better than his, he jokingly humphed, “Well, you’re from Michigan!”  Yes indeed – though I still proudly hang on to my Cleveland roots.  And while I think Ohio and Michigan really aren’t that different (sorry, OSU and U of M fans), in the 7 years I’ve been living in southeast Michigan I really do notice the car culture.  Especially when driving through all the vacant land in Detroit or in Flint (think about that for a sec).  And after the latest downsizing, sure feels like there is a love-hate relationship between the auto industry and the people of Michigan.

Which is why Steve Gunderson’s speech Tuesday morning comparing community foundations to auto dealerships initially struck me as, well, unusual (but maybe, upon reflection, not so unusual given the previous night’s reception at NASCAR).  In his Midwestern homey style, Steve traced his family history from grandfather farmer doing car repairs to four brothers as auto dealers and then drew out lessons of success applicable to both industries:  1) reputation matters; 2) quality matters; 3) service is 24/7; 4) speed is important; and 5) location matters.  A bit strange, but not stretched, this comparison…..It rang true, the idea that long-term success is all about caring and responsiveness.

The Midwest Community Foundations’ Ventures (MCFV), The Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (TFN) and the C.S. Mott Foundation have been talking about how we might work together to help community foundations in small and mid-sized ‘auto cities’ better contribute to the economic revitalization of their communities, in a way that addresses three Es – not just Economy, but Equity and Environment as well.  And in a way that brings in everyday community residents into the process, particularly those that are in greatest need.  This resonates a lot with what I’ve been hearing over and over in practically every session I’ve been in at this conference so far – the imperative of engaging citizens for community foundations to really be community leaders.  We’re not yet sure what will come of this, but it promises to be a fun ride.