A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Featured Member: The McGregor Fund

June 2017

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At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.

Grounded in the lived examples of Tracy and Katherine McGregor, the McGregor Fund works to support and strengthen a safety net of essential resources and opportunities for vulnerable members of our community, particularly those experiencing sustained and concentrated poverty. Kate Levin Markel, President of the McGregor Fund, spoke with us about the Fund's reprioritization of its grantmaking framework and how homelessness and intersecting issues are addressed under this new framework.  

1. We appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about the McGregor Fund and its involvement in the Detroit area. Could you explain a little bit about what McGregor Fund does and in what capacity it is involved in homelessness issues?

The McGregor Fund was founded in 1925 by Tracy and Katherine McGregor. It was founded “to relieve the misfortunes and promote the well being of humankind”. The McGregors were concerned about the needs of the most vulnerable at the turn of the century when Detroit was growing and many were being left behind. They were generous financially and very hands-on in the community. Tracy ran an institute for homeless men, while Katherine helped found and support an orphanage.

We’ve granted $242 million since our founding and focus on Detroit and the tri-county area, which includes the counties of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne. Our region has a robust philanthropic sector, but no other foundation is exclusively focused on funding a safety net of essential resources for our most vulnerable citizens.

The McGregor Fund has long supported homelessness by providing annual operating grants to high capacity homelessness organizations as well as project-based grants to a wider variety of quality providers.

2. McGregor Fund recently underwent a reassessment/reprioritization of its grantmaking framework. How did this come about and why was this was important for your work and the foundation’s mission?

After a number of staff and leadership transitions at the Fund, including my promotion to President in April 2015, there was consensus among Trustees and staff that it was the right time to take a step back, reconnect with our mission and founders, acknowledge how the community and philanthropy had changed, and interpret our mission in today’s context.  We started and completed our strategic refresh over the course of 2016.

The process acknowledged the arrival of some newer and larger foundations. The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation launched as a “spend down” foundation required to spend $1.2 billion over 20 years. Though making grants for some time, the William Davidson Foundation began scaling their grantmaking, hired more staff, committed to increasing investment, and reprioritized their grantmaking focus.   Additional new family foundations have also emerged in recent years, while other national foundations have increased their investments in Detroit. 

This changing philanthropic landscape allowed us to reflect on our legacy. We asked ourselves: “What would our founders do? If they saw the needs of our community as they exist today, how would they spend their time and money?” 

With that as our guide, we rather quickly landed on a refocused grantmaking framework that prioritizes:

We made the difficult decision to phase out annual general operating grants for the region’s major arts and culture institutions, although we expect some will come to us over time with opportunities that align with our refocused priorities.

A goal of the strategic refresh was to concentrate our limited resources on work most core to our mission and legacy.  Cutting across our priorities, there is a now a clear focus on poverty alleviation with emphasis on meeting the needs of vulnerable teens and adults.  This sets us apart from other area foundations who either have a broader focus or emphasize the needs of younger children.

3. Who are some of your priority populations? How are these populations addressed within your giving towards homelessness initiatives?

As mentioned, our priority populations are vulnerable adults and teens, including disconnected youth (those not working and not in school). Though touched by all our grantmaking priorities, the Skill Building category seeks, among other things, opportunities to reconnect youth to education and employment.  It will also support teens in poverty who are in school but may require extra support to make it to high school graduation, into college, and to college graduation.

We made a grant to Wayne State University last summer, for example. The university came to us to support two separate, on-campus initiatives supporting students experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. We were eager to support these initiatives and also asked them to consider developing a campus-wide strategy to address students’ needs in a coordinated way. They agreed and immediately began assessing need, connecting programs and services to each other, and increasing accessibility.  An early by-product is the recent opening of The W, a campus food pantry.

This grant and the planning process it spurred offer insights about young people who face housing insecurity and poverty when they are planning for their future.  When basic needs are not met, young adults have to juggle the immediate need to work against investing time and money into college or other education and training.  Unfortunately, without the right kind of support, vulnerable young adults have a difficult time finishing their education.   We look forward to further exploring the connections between basic needs and skill building as our new grantmaking expands the traditional notion of a safety net. 

4. Outside of the Basic Needs category, how else are you addressing homelessness needs in Detroit?

Within our new grantmaking framework, we have a priority called “Recovery & Restoration.” This priority is different from Basic Needs because Recovery & Restoration is focused on long-term needs rather than immediate or short-term needs.  It recognizes the links between poverty, trauma and violence. It supports agencies working in domestic violence, substance abuse recovery, juvenile justice, gang prevention, and more. Without access to these high quality providers, homeless individuals facing such barriers have a particularly difficult time moving forward in their lives.

For example, we recently made a grant to Mariners Inn, a substance abuse recovery housing agency working with men experiencing homelessness. It provides recovery support in a continuum of residential settings including emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. As HUD phases out support for transitional housing, Mariners Inn faced a difficult dilemma.  Without stable, dedicated revenue, how would they continue to offer a continuum of housing options that includes something transitional to support their clients?  Mariners Inn faced the added pressure of being located in the heart of the City’s quickly gentrifying Downtown/Midtown area.

Mariners Inn took a bold step by securing a Medicaid contract from the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority to provide “recovery housing”.  Our two-year grant supports their start-up by covering costs not otherwise recoverable and providing working capital while the agency transitions to a reimbursement system. With this grant, Mariners Inn has reoriented its staff, practice and service delivery system from one of a housing-focused model to a recovery-centered, behavioral health approach. While there’s been a lot said about the possibility of integrating health and housing resources for vulnerable populations, this is a solid example of how Medicaid can be used in a strategic and innovative way to help homeless men through a successful recovery process.

5. On your website, you talk about “Connected Systems”. How does this come into play in your grantmaking?

Supporting Connected Systems is an important part of our grantmaking. It reinforces our other grant priorities by connecting different systems to each other and improving the overall system of supports for those in poverty.  We do not solicit inquires, rather, we proactively identify funding opportunities with the potential to strengthen the social safety net.  We are interested in supporting activities that:

  • Transform public and private systems impacting grantees and those served
  • Leverage public and private support for proven and promising practices
  • Increase civic and political will and investment
  • Use data to improve system performance
  • Build leadership in backbone organizations that lead initiatives, guide strategy, align activities, measure progress, and streamline collaboration

For example, we’ve made grants to Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) to provide technical assistance to the Detroit CoC for work on preventing and ending homelessness in key populations. We also provided a capacity grant to the Homelessness Action Network of Detroit to assist with the HMIS data integration into the CoC.

Building the capacity of our CoC is about more than just service delivery. It is about stronger connections between agencies, using data, and understanding and implementing best practices in the field. These grants move the whole eco-system of agencies forward together in meeting system goals.

6. Funders Together is exploring employment and economic security as an important part of ending homelessness through our employment community of practice. Can you talk a little bit about the McGregor Fund’s role in helping those facing high barriers to getting into the workforce?

Employment is part of our Skill Building priority, which is the newest area of work for the McGregor Fund.  Like our founders, we understand that employment can be a vital part of ending homelessness.  Since this is new to us, we have been getting to know the publicly funded workforce system, specifically whether and how it is addressing the needs of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

The system is highly fragmented, oriented to meet the needs of employers (and not effectively), and not designed to meet the needs of individuals without a high school diploma or GED, let alone those with multiple barriers to employment.  We’ve come to appreciate that many, including Mayor Duggan, local business leaders, and funders, acknowledge the problems and are stepping up to reconstruct the workforce system.  This as an opportunity for the Fund, as a safety net funder, to connect policymakers and leaders to what we know about the unique circumstances of vulnerable individuals and the providers that serve them, and how a reconstructed workforce system might be designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment.

At the same time, we are actively looking to fund high-touch, highly transformational work readiness programs.  A great example is The Greening of Detroit’s Detroit Conservation Corps, which prepares disconnected youth and returning citizens for jobs in green infrastructure, places them in quality jobs, provides retention support, and offers advanced training and credentialing after graduation to facilitate career advancement.

7. What role does advocacy play at the McGregor Fund?

The McGregor Fund regularly advocates on matters directly related to specific grants or grantees.  Because of our unique safety net focus, Fund staff are also often called upon to share insights and offer perspective about the system of support that is in place for the region’s vulnerable citizens.  As changes in Washington impact our local safety net, we will embrace opportunities for more proactive leadership and advocacy.

8. How can groups like Funders Together support the work of foundations like yours?

The McGregor Fund looks forward to participating in the FTTEH employment community of practice, Foundations for Employment and Housing. Since we expanded our focus to work readiness, we’ve been looking forward to connecting with other funders across the country who have moved or are moving in a similar direction.  We hope the community of practice will be a sounding board for funders and give all of us an opportunity to learn from each other.

We also hope Funders Together can remain an informed ally, helping all of us navigate the federal political environment, specifically around the budget. We are very concerned about the future of the federal budget and the assumption that philanthropy will be “making up the difference” as public safety net funds are reduced. It would be a great help for Funders Together to continue to help funders understand exactly what is being proposed in Washington and the implications, and also offer multiple platforms, including but not limited to convenings, for funders to share what they are doing in their communities to prepare. 

The McGregor Fund has been a member of Funders Together since 2010. Take a look at our other members here and our entire network here.

Interested in past featured member profiles? Check out our archive here.


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