From Zero to Sixty: One Foundation’s Start-Up Story

Darin McKeever

A considerable number of philanthropists and foundations seem to be trying to get their philanthropic vehicles “from zero to sixty” these days.

With one of the largest wealth transfers in history underway and a new “golden age” of philanthropy anticipated, families and founding donors are looking for ways to accelerate the impact of their giving. That’s why the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations, is timely — and why we at the William Davidson Foundation were pleased to share some of our own insights and lessons learned with CEP’s research team for the study.

After all, here in Motor City, we know something about going from zero to sixty.

As owner of the Detroit Pistons and builder of a global glass manufacturing business, Mr. William “Bill” Davidson led a generous life. He made transformative gifts to advance Jewish education, enhance Detroit parks, strengthen science education in Israel, and support the next generation of leaders in a variety of fields. When Mr. Davidson died in 2009, he left a lasting imprint and a foundation which has grown to be among the largest in the state of Michigan.

After his passing, Mr. Davidson’s family wanted to build a “world-class” foundation that would extend the legacy of its entrepreneurial founder and contribute to the vitality of Southeast Michigan, Israel, and the Jewish community. When I first met members of Mr. Davidson’s family in 2014, their ambition was energizing, and their passion for impact palpable. Most impressive to me was that several family members serving on the Foundation’s board had become essentially full-time grantmakers themselves as they took the organization from zero — literally, no grants were made in 2010 — to giving away tens of millions of dollars.

Taking a hands-on approach (with some important assists from philanthropic advisors), the family gained deep insights into the craft of giving. Ultimately, it was this experience that led them to conclude that to achieve their hope of building a world-class foundation, they had to take steps to professionalize, beginning with hiring a chief financial officer in 2014. After I joined the Foundation in 2015, I spent many hours getting to know the family and coming to understand more fully what they had in mind when they used the term “world-class.”

Over time, I came to see the Davidson family’s vision of a world-class foundation as involving what I have termed an “all-in” style of philanthropy: one that is inspired, intentional, informed, and inclusive. We strive to be inspired by Mr. Davidson’s legacy, intentional about the use of our assets, deeply informed about the fields and organizations in which we invest, and inclusive in our approach to our work with grantees and partners.

For me, these four characteristics were at the heart of a dashboard of qualitative gauges against which I have roughly measured the process of professionalizing — a set of speedometers to track our acceleration and guide how we work.

  • To get more inspired, for example, we intentionally collected and reviewed archival footage, photos, and speeches of Mr. Davidson. We invited his friends, family, and business partners to share stories about “Mr. D” with our growing staff, few of whom (including myself) had ever met him sadly.
  • To grow more intentional, we paused our grantmaking and went through an intensive period of planning and reflection in 2016. That work resulted in a small set of focus areas and strategies, which now continue to be refined and sharpened through periodic portfolio reviews.
  • To get more informed, in just a few short years, we built a team of 20 professionals and advisors working across Southeast Michigan and Israel. These individuals complement and enhance the already considerable expertise of our board of family members, who remain highly engaged in the work of the Foundation.
  • And finally, to be inclusive with our grantees and partners, we provided periodic updates and feedback opportunities so that they could both better understand how we were evolving and share their experiences and insights with us. (Full disclosure: we commissioned CEP to conduct two Grantee Perception Reports).

This year, the Foundation will make roughly $60 million in grant payments. So in a very tangible sense, we have indeed accelerated from zero to sixty.

Jeffrey Solomon, former president of Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, once said, “If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.” A corollary might be: “If you’ve seen one foundation get started, you’ve seen one foundation get started.” Specific contexts matter significantly, and choices for one family or founding donor may be inadequate or inappropriate for another.

That said, I still think it is a worthy endeavor to try to study and share these stories, as CEP has now done with its Greater Good report. And whether you are a philanthropic advisor, foundation professional, or donor, I hope that the four building blocks of our “all-in” framework may be as useful to you as it continues to be for us.

Darin McKeever is president & CEO of the William Davidson Foundation. Follow Darin on Twitter at @DarinMcKeever and on LinkedIn.

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