Sometimes a philanthropic foundation moves forward, like a toy train, car after car, winding along the track. So hints William S. White, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, as he speaks about the five distinct—but connected—eras of the foundation since its establishment in 1926.
“We began pioneering our first grants to community schools in what was then the boom town of Flint, Michigan—also our home town,” says White.
The foundation has a long history of supporting forward-looking, grassroots community-based projects, involving issues from poverty relief to environmental conservation. In addition to its own grantmaking initiatives, it has over the years helped to create, sustain, and spread programs such as Youth Build USA and community education, now more widely known as after-school programs.
The founder of the Mott Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973), made his fortune in the automobile industry. He started his career making wire bicycle wheels at the Weston-Mott Company, owned by his father and uncle. In 1905, having become superintendent of the company, C.S. Mott moved the business to Flint and subsequently merged the firm with Buick. The company was later bought by General Motors through a stock purchase; by 1916, C.S. Mott was a vice president at GM. He served three terms as mayor of Flint, and sat on the GM board of directors until his death in 1973.
White likes to relate a telling story about C.S. Mott. In the very early days of the company, Mott received an order for 500 axles. “I sold Ransom Olds an order for 500 axles,” Mott would say. “I’d never made an automobile axle. So I went home and sweated blood—but I built an unbreakable axle.”
Mott launched the foundation in 1926 and oversaw it, with the help of dedicated staff and directors, for nearly half a century. In 1963, pleased with evidence that the foundation’s efforts were making a difference (especially in the lives of young people), Mott dedicated an additional $195.6 million to the foundation’s endowment. Instantly the Mott Foundation became one of the largest philanthropies in the United States. The foundation currently holds assets worth more than $2.6 billion. It has had only three presidents in its 81-year history—all of them from the Mott family.
The Mott Foundation pioneered a number of giving programs early on. One such program was launched during its second era, 1935-1962, when the organization still considered itself a “general purpose foundation.” This early program took advantage of under-utilized public buildings throughout the city of Flint. The Mott Foundation’s innovation was to make full use of these facilities for all sorts of community activities. The foundation helped introduce various community programs whenever the buildings were otherwise empty. Community rooms were created for the benefit of factory workers, their families, and senior citizens. C.S. Mott himself established scouting groups that met after-hours in the schools.
Through the community school programs, the Mott Foundation discovered principles and commitments that have guided it ever since. One such principle is that young people must be empowered early in life, lest they fall behind and face needless obstacles to personal success and happiness when they become adults. The key to “empowering kids, of preparing them for becoming contributing members of society,” as White explains, “is to establish strong mentoring programs. Every kid needs a strong, caring adult in his or her life.” The Mott Foundation once supported a grantee’s public service ad campaign that contained the tagline, “Helping kids find the hero within.”
“We have always believed that children learn in different ways,” White says, “and we try to find those ways of opening the door to learning. For example, if a kid has trouble with math, but he likes basketball, we try to get him interested in tracking basketball scores. Pretty soon, that kid is reading the newspaper every day.” The community school initiative became an international model. During the foundation’s second era, over 12,000 visitors came to Flint every year to study how these projects worked to empower young people and foster a sense of community.
A special concern for the young continued to guide the Mott Foundation as it entered its third era, from 1963 to 1975. If the second era saw the foundation building local community groups in and around Flint, the third era witnessed a sustained effort to replicate and disperse these organizations across the United States. These efforts included helping organizations like the National Community Education Association expand their activities across the country.
During its fourth era, from 1976 to 1987, the foundation focused on support of neighborhood community organizations, which, with financial help and consulting expertise, became carriers of Mott’s experience with building local empowerment. This period also gave rise to Mott’s commitment to conservation projects. The foundation’s many environmental endeavors include projects to conserve America’s freshwater ecosystem and, in keeping with the foundation’s local focus, to protect Michigan’s natural resources.
The Mott Foundation entered its most recent era in 1988 with an increasingly global orientation. It currently focuses its resources in three major areas: economic and workforce development within its home community and state, statewide networks that are developing policies related to youth after-school programs, and community philanthropy in Central/Eastern Europe, Russia, and South Africa.
Indeed, although the foundation continues to dedicate 37 percent of its annual giving to projects and groups in Michigan, it now devotes 20 percent to international programs. The experience has proven mutually enriching. Mott provides decades’ worth of hands-on know-how to community groups overseas, and receives in return new perspectives and experiences to share with stateside organizations. In all three areas, the foundation hopes to empower citizens to be active contributors to their communities.
White views the evolution of the Mott Foundation as meeting the “new challenges as they engage you.” “Every generation has its own challenges,” he observes. And Mott will continue to meet these new challenges as they emerge. “We are not here for the short haul.”
Russ Barnes is a writer in Rockville, Maryland.