When Rip Rapson, President & CEO of The Kresge Foundation, sat down to discuss the organization’s centennial anniversary, it became clear that the foundation’s journey over the past 100 years has been marked by significant transformation and adaptation. What started as a traditional philanthropic entity has evolved into a dynamic force for social change, deeply rooted in the values of innovation, inclusivity, and long-term community impact.

A Legacy of Transformation
The Kresge Foundation’s history is a testament to its ability to pivot and adapt in response to changing societal needs. Originally founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1924, the foundation began as what Rip described as “pocketbook philanthropy,” focusing on funding public infrastructure projects such as museums, college campuses, and hospitals. Over the decades, this approach shifted towards a more strategic methodology known as the Capital Challenge Grant. “Kresge would essentially put its intention on a table and say, ‘If you’re able to raise from individual donors a certain amount and complete sort of the giving pyramid of your campaign, we’ll match it and get you across the finish line,’” Rip explained.

By the time Rip joined the foundation in 2006, it was clear that a new direction was needed. The traditional model of capital campaigns was no longer sufficient. “When I came to Kresge, we had long conversations about whether it might be possible to sort of think a little bit differently about the role of capital in the nonprofit environment,” Rip recalled. This led to a broader focus on various forms of capital— operating, planning, and endowment—infused with values that emphasized innovation, environmental sustainability, and broader community impact.

Embracing Change for Greater Impact
The foundation’s shift in strategy was not just about the types of grants it provided but also about the underlying values driving its mission. Rip highlighted the importance of moving beyond traditional capital campaigns to support initiatives that aligned with the foundation’s evolving vision. “Each year, we sort of asked: Are there things that we’ve traditionally done that we could probably shed? Are there things that we’ve traditionally done that we should hang on to?” This introspective approach allowed Kresge to become more agile and responsive to contemporary challenges.

One of the pivotal moments in Kresge’s recent history was its involvement in Detroit’s revitalization. Amid the city’s economic downturn and political turmoil, the foundation played a crucial role in stabilizing the community. Rip described the foundation’s strategy during this period as creating “a scaffolding that would hold until things turned around.” This involved a diverse range of initiatives, from land use and transit to arts and culture and commercial corridor revitalization. The goal was to provide stability and create a foundation for future growth.

The Role of Philanthropy in Community Building
Rip’s insights into the foundation’s work underscore the critical role that philanthropy can play in community building and development. He emphasized that philanthropy must go beyond merely providing financial support. “In some ways, philanthropy is society’s social venture capital. And when we make a grant, in some ways we’re not taking any risk whatsoever. If the grant doesn’t work, we weren’t expecting repayment anyway,” Rip stated. This mindset allows the foundation to take bold steps and invest in areas that may seem risky to traditional investors.

One of the standout examples of Kresge’s innovative approach is its work in early childhood development. The foundation has been instrumental in bringing together various stakeholders to address this complex issue. “Early childhood is, in some ways, one of those questions that Detroit has never been able to get its hands around. It’s not really K-12 education. It’s not really maternal healthcare. It’s something in between where you’re trying to get kids ready to enter the schoolhouse door, ready to learn,” Rip explained. By setting the table for these crucial conversations, Kresge has helped to create a more cohesive and effective system for early childhood development in Detroit.

Cultivating an Inclusive Organizational Culture
At the heart of Kresge’s success is its commitment to fostering an inclusive and supportive organizational culture. Rip shared a poignant story of a long-standing employee who finally felt that she was part of the organization’s culture. “One of our longest-standing employees came up to me and said, ‘You know, Rip, I’ve been here at Kresge before you came and the 10 years since you’ve been here, and for the first time, I can actually see myself as part of this culture.’ She’s an African American woman,” Rip recounted.

Creating such a culture requires more than just new structures and processes. It involves cultivating values of respect, mutuality, and kindness. “What you have to do is figure out: What are the kinds of normative behaviors that hold a place together?” Rip noted. This approach ensures that every member of the organization feels valued and empowered to contribute to its mission.

As The Kresge Foundation celebrates its centennial, it exemplifies how philanthropy can evolve to meet the needs of the times while staying true to its core values. Rip Rapson’s leadership has been instrumental in guiding the foundation through significant transformations, always with an eye towards greater inclusivity and impact. Looking ahead, Kresge’s commitment to building opportunity structures in American cities, grounded in principles of racial equity and justice, promises to continue making a profound difference in the communities it serves.

To listen to the full interview or read the transcript, just click here.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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