Detroit’s struggles are no secret. In September 2013, after decades of declining population and tax revenue, the city became the largest-ever in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy. Almost immediately, proposals emerged that put the brunt of the bankruptcy on the backs of the most vulnerable—drastic cuts to the pensions of hardworking retirees, privatization of the artwork in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), and yearlong court battles silencing the voices of residents. That fall, the Ford Foundation approached us with a question: what if the nation’s top foundations joined together to help Detroit get back on its feet?
The BerlinRosen Approach
The success of the Grand Bargain required each of the 13 foundations to align behind a coordinated strategy—one that would garner public support, communicate the values guiding philanthropy’s involvement, and express optimism about Detroit’s future. Beginning with the initial announcement of a $330 million commitment, BerlinRosen worked aggressively with leading local and national reporters to place more than 100 stories characterizing the proposal as a forward-looking solution to speed Detroit’s recovery. Op-eds and letters to the editor co-authored by foundation presidents in the Detroit Free Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, and elsewhere helped soften any criticism of the Grand Bargain, resulting in broad support—from the editorial page of the New York Times and halls of state government, to the opinions of residents and retirees. Working closely with business and civic leaders, elected officials, and federal mediators, we leveraged a total of $816 million to, as the New York Times stated, “save Detroit.”
When Detroit exited bankruptcy in November 2014, the Grand Bargain was widely recognized as lynchpin of the city’s recovery. During the fall, BerlinRosen worked with reporters at major national outlets—including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal—as well as newspapers of record in Detroit—The Free Press and News—to seed detailed, “behind-the-scenes” stories on philanthropy’s critical role during bankruptcy. Members of the working group appeared on programs such as PBS NewsHour and NPR, penned opinion pieces on CNN.com, and were hailed by city leaders on both sides of the aisle. To this day, the Grand Bargain is considered one of the most innovative and game-changing philanthropic endeavors in recent history.
What they said:
“Ultimately, it's the story of how, one by one, like soldiers switching sides in the midst of battle, the major players and creditors at war with the city dropped their objections and joined a "grand bargain" to save Detroit.” – Detroit Free Press, November, 2014
“On Friday, Judge Rhodes called the DIA an “invaluable beacon” for the city’s ability to attract and retain residents and businesses, saying to sell the art would have been to “forfeit the city’s future.” But it wasn’t an easy road.” – Wall Street Journal, November, 2014
“Though we approach Detroit from different perspectives, we are united in the belief that safeguarding the pensions of retired city employees and protecting Detroit’s extraordinary art collection are vital to the city’s prosperity… But our support also aims to accomplish something even larger: helping a great city get back on its feet quickly and on course toward a better future.” – Chronicle of Philanthropy, January 2014
“In terms of foundation giving, there is nothing comparable to the scale or purpose of this. There are plenty of examples to point to of foundations getting together on an issue, but I don’t know of a single example of an effort to come in and save a city from bankruptcy.” – New York Times, November, 2014