Written by Sherri Welch for Crain’s Detroit. This story was originally published on CrainsDetroit.com on October 9, 2017. Click here to view the original story.

Philanthropy could play a role in bringing Amazon.com Inc. to Detroit.

As Crain’s reported, Amazon may need a talent pipeline more than state incentives.

Jobs are key to helping end poverty in Detroit, a central goal to the work many foundations are supporting in the city. And Amazon says its second headquarters would bring 50,000 jobs over the next 15-20 years.

By combining philanthropic dollars with state dollars to develop a talent pipeline, Detroit might gain an edge in its bid to woo Amazon.

Four foundation leaders are members of Detroit’s Amazon bid committee:

  • Tonya Allen, president and CEO, Skillman Foundation
  • Dave Egner, president and CEO, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation
  • Pamela Lewis, director of the New Economy Initiative
  • Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.

The majority of foundations working in the city don’t directly fund workforce development efforts, but alleviating poverty and helping ensure all Detroiters are benefiting from the city’s resurgence is central to their grant-making.

Two of the funders on the Amazon bid committee have made direct investments or are poised to make them in workforce development: NEI, the $158 million economic development initiative funded by a group of local and national foundations, and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

Complete coverage of the bid for Amazon HQ2

NEI’s work has evolved to focus largely on the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. But in its early years, the initiative, housed at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, helped create and fund the Workforce Intelligence Network.

WIN, a collaboration of 10 community colleges and six Michigan Works! Agencies in Southeast Michigan, helps to cultivate a comprehensive and cohesive talent system to make sure the region’s employers have the employees they need. The nonprofit has brought a long list of organizations together to address talent needs, including workforce development, community colleges, four-year postsecondary institutions, K-12 schools, economic development organizations, government, community based organizations, employers and others.

“We are interested and excited about the potential, but we are there (on the bid committee) to listen and learn,” NEI’s Lewis said in an email.

Workforce development for young adults and working-class families is one of the areas the Wilson foundation carved out to benefit from the $1.17 billion in assets it must spend down by 2035 in Southeast Michigan and western New York.

In February, it recruited James Jacobs, former Macomb Community College president, to help it develop a strategy for workforce development initiatives. Jacobs is nationally recognized for his expertise in how community colleges have worked with employers to meet their needs.

The bid committee is still working some details, Egner said in an email. However, “it is safe to say that any foundation that has an interest in economic development will be doing all we can within our missions and strategies to help bring Amazon to Detroit.”

Philanthropic dollars combined with state dollars for talent development, something Dan Gilbert said is more important than tax incentives in attracting Amazon, could create a public-private pool of funding to help train employees, ensuring Amazon a pipeline of employees into the future.

The Wilson foundation is the one philanthropy in Southeast Michigan that is focused intensively on workforce development, Rapson said

“Because this is such a complicated arena, and because it is so driven by private sector needs, it seems unlikely that other foundations would play a significant role in helping shape a workforce development approach to help woo Amazon,” he said.

The business community and Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration had begun working to streamline and improve the system of nonprofit workforce development agencies even before the effort to bring Amazon to Detroit began, he said. Strategic Staffing Solutions and DTE Energy Co. are helping to lead a new workforce development board to ensure that the needs of private sector employers are met.

There is a role, however, for philanthropy to play in creating job opportunities for young people, Rapson said.

Foundations including Kresge, Wilson, W.K. Kellogg and Skillman have supported the city’s summer youth program, Grow Detroit’s Young Talent.

“The trick is increasingly how to convert a summer program into a year-round program so that these young people have an opportunity to step into longer-term employment,” Rapson said.

“This is a primary focus of the public-private sector efforts being led by the mayor.”

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