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Looking back: Six special initiatives set the stage for today’s modern program work


As part of our centennial, we’re sharing stories of our last 100 years throughout 2024. To learn more about Kresge’s history, visit 

How a set of transitional initiatives diversified Kresge’s grantmaking approach

Sometimes, it’s a sun-soaked beach; at others, it’s a skating rink. It’s where people gather for Detroit’s annual tree-lighting ceremony and has hosted everything from car festivals to outdoor performances. It attracts 4.2 million visitors a year and was named America’s top public square by USA Today in 2023. But while you won’t see the Kresge name on its signage, Campus Martius Park says everything about how the foundation drives place-based investments that expand equity and opportunity.

Campus Martius Park also tells another part of the Kresge story: how a number of standalone initiatives launched in the 1980s and 90s would foreshadow how the foundation approaches funding America’s cities today.

Starting with the Science Initiative in 1988, which created a sustainable source of funding enabling educational, research and medical institutions to repair, upgrade and replace scientific equipment, the special initiative was a tool designed to stretch Kresge’s grantmaking muscles.

Detroit Initiative lays groundwork for place-based funding 

Providing funding that contributed to its redevelopment, Campus Martius Park was part of one of the next iterations in 1993: The Detroit Initiative. With a strategy that involved using non-traditional grants to advance urban revitalization, the initiative was the precursor of today’s Detroit Program, which has partners ranging from nonprofits to state and city governments and which in 2023 alone awarded grant dollars of some $36 million.

A large open-air market (Eastern Market in Detroit) with rows of flowers and a building in the background with the sign Shed 3 on top. The Detroit skyline with the Renaissance Center is seen further in the back.
Eastern Market in Detroit is one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the nation.

“The initial underpinning was focused on making a difference in a city that was experiencing many challenges financially and in terms of its people’s social mobility,” says Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of the Detroit Program.

As well as funding the transformation of Campus Martius Park from a monument in the middle of an intersection to a thriving community space, the Detroit Initiative also supported the renovation of Eastern Market, the historic commercial district, and the creation of the Detroit RiverWalk, a five-mile public space for walking, running and biking that provides views of Detroit’s international waterway and city skyline.

For Kresge, however, the Detroit Initiative was about more than restoring and beautifying parts of the city. It was a catalyst for its longer-term efforts to build a healthy and economically vibrant urban ecosystem that could position Detroit into a destination city for health, social services, education, cultural activities and entertainment.

Wendy Lewis Jackson
Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson

“The Detroit Initiative was the foundation’s way of organizing itself to make a significant difference in its hometown,” says Jackson. “It also laid the groundwork for what is now our approach to place and working as a place-based philanthropy.”

The foundation also used the initiative to identify models that could increase commitments of time, human resources, expertise and funding from other foundations, as well as from corporate and public-sector partners.

Capacity building included encouraging individual leadership in private philanthropy and strengthening the nonprofit sector by supporting organizations that ran programs in Detroit.

HBCU Initiative turbocharges progress 

Capacity building was a key objective of another of Kresge’s special initiatives: The Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Initiative, which launched in 1999 with $18 million in funding over five years.

As part of the HBCU Initiative, grantees received different forms of support, including training, convening, mentoring, technical assistance and access to nationally recognized consultants. Each year, a Learning Institute was held for the advancement professionals working to build their institutions alumni relations, communications, fundraising and marketing.

Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moses

Bill Moses, then a program officer assigned to Xavier University, stresses the importance of the five-year timeline. “We were dealing with problems that took decades or centuries to be created,” says Moses, now managing director of Kresge’s Education Program. “And you can’t fix them in three-year, let alone one-year grants.”

Moreover, the grants were structured in a model that was highly innovative. Unrestricted bonus grants totaling up to $25,000 per year were awarded to the institutions as they achieved their annual benchmarks. And a one-time, $100,000 challenge grant could be earned by achieving a major milestone. “As you set and met those goals, you were getting bonus grants, so you were turbocharging progress,” says Moses.

In turbocharging progress, the HBCU Initiative reflects a philosophy first embraced by Kresge in its challenge grants, a form of funding that tied financing to capacity building.

During the challenge grant era, Kresge used this approach to construct environmentally sustainable buildings. Then, in 2003, it launched a special initiative dedicated to this: The Green Building Initiative. “The idea was to provide planning grants to organizations upfront to cover the cost of incorporating green components into the design,” says Lois DeBacker, managing director of the foundation’s Environment Program, for which the Green Building Initiative was the precursor.

Photo Gallery: The impact of Kresge’s special initiatives

A group of young children play in a plaza with fountainsof water sprouting up in front of the glass towers of the Renaissance Center in Detroit.
The Detroit Initiative, a five-year program launched in 1993 helped fund the creation of the Detroit Riverwalk. The initiative made $34.45 million in grants before being renewed in 1998 for another five years with a $75 million commitment. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)
A large brick structure with arched entryways and the sign Eastern market at the top.
The Detroit Initiative helped support the renovation of Detroit's historic Eastern Market.
People are sitting at several sets of table and cbhairs in front of a water fountain in the middle of the city square called Campus Martius Park.
Kresge awarded two grants totaling $3 million for the Phase I construction of Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit and the development of a Conservancy Endowment in 2001 and 2002, as part of the Detroit 300 Celebration Legacy Project.
Two students are working with scientific equipment in a lab.
The Science Initiative was a two-decade program launched in 1988 that enabled organizations to pursue a “dual track” application, allowing the request of funds to upgrade and endow scientific equipment and laboratories in colleges and universities, teaching hospitals, medical schools and research institutions separately from bricks-and-mortar projects. Cooper Union received a $500,000 grant toward purchase of equipment for the School of Engineering.
Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, is one of five Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to receive funding from Kresge’s HBCU Initiative, an $18 million, five-year program that launched in 1999 to help build fundraising capacity. The other four HBCU institutions: Bethune Cookman College (Daytona, Florida), Dillard University (New Orleans, Louisiana), Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, North Carolina) and Xavier University (New Orleans, Louisiana).
The exterior of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a large museum with a fountain and trees in a plaza in front of it.
The Van Dusen Endowment Challenge Initiative was launched in 1991 to strengthen the nonprofit sector of southeast Michigan by encouraging the building of endowments. Eleven organizations were accepted into the program in 1992, including the Detroit Historical Society, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The Partnership to Raise Community Capital was an $18 million, five-year program launched in 1999 to help six community foundations at a key point in their development: The Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore (MD), Sioux Falls Community Foundation (SD), Wyoming Community Foundation (WY), the Community Foundation of South Alabama (AL), the Saginaw Community Foundation (MI) and the Community Foundation of Broward County (FL). Photo of the Saginaw skyline courtesy of Wikimedia.
The Green Buildings Initiative is a six-year program that was launched in 2003 to encourage construction or renovation of environmentally sustainable and LEED-certified facilities. The foundation completed a renovation and expansion of its Troy, Michigan, headquarters in 2006, that earned Kresge the nation’s highest green building designation, LEED Platinum certification.
Building (green) for the future 

As with the HBCU Initiative, the funding methodology of the Green Building Initiative was innovative. In addition to a capital grant, sizeable bonus grants were awarded for buildings that achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold and Platinum certification. And planning grants were also available, providing nonprofit organizations the opportunity to explore their green building options.

Senior Program Officer, Environment, Jessica Boehland

This made it affordable for communities to build using environmentally sustainable practices and materials. “The green building movement was becoming more normalized for wealthier organizations and for-profit companies, but it seemed out of reach for community organizations,” says Jessica Boehland, a senior program officer in the Environment Program. “Kresge’s money made it more achievable for the nonprofit community, but also helped demonstrate that it didn’t always have to cost more to do it this way.”

The initiative also helped to demonstrate the benefits of green buildings. These included lower operational costs due to energy efficiencies and water conservation but also, because of the healthier environment created both in and around the buildings, higher worker satisfaction and reduced absenteeism due to illness, as well as more positive community relations.

In putting people and communities at the heart of its strategy, the Green Building Initiative laid the foundations for a core principle of Kresge modern-day Environment Program—equity.

In fact, promoting equity was the rationale behind the inclusion of HBCUs in the Green Building Initiative through the Kresge-funded UNCF (United Negro College Fund) Building Green Initiative. The idea was to increase the number of campus buildings at institutions of higher education serving minority populations that adhered to LEED standards.

“We knew that HBCUs and tribal colleges often didn’t have a lot of extra resources, so we did outreach to minority-serving institutions to help them to build green buildings, too,” says Moses. “That foreshadowed our equity commitment.”

Equity at the center 

Fast-forward to today and equity is embedded in all Kresge Programs. For Kresge’s Environment Program, that looks like a funding approach designed to help cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic justice. “The question for Kresge is what does climate-informed equitable community development look like? That’s the next horizon,” says DeBacker.

Kresge Environment Program Managing Director Lois DeBacker

And of course, the intersection of community development, green buildings, environmental sustainability and climate justice brings Kresge full circle to its role in place-making—a strategy born from the capital challenge grants, Kresge’s longstanding commitment to capacity building and the special initiatives that in Detroit helped create the accessible green urban space that is Campus Martius Park.

This multidimensional approach sometimes makes it hard to talk about the different programs making up Kresge’s impact portfolio in isolation. But this is a source of strength. As one grant model has fed into another, the intersection of different programs and initiatives has provided opportunities for lessons to be learned and for new strategies to evolve.

In 2007, Kresge President Rip Rapson described the philosophy behind the foundation’s deployment of grant capital in a speech introducing its newly adopted approach to grantmaking. “We can,” he said, “use our flexible resources and multiple tools to explore the kind of interdisciplinary, multisector solutions demanded by the scale and seriousness of contemporary problems.”

In a world where challenges are increasingly complex, a multilayered approach enables innovative forms of capital deployment to be transferred from one strategy or focus area to another. And for Kresge today, all of them lead in one direction: expanding equity and opportunity in America’s cities.