Interview with Ridgway White

At the start of this year, Ridgway White became fourth president of the Mott Foundation, taking over in that role from his father, Bill White, who nevertheless remains actively involved in the foundation. That sounds like a recipe for a gradual transition, and indeed, as Ridgway tells Caroline Hartnell, evolution rather than revolution is likely to be the watchword of the new regime. He also talks about the benefits and challenges of being a placed-based funder, but with a national and international dimension, and of the need to play to your strengths, while at the same time seizing opportunities and being alert to new ways of tackling old problems.

You are the new president, but your father will remain chairman and CEO. What does this mean in practice? How will you divide the different functions between you?
I think that, most important, it means that there’s going to be a lot of continuity – not only for our grantees and people that we’re partnered with, but also for the staff at the foundation. In practice, we’re still working through the details, and I can’t break down for you exactly how the whole thing is going to work. My father has been involved for a very long time – he still works seven days a week – so I expect he will still be fairly hands on. But I will have more focus on the day-to-day work, and will increase my interaction with key staff members. I will also guide and assist in the allocation of funds across the foundation’s operations.

Bill and Ridgway White at the Mott Foundation holiday luncheon at the Flint Institute of Arts in December, where Bill announced that the Mott Board of Trustees had elected Ridgway president.

Bill and Ridgway White at the Mott Foundation holiday luncheon at the Flint Institute of Arts in December, where Bill announced that the Mott Board of Trustees had elected Ridgway president.

 

So in a way it’s more about continuity and a gradual transition than any particular division of roles at this point?
I think, in his mind and in mine, the best thing about this is that we don’t expect to drive an abrupt change in any programmatic area. Yes, we expect there to be an evolution over a period of time, but it will be a natural evolution.

We expect there to be an evolution over a period of time, but it will be a natural evolution.

I think that our strength as a foundation has been that we are long-term, stable funders for our grantees, and I don’t expect that to change.

What do you see as the most exciting things about your new role? What are you most looking forward to?
One thing that’s exciting is that, over the next ten years, I get to guide how to give away a billion dollars. That’s both exciting and daunting at the same time. It’s a tremendous opportunity. I think the legacy of the foundation presents a clear path, but a path that can meander where there are opportunities in our areas of strength. And I’m both excited and humbled to be able to be a part of that.

Apart from the challenge of giving away a billion dollars, what other challenges do you see?
I think the main one will be making sure that we adhere to the founder’s legacy, but doing it in the appropriate and modern style, and making sure that every dollar is maximized. To do that, we’ve got to make sure that we’re focusing on our strengths as a foundation in what we do.

Do you think you will find it difficult leading a foundation where most people are a lot older than you?
I don’t know – some people probably have more grey hair – I probably have less hair!

But no, I don’t. I’ve worked with people of all ages. I would hope those who know me respect me for the work that I’ve done. I think that I’ve accomplished some fairly complex and exciting tasks and, through them, presented the community with some great assets and programmes and opportunities. As for the people who don’t know me, I hope I earn their respect over time, and not right away just because of the title. I don’t see age being a major issue for me or for the staff.

Your experience since joining the foundation in 2004 as a programme assistant has been largely with the Flint Area programme. Do you feel you have a steep learning curve ahead of you to get to grips with the other programmes – Pathways to Opportunity, Environment and Civil Society? Will it be a wrench to have to divert your attention away from the Flint programme, which has always been so much your passion?
I don’t see a huge learning curve, though there are definitely things I’m going to have to learn about individual grantees. On the Pathways to Opportunity programme in particular, which used to be Pathways Out of Poverty, I was intimately involved with the team in restructuring the programme and guiding it towards a focus on one of our traditional strengths, which is education.

On the Environment programme, advancing climate change solutions is a really exciting new area – focusing on one of the world’s challenges, which is figuring out how to deliver clean energy to a continually expanding population.

Learning about some of the specific grantee work that I may not be familiar with will be exciting and refreshing…but at the end of the day my job will be more about the allocation of funds and making sure that we give teams the appropriate resources to execute a collective vision.

 I’ve had a lot of contact over the last ten or so years with the staff in different areas. However, learning about some of the specific grantee work that I may not be familiar with will be exciting and refreshing. I will do a bit of travelling and a bit of investigation, but at the end of the day my job will be more about the allocation of funds and making sure that we give teams the appropriate resources to execute a collective vision.

The Mott Foundation has long supported philanthropy itself, particularly community philanthropy, and the infrastructure for philanthropy, global and national. Do you feel supporting philanthropy and its infrastructure is important?
The infrastructure of philanthropy is one of the things that ensures that we are allowed to do what we do. Although there’s a lot of tradition, it’s not a given that we can operate as a foundation. I sit on the National Center for Family Philanthropy board, so I’m aware of the importance to the field of organizations like that, or the Council on Foundations, or periodicals like Alliance. Really they are a resource and a voice for us as a collective, because although our work is done through our grantees, our ability to do that work is assisted by all the organizations that are in the infrastructure realm.

As for community philanthropy, it has been a major component of our funding long term.

The Mott Foundation is a local, national and international player. How do you feel about these different geographical aspects of its work?
In my mind, that’s what makes the foundation a special place to work. Not only do we have place-based grantmaking here in Flint, but a lot of our staff and our grantees also have national and international reach and expertise. That produces this great push-pull learning experience, where you might have a best practice or an exciting thing occurring in, say, California or South Africa, and you can bring that back to Flint – and vice versa.

Not only do we have place-based grantmaking here in Flint, but a lot of our staff and our grantees also have national and international reach and expertise. That produces this great push-pull learning experience.

We also have exciting things happening in Flint, and that gives us nitty-gritty, detailed experience that can then be transferred elsewhere. One of the highlights of that is the work that was done in community schools that then became the national after-school programme. I think it’s what makes us tick.

And do you see that sort of exchange carrying on at the international level as well?
Yes, I think community philanthropy, or what we call community foundations here in the States, is a prime example. Another component is the community school work, which occurs both in the US and in our civil society programme. It’s another area of work that contributes to the really interdisciplinary nature of our grantmaking.

Ridgway White at the opening of Flint Farmers’ Market in 2014. Photo by Rick Smith

Ridgway White at the opening of Flint Farmers’ Market in 2014. Photo by Rick Smith

You bring to your new role an entrepreneurial approach gleaned from 10 years of guiding revitalization efforts in downtown Flint. How could this affect the Mott Foundation’s approach in its other programme areas?
Without a doubt, entrepreneurship is very important. I think creating new ways of doing business is what foundations are about. It’s about finding a better way to assist community advice offices in South Africa. It’s about developing new systems and pathways for implementation. In the paediatric clinic at the local hospital in Flint, for example, we’re looking at whether you even need a waiting room or whether there are better ways to get kids in and out faster. Really the foundation’s role should be helping to challenge the status quo and exploring new and creative ideas.

I also bring a lot of business experience through personal ventures and board memberships. For example, I’ve been involved in a start-up baby clothing company and a couple of other for-profit companies. So there’s a nice push-pull of experience I can bring to a more goal-oriented approach to grantmaking.

You have been a driving force behind public-private partnerships that have resulted in the redevelopment of vacant and underutilized buildings and properties in Flint, helping to attract new business to the city. Is there potential for using this public-private approach in other programme areas?
I think public-private partnerships are essential. One of our greatest is the one I mentioned earlier, our after-school work and delivering after-school programmes on a national level to a huge number of children across the country through a partnership with the US Department of Education.

I think the other side of it is making sure that the public is aware that our role isn’t to replace the tax dollar. If you look at a community like Flint, where the tax base is shrinking and where there are fewer individual donors around, it’s vitally important to figure out new ways to do business. At the same time, we need to realize that we are really here to help innovate – not simply replace a funding stream. I think figuring out new ways to do business and not just continue the same thing is a key task for all place-based funders to grapple with in the coming years or decades, especially in places like Flint where the population has been declining.

In Flint, I guess because it’s had such difficult times, the Mott Foundation has in certain circumstances replaced the tax dollar, hasn’t it? Haven’t you subsidized the police force in Flint?
We have in the past. Fortunately some federal funding and some state funding has come in that has allowed us to not do that, but we did step in and provide stability for a period of years.

I think figuring out new ways to do business and not just continue the same thing is a key task for all place-based funders to grapple with in the coming years or decades, especially in places like Flint where the population has been declining. 

 I think that speaks to our legacy: we are a foundation that groups can look to for stability in addition to innovation.

Earlier you referred to ‘a path that can meander where there are opportunities.’ Is this an example of that?
I think it’s important to be opportunistic, but focused at the same time. I want us to focus on the key areas that we’re good at, the key areas where we’re staffed appropriately. But in those areas, we can be very opportunistic and creative and entrepreneurial, so that we can come up with solutions that maybe haven’t been thought of before.

How important is it that the Mott Foundation is a family foundation, still essentially controlled by the founding family?
We are a private foundation that has the benefit of family tradition coupled with a staff of over 80. In addition, we have a 13-member board, and only four are family members. However, at the end of the day, I think that continuity is important, and the fact that I was born and raised here may give the Flint community some assurance that they’ll have a passionate leader going forward.

What would happen if the non-family members ganged up?
I can’t answer that, but the board did vote to appoint me president, so I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that I’ve earned the respect of the non-family members – and honestly the respect of some of the family members may have been more challenging!

Are there changes you anticipate making in the near future?
I don’t think there will be any major changes in the near future that the grantees or staff will see. As I mentioned earlier, I do believe in setting goals and benchmarks, and I do have a fair amount of business background. So while there is not a bottom line in terms of dollars and cents, there is a bottom line that we’re looking for in terms of accomplishment.

We want to make sure we’re accomplishing everything we set out to do – and, if we aren’t, to understand why we’re not so that we can adjust and go at it from a different perspective. I think we will continue to focus on what we’re good at, making sure that we’re effectively allocating our resources in the areas that we can do the most good.

Ridgway White has been president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation since the beginning of January.

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