Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation: Taking a networked approach to building nonprofit capacity

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The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation: Taking a networked approach to building nonprofit capacity


Spend down a $1.2 billion endowment in 20 years in a way that leaves communities stronger


Investing in the capacity of nonprofits to better equip them to innovate and collaborate around complex social issues


The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation was founded in 2014 through the bequest of its namesake, the late longtime owner and founder of the Buffalo Bills football team. Before his death, Wilson set a 20-year lifespan for the foundation. As the foundation staff and board considered how best to spend down $1.2 billion by 2035 in two regions (Southeast Michigan and Western New York), they knew they needed to prioritize building the capacity of the regions’ nonprofits so nonprofits would be better equipped to carry on their work after the foundation closed.

In 2017 the foundation decided to invest in creating a center in Detroit to support nonprofits in Southeast Michigan. The vision of the center is a physical space with staffed, structured programming where nonprofits can collaborate and innovate around challenges facing the region and access resources and support they need to effectively deliver solutions.

The foundation engaged local partners including TechTown, Michigan Nonprofit Association, and Michigan Community Resource to help them design and launch the center and its services. After making an initial round of grants to these key partners, the foundation realized it needed to engage a neutral third party to facilitate design sessions, provide ongoing project management to keep the work on track, and support the partners in continuing to engage key stakeholders across Southeastern Michigan. The foundation chose Community Wealth Partners to serve in this backbone role, bringing insight on national best practices for capacity building and offering guidance on measuring the center’s impact.

A physical space to

collaborate and innovate


Our team provided the capacity, skills and expertise the foundation and its partners needed to turn the vision for Co.act Detroit into a reality. We facilitated working sessions among the partners and shared insights from a national scan of related efforts to help the partners define a shared vision for the center and consider the services they might offer. The center, named Co.act Detroit, will work with nonprofits to build their capacity so that over time they become better equipped to innovate and collaboratively address the region’s most pressing complex social challenges. With our facilitation, research, and support, the partners defined a five-stage continuum to understand nonprofits’ evolving capacity for collaboration and innovation and to provide the right resources and supports at the right time.


We also helped the partners define how they will assess the center’s impact on the region’s nonprofit sector. Partners will track outcomes on three levels:

  1. guest experience of those visiting the center
  2. organizational capabilities for the center itself and the organizations accessing services
  3. network and system impact.

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