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.