Michigan Foundation Joins Shift to Youth Development

Jack Kresnak
June 1, 1999

Add another convert to youth development — and this one doesn’t seek grants, it gives them.

After spending millions of dollars over three decades to improve the lives of youth in southeast Michigan, the Skillman Foundation is changing its grantmaking policies and procedures to build on the strengths of children and their families, rather than on their weaknesses.

“We are moving more from looking at families and their ‘deficits’ to looking more at their assets, looking more positively,’’ says foundation President Leonard Smith. “We’re doing this so we’re not preventing this or preventing that, which is the way we had looked at the problems — like everyone else — seven, eight years ago.”

Michigan’s fourth largest foundation (behind Kellogg, Kresge and Mott) is also trying to become more nonprofit-friendly: it’s streamlining the grant application process, giving grantees more help in fulfilling their plans, and giving more feedback to those that do not get funded. “We want to be more communicative with the nonprofits,” Smith says. The foundation even plans to help nonprofits buy computers and pay for in-service staff training.

It’s all part of a fine-tuning that Smith oversees as he prepares for his year-end retirement after 15 years at the helm. The foundation has become a major progressive force in child welfare in southeast Michigan since its creation in 1960 by Rose Skillman, a wealthy widow whose estate went to the foundation after her death in 1983. The foundation has made more than $231 million in grants to benefit children and youth here, says foundation Vice President Kari Schlachtenhaufen. She says the foundation will make more than 100 grants this year for a total of $22 million.

Skillman “has had a tremendous impact’’ on Detroit, says Gerald Smith, regional director of the Kellogg Foundation in southeastern Michigan (and no relation to Leonard Smith). “Particularly as it relates to children, youth and families, recreation and education. Skillman has been right at the table and provides tremendous leadership.’’

The new changes illustrate how even a successful foundation can evolve to keep up with the ever-changing needs of youth and those that serve them.


Since the 1960s Skillman has helped fund an array of programs, such as the Youth Assistance Program, run by the juvenile section of the family court in Oakland County (a suburban and rural area immediately north of Detroit) to help kids stay out of the juvenile justice system. Under Smith’s leadership, Skillman has worked to make the Detroit and Wayne County juvenile justice systems more efficient. It has also made grants to train youth services workers, to improve cultural arts for Detroit youth and to foster more cooperative arrangements between agencies providing foster care to children.

The foundation has also been involved in trying to improve the Detroit public school system, which graduates fewer than half of its high school students. Smith helped to bring an Annenberg Foundation Challenge Grant to set up the Schools of the 21st Century program to re-engineer the school system in Detroit. In March the Michigan legislature voted to give Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer temporary control to run the failing school system, a move Smith supports.

“There are two aspects to school reform,’’ says Smith, a 65-year-old lawyer. “One is what’s happening at the local school building. The second is creating a climate so the district serves that local school building. And the second is what has been the difficulty.’’

“The value of Skillman for the greater community of Detroit is tremendous,’’ says Michael Harning, executive director of Life Directions (which promotes peer mentoring and neighborhood enhancement programs in Detroit, Chicago, San Antonio and Tucson) and a member of the Schools of the 21st Century board in Detroit. “It is not a charity per se but actually a social change agent in our community.’’

Despite that impact, Skillman’s work with its grantees over the past several decades convinced it to shift its focus and procedures. “They’re willing to listen to the people they fund and take a constant look at themselves, reflect on it and see whether or not they need to change to address their mission,’’ says Harning, whose organization has received several Skillman grants.


The changes, Smith says, were prompted by several factors, including the movement of the youth service field from focusing on deficits to focusing on assets. He also noted that “program areas get stale because they’ve been out there a number of years. We did find that the number of quality proposals that we were receiving were declining. It is incumbent on foundations to re-state, re-look at their program areas and how they communicate what they’re interested in to the non-profit area. We’re trying to promote more and better applications....”

“We also felt that traditionally, nonprofit child-serving agencies have been treating problems with children. The bulk of the dollars have gone to children who are teenagers or who are approaching their teenage years. We felt that we should be seeing if we could fund more in the early years.”

The foundation has identified four program areas of interest: Children’s Relationships, Learning Opportunities, Home and Community and Grantmaking Opportunities. Skillman grants now will focus on programs targeting parenting, family support, child care, preschool, public school improvement, school-to-work, recreation and leisure, culture and arts, and community and capacity-building issues. Capacity-building means helping nonprofit youth-serving agencies improve their infrastructures. That help includes purchasing computers and providing funds for staff training, as well as technical support.

“It’s about time a foundation has an interest in doing this,’’ says Mounir (Monte) Sharobeem, executive director of the Judson Center, which provides foster and respite care for abused and neglected children and their families, and for children with developmental disabilities.

The Judson Center, in suburban Royal Oak, Orchards Children’s Services in suburban Southfield, and the Children’s Center of Wayne County in Detroit recently received a joint $285,000 Skillman grant to work collaboratively and prepare for managed care of Michigan’s foster care system. `”The Skillman Foundation has always been on the cutting edge of finding out what they need to do,’’ Sharobeem says.

Skillman’s grant application procedure has changed to make it easier for both the nonprofits and the foundation, Smith says. “We want to work with them a little closer so that the program really is approved from both sides of the fence,’’ he says.

Judith McKenzie, executive director of Spaulding for Children, which provides foster care and other services to families at risk, says she welcomes the new grantmaking process as an opportunity to work more closely with Skillman staff. “They’re already a repository of promising practices and lessons learned from other programs and projects,’’ McKenzie says of Skillman. “Their staff are very knowledgeable, so I think this is definitely going to be helpful to grantees to help them shape their proposals.’’

Mary Liepold, director of program resources for the D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, says Skillman is good at reaching out to agencies “and convening people and getting them to talk to each other and finding ways to coordinate and support each other.’’

Harning says Skillman was one of the first foundations to require an evaluation component in its grants, which has been helpful for agencies seeking to improve the quality of their services. The foundation distributes results of its work through quarterly publications, periodic conferences that the foundation sponsors, and by working one-on-one with its grantee agencies.


Leonard Smith

The Skillman Foundation

600 Renaissance Center, Ste. 1700

Detroit, MI 48243

(313) 568-6360


Gerald Smith

Regional Director

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

One Michigan Avenue East

Battle Creek, MI 49017-4058

(616) 968-4058


Mounir (Monte) Sharobeem

Executive Director

The Judson Center

4410 W. Thirteen Mile Road

Royal Oak, MI 48073-6515

(248) 549-4339


Michigan Foundation Joins Shift to Youth Development: Granting Wishes

Kresnak, Jack. "Michigan Foundation Joins Shift to Youth Development." Youth Today, June 1999, p. 46.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.