2022 Hour Detroiters: The Gilberts on Making an Impact With $500 Million Pledge to Detroit

Dan and Jennifer Gilbert make our annual list of people who are making Motown a better place. Here, they reveal hopes for all of the city, not just downtown — starting with paying off back taxes and reviving an HBCU
The Gilberts - Dan and Jennifer Gilbert
// Photograph courtesy of Dan and Jennifer Gilbert

Jennifer Gilbert is still not OK with this. When I first requested an interview with her back in March as she handled most of the speaking duties at the announcement of the Gilberts’ $500 million pledge to Detroit, I imagined a glossy, stylish fall cover that introduced a long-enigmatic presence to the public and brought readers inside the life of a busy working mother of unimaginable wealth. It seemed appropriate, given that her husband, Rocket Companies board Chair Dan Gilbert, still visibly struggled to speak and walk following his May 2020 stroke, forcing his press-shy life partner to step cautiously into the limelight in the service of explaining their philanthropic goals. We all knew lots about Dan Gilbert — billionaire entrepreneur; redeveloper of so much Motor City real estate that folks now dub downtown Detroit “Gilbertville;” on-again, off-again employer of LeBron James as owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers — but shouldn’t everyone know about the contributions to his fortune and status provided by his spouse of nearly 30 years?

Dan Gilbert, I am reliably told, was all for his wife’s close-up. But creeped out by the mere notion of her face on the cover of a magazine, she killed the idea. In fact, in late November, when we finally “met” on a Microsoft Teams video conference — because, seriously, how do we do a 2022 Hour Detroiters issue without the couple who made a mind-bending, record-breaking gift to Detroit? — she was able to see me and my unkempt desk, but alas, my screen was filled with nothing but a black box with her name on it. I ask why, and she replies, “Today, this is the way I am most comfortable.” Later, I try again to understand this tension between needing to be more public and preferring a dentist visit to being subject to journalist inquiries, and she answers: “I tend to be more private. That being said, I know that there is a responsibility that comes along with what we have, and so it’s one of those things that my mom always said, ‘You’ve got to get comfortable in the uncomfortable.’ And that’s where I’m living right now.”

Actually, the Gilberts live right now at the levers of extraordinary philanthropic power being pulled to transform the long-struggling city of Dan’s birth. Jennifer Gilbert, 53, runs the Gilbert Family Foundation (GFF), which is to say their private giving, and Dan, of course, founded the now-public mortgage lending behemoth that begot a litany of other enterprises and, more relevant to this topic, the Rocket Community Fund (RCF). Their much-vaunted decade-long $500 million pledge — a carefully orchestrated media rollout that involved exclusives to The New York Times and CBS This Morning — includes $350 million from the family’s largesse and $150 million from RCF, so really, in essence, it all flows from the same source: them.

The move was, in part, born out of introspection forced upon the Gilberts by Dan’s stroke — he says he’s making great progress and in October even gave a talk for the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit — as well as the pandemic lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests. “That all provided the space and time to not only think about but really talk about how we wanted to move forward and really helped shape our thoughts and, ultimately, the gift,” Jennifer says.

Dan Gilbert, who turns 60 this month, believes his wife is coming into her own in the wake of his illness. “I couldn’t be prouder of the way she has responded,” he says via email. “She has always been intimately involved with so many facets of everything for years. I couldn’t ask for a better sounding board, partner, and confidante. She’s especially done a remarkable job in the last couple years with the businesses and Gilbert Family Foundation — I’m going to have to take notes from her.”

Of the $500 million promised, as of the end of 2021, only about $40 million of it had been allocated. That includes about $15 million earmarked in that initial March 2021 announcement to pay off back property taxes for the 20,000 low-income Detroit homeowners, many of whom saw their credit ratings destroyed by debts they wouldn’t have even had if they had known how to sign up for the city’s tax abatement program. So far, the Detroit Tax Relief Fund, as it is called, has helped about 2,500 homeowners, with roughly another 4,000 cases in progress and an ongoing information campaign trying to encourage others to apply. The other $25 million has not been broken down by project but includes funding to revive Detroit’s dormant historically Black college or university (or HBCU), the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, as well as a program called Neighbor to Neighbor in which people go door-to-door throughout the city assessing what unaffordable home repairs residents need help with.

Indeed, rather than just dump truckloads of cash into the city’s coffers, the Gilberts say they will dole out the funds over years after consulting with local community leaders and activists. Among those who admire the approach is Mayor Mike Duggan: “I think the way Dan and Jennifer Gilbert have framed the foundation is just terrific. They are totally focused on longtime Detroiters who want to stay in this community, who want to live in quality neighborhoods and don’t want to have the burden of back taxes. And Dan grew up in Detroit and was very successful in life, and he is trying to level the playing field so kids growing up in Detroit have that same opportunity. Their contribution has been enormous.”

When announced in March, the Gilberts’ promise was the largest-ever single gift in Michigan history — in June, a group of anonymous alumni gave $550 million to the Western Michigan University Foundation — and, so far as anyone can tell, is still the largest ever to any American city. “It is a number — and a big number — and we wanted to make sure that it was impactful,” Jennifer Gilbert says of how they came to that figure. “But more importantly, we wanted to make a significant long-term public commitment so that we could build a vision, grow a team, and help our partners grow with us. Being clear about the monetary commitment allows us to plan, helps our community partners plan, and allows us to engage openly and consistently with community members and our ongoing commitment. So, is that dollar amount arbitrary? I wouldn’t say it’s arbitrary by any means. But we feel that that is a significant amount to really achieve what we’re trying to achieve.”

The couple have come a long way from their initial meet-cute in the breakroom of Rock Financial, the mortgage firm Dan Gilbert started in 1985 with his brother, Gary. Jennifer, then a 22-year-old Michigan State University graduate from Huntington Woods struggling in the early-1990s recession to launch an interior design career and visiting the office to work on a freelance project for Gary, spotted Dan, then 29, preparing to tape a radio advertisement. “He and I struck up a conversation, and we became friends and actually dated on and off for the next couple of years,” says Jennifer, whose father was a designer for General Motors Co. and whose mother sold Mary Kay cosmetics for years. “While the design business remained stalled, the mortgage business was really taking off, so I applied for a job as a mortgage banker at Rock Financial and started in the winter of 1992. So our friendship, it started before I actually started working there.”

Back then, Rock Financial was years away from becoming the online mortgage pioneer that would make the Gilberts billionaires and decades from the point where Dan Gilbert would relocate the firm, then known as Quicken Loans, from Livonia to Detroit to begin an almost singlehanded downtown revitalization. She just thought he was witty and smart, she says.

For much of the time Dan Gilbert was building their fortune, Jennifer was raising their five children, who now range in age from 15 to 25. “For 15 years, I was a stay-at-home mom, and that was the role that I chose and loved doing,” she says. “As time went on, I think my role evolved to really contributing more in the space of the design of the buildings.” She now runs two companies, the design studio Pophouse and Amber Engine, a tool for suppliers to keep track of sales and other product data across several online e-commerce sites.

Yet it is in philanthropy where she’s making her biggest mark on their behalf, starting years ago with a focus on raising money and awareness for neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic disorder diagnosed in their eldest son, Nick, when he was 15 months old. NF tumors grow on nerves throughout the body, and Nick has faced repeated hospitalizations and surgeries throughout his life. The Gilberts, then, founded NF Forward, a nonprofit that has raised nearly $40 million for neurofibromatosis research.

And the thing is, the Gilberts are clearly far from done. Forbes estimates he is the world’s 23rd wealthiest person, worth $30 billion as of early December. In 2012, they promised to give away at least half their wealth  before they die as signatories of Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates, and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge. As they wrote then: “It has been exciting more than words can express to live in this great country and start, develop, and grow businesses. It will be even more exciting to deploy the wealth these businesses create to improve our world, which we feel confident will be a much better place in the years and decades ahead.”

To some, the donations, eye-popping though they are, are a mere self-aggrandizing fraction of the enormous wealth the Gilberts have acquired thanks to tax breaks and the city’s willingness to virtually give away prized real estate to Gilbert for redevelopment. The Gilberts shrug off such criticism, refusing to respond directly. Yet I also ask Jennifer Gilbert why, unlike most megadonors, they’re not plastering their names on hospital wings, graduate schools, or really, anything beyond their foundation itself. “None of what we do is for accolades and ego,” she says. “Ultimately, if putting our name on something exponentially grows the impact, we will consider doing it. But if it’s for the sake of having our name up somewhere, we’re not interested in that. That’s not our goal. And that’s not what we’re looking for.”

Jennifer Conlin contributed to this report.

This story is part of the 2022 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2022 issue here.