Charity Champions: Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation Honored by Association of Fundraising Professionals

Co-nominated by the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter and Playworks Michigan, the organization is named Outstanding Foundation by AFP

Give Detroit - ralph c. wilson Jr foundation

Each year, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ greater Detroit chapter honors southeastern Michigan’s most dedicated volunteers, philanthropists, and fundraising professionals with its annual awards. Hour Detroit is pleased to partner with AFP to introduce 2021’s slate of charity champions ahead of National Philanthropy Day on Nov. 21.

When Buffalo Bills owner and Detroit native Ralph C. Wilson Jr. died in 2014, he left clear instructions for his trust: He wanted to pour $1.2 billion into southeast Michigan and western New York by 2035. Since 2015, his namesake Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation has devoted $533 million toward that goal. (And all that giving hasn’t made a dent in the foundation’s resources, according to CEO David Egner — the booming stock market means it still has more than $1.35 billion to give away.)

The foundation’s grants support initiatives for youth sports, caregivers of aging family members, economic development, and entrepreneurship, to name a few, and include such major projects as the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park along the Detroit riverfront. Hour Detroit spoke with Egner about the foundation’s work. 

How has the foundation’s vision evolved since launching in 2015? 

David Egner: The pillars of giving and the statement of our values, that hasn’t really changed. What has changed is the strategy and the tools have become more refined, particularly moving closer with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Working in 2015 there was no staff — just four trustees — and our internal operations have matured, so we have a grants management team.   

What is one achievement you are most proud of? 

Generator Z is an after-school program that we launched during COVID. The secret sauce is we invited 1,000 teenagers to staff it and paid them $1,000 each to share with us their ideas and stories and to judge applications that came in from nonprofit after-school programs. We’ve approved $4 million in grants, and it’s all from the voice of teens — instead of what the adults think teens want. 

Is there anything you think people might be surprised to learn about the foundation?

We’re moving on average $100 million to $110 million a year, and a typical foundation moving that much would have 50 to 60 people on staff. We’re dealing with a staff of 28, so we have to work really closely with our grantees and intermediaries, like Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. We are always asking the question of sustainability: How do we sustain the work? Because in 2035, we’re out of business.

This story is part of our Give Detroit package and is featured in the November 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.