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Detroit Ledger Tracks Detroit's Civic Foundation Complex

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, December 17 2013

Screenshot from Detroit Ledger

Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy ever in July, but for years now private foundations have attempted to fill the city’s public service gap with their own money, and their own agendas. Foundations like Ford, Knight, Kresge, and Skillman are investing hundreds of millions dollars to address the city’s failing schools, starving economy, and rescue its orphaned art collection. While foundational cash is preferable to a public service vacuum, it raises questions about access, influence, and accountability.

“The private foundations see an opportunity in this crisis and are seizing a lot of the assets and looking to exert control,” says Benjamin Chodoroff, a Detroit based programmer who works with a number of nonprofits, “increasing the transparency of the way private foundations are exerting power in the city will help.”

That transparency is coming by way of Detroit Ledger, a project by Chodoroff and two colleagues that collects and posts grant information in Detroit. While this information is all technically “available” by requesting a non-profit’s 990 tax form, it can be a hassle to access, with individual grants buried at the bottom of a scanned 40 page form, that itself might be behind a paywall. Detroit Ledger takes as many tax forms as it can find, and centralizes the data on its site. It also provides lists of the best connected funders and recipients: those organizations giving and receiving the most grants. To date the project has accounted for $462 million in grants between 2011 and 2013.

The project started a couple years ago when Chodoroff and one of his partners, 2012 Code for America fellow Matt Hampel, noticed the Motor City’s influx of non-profit cash.

“We just started taking note of the different private sector funding initiatives that were going on for a while and before we knew it a couple years later we had this decent looking spreadsheet,” says Chodoroff. They decided to share the data with a website and a public API, and the project was born.

“The supersonic growth of super big non-profit organizations raises serious questions regarding the role of our City Council and, for that matter, representative democracy,” says Jeff Debruyn, a transparency advocate and journalist in Detroit. He describes the project as “profoundly necessary.”

Beyond basic accountability, Detroit Ledger looks to demystify the grant process for non-profits. “A lot of the nonprofits I’ve worked with have trouble first off, just finding what grants are available,” says Chodoroff.

“The work itself, and its social impacts, is too often secondary in the question of who gets funded,” says Michael Medow from the non-profit Allied Media Projects. “A tool that can make this system more transparent is a potentially powerful intervention.”

By seeing which organizations actually receive grants, Medow thinks small, outsider non-profits will have a better sense of who to approach for funds. He believes the benefits for accountability could be just as great. “As we see patterns of how dollars are flowing, we can ask the question[s]: is this investment creating real change? Is it advancing social justice? Can we see any correlation between this grant-making and improvements in quality of life?”

Detroit Ledger completed a three month sprint last summer, since which it has been collecting feedback from organizations and citizens. It’s gearing up for another sprint in the firs half 2014. The hope is that eventually more funding organizations will share their data directly with Detroit Ledger to push the project along. As Detroit Ledger pushes into touchy issues like charter schools and healthcare, data access is by no means automatic, or guaranteed. But as cities around the country rely more on foundational support rather than civic government, Chodoroff sees Detroit Ledger as a model for other cities. Civic privatization, says Chodoroff, “might be happening more and more.”