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creative:impact - Neutral Zone Is Put Into High Gear By Mackenzie Scott And Dan Jewett

Lori Roddy
Neutral Zone

Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett recently gave away $2.7 billion to “286 teams empowering voices the world needs to hear.” Neutral Zone (NZ) was surprised to learn they were on the list! Lori Roddy, NZ’s executive director, talks about the impact of this transformative gift with "creative:impact's" co-hosts, Creative Washtenaw’s Deb Polich and WEMU’s David Fair.

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy.  In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


David Fair: This is 89 One WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to creative:impact. It's our weekly look at the local creative sector. I'm David Fair, along with my content partner and co-host, Deb Polich. Deb is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw. Today. Deb, we get to focus on one of my favorite organizations in the area.

Deb Polich: Mine, too. And with that in mind, David, have you ever played the "if I won the lottery" game, where you have to say the first thing you would do with your winnings?

David Fair: Almost every week.

Deb Polich: It's a fun game. Well, we play a version of that in the nonprofit world where our organizations are chronically undercapitalized. Our fantasy game asks, "What would we do if an unexpected seven figure grant appeared unexpectedly?"

David Fair: Well, the Neutral Zone is as hard-a-working, nonprofit as I know and recently had that kind of good fortune. And with that, we'll introduce Neutral Zone's Executive Director Lori Roddy to Creative Impact. Thank you for joining us today.

Lori Roddy: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: The Neutral Zone was recently the recipient of a significant grant. From where did it come?

Lori Roddy: Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett recently made a two million dollar gift to the Neutral Zone.

David Fair: Two million dollars. Is that the biggest gift you've had in recent memory?

Lori Roddy: It is the single largest gift we have ever received. Yes.

Deb Polich: Congratulations on the grant. Lori. Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett are hell-bent on giving away their 60 some odd billion dollar fortune. To receive such a surprise gift of this magnitude must be like a dream come true.

Lori Roddy: Absolutely. I mean, we're beyond grateful and actually feels too good to be true. So, yes.

Deb Polich: So, this wasn't a grant the Neutral Zone applied for. How are you notified, and what was the process before you actually first heard about this?

Lori Roddy: We were contacted by a consulting firm in March where we participated in an interview and sent in a series of additional information about the organization at the time. We just knew that there was a potential donor whose priorities and values aligned with our mission. But we did not know who it was or an amount for.

David Fair: creative:impact continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And we're talking with Lori Roddy, who serves as executive director of Neutral Zone.

Deb Polich: So in nonprofit jargon, a transformational gift is one that stabilizes an organization and allows it to grow. Usually, but then always, it's a large contribution from an individual or foundation who continues to provide oversight after the gift is made. Scott and Jewett are transformational donors. Can you help us understand what this means?

Lori Roddy: Yes, I mean, Mackenzie Scott is really thinking about philanthropy very differently. In the title of her post on Medium, where she posted the guest for this round, she calls it “Seeding by Ceding,” like S-E-E-D-I-N-G by ceding C-E-D-I-N-G. And what she's essentially doing is ceding her power and giving it back to community-based nonprofit organizations. She sees the organizations as the change agents who can have the greatest impact. So she's not looking at a proposal about what we want or plan to do with clear goals and objectives outlined. She looks at our past work, who our center was, our values, our organization, and says that, based on who you are, I trust you to put your team of people together, and I trust your community to make the biggest impact with these dollars.

David Fair: Specifically, how then will the Neutral Zone utilize the two million dollars?

Lori Roddy: Well, you know, the Neutral Zone has built its success on and building a community and a collective process. And so we will engage teams and staff and board community partners to put together a new, five-year vision and strategic planning process and end up with a plan that will allow us to provide some guidance on how we think about the funds, likely thinking about significant unmet needs like building infrastructure, future financial stability, the work that we would imagine trying to do in the next 25 years. We can accelerate that process and likely do in the next two to three years to ensure Neutral Zone stability and just to be at our best to support young people for future generations.

David Fair: By definition, that is transformational. Now or very often, significant donations can help inspire other philanthropic people and organizations to donate. Is there an opportunity to use this money to create even more significant and seven-figure kinds of investments in Neutral Zone?

Lori Roddy: You know, I would hope so. I think, you know, for us, we're connecting with community leaders and partners to brainstorm and to generate how we might think about that. One thing that's really exciting is the Neutral Zone-and I think this is how we were identified-as we are part of Music Youth Development Alliance. It's called MYDA, M-Y-D-A for short. And it's a national coalition of youth organizations, who like Neutral Zone use music to engage young people to increase their access to transformational opportunities like, you know, workforce development opportunities and help and access. So all of the MYDA organizations were funded, and this recent gift by Mackenzie Scott, and I know that the media network will be convening specifically to think about how do we leverage, how do we build, how do we stabilize our alliance to support other organizations?

David Fair: It's all good news. creative:impact and our conversation with Neutral Zone executive director Lori Roddy continues on Eighty-Nine One WEMU.

Deb Polich: There's a lot of chatter among nonprofit executives about how philanthropy has historically been patriarchal and frequently favors nonprofits that mirror the donors' image and personal mission. That left many smaller BIPOC social service organizations behind. What are your thoughts on whether the Scott/Jewett model will influence and change that paradigm?

Lori Roddy: I hope it does. You know, in this particular moment, as we emerge from COVID and like many nonprofits, you know, nonprofit organizations usually support populations of people who have experienced significant challenges and systemic inequities. I think we all have to strive to be more anti-racist. We need to reflect on our own systems and practice and structures and the donors and foundations and supporters and partners, they're all a part of the ecosystem of how we make decisions and how we are able to move our missions and organizations forward. I think that, you know, Neutral Zone and other nonprofit organizations need to be able to invite our donors and supporters into our own processes of reflection and anti-racism. You know, and I think for every organization that might look different. Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett are making a big statement right now that maybe philanthropy could look different. And I think we need to trust our donors to join our efforts.

David Fair: You know, Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett are among several billionaires who are following the leads of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to donate the entirety of their fortunes. But as you mentioned, there are many more stakeholders and not everyone is as wealthy. Lori, what influence do you think these millionaires and billionaires making such pledges has on encouraging philanthropy among the less wealthy?

Lori Roddy: You know, every gift matters, right? And I think especially for Neutral Zone in the past year, every time a donor gives a gift to the Neutral Zone, to me, and what that means is that they believe in our work and they trust us to move our mission forward. And they think that, you know, major millionaires and billionaires who are thinking about how do they give their wealth away and how do they trust a community to do it is really important. They're modeling it for so many more people who will follow them. And I hope that, you know, Mackenzie Scott continues to lead that effort for others.

Deb Polich: You know, the way that you and the Neutral Zone team are so thoughtful and considerate and responsive to those that you serve certainly would lead to why I think Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett selected you. But I have to ask, is there one fun, crazy thing that Neutral Zone is going to do to celebrate this amazing gift?

Lori Roddy: I don't know. I think, you know, I'm excited to see what our community comes up with. I imagine building our strategic plan, I know that doesn't sound exciting, but we also know that our strategic plan that are far reaching, and we hope that we'll find an opportunity to be able to create a vision and a strategic plan that we really know we can make happen is totally exhilarating.

David Fair: I have yet to meet an administrator who didn't think that was crazy fun.

Lori Roddy: And I think that there's nothing more exciting than writing a vision for this organization for the next five years and know that we can work to achieve it.

Deb Polich: That's amazing. And I know you're going to make a success for this. Thank you so much for sharing your story and to joining us on creative:impact.

David Fair: Indeed.

Lori Roddy: Thank you so much.

David Fair: That is Neutral Zone executive director Lori Roddy. Find out more about Lori and her work at WEMU dot org. Deb Polich is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw in my creative:impact co-host. We'll be back again next week with creative:impact. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.


Lori Roddy
Credit Lori Roddy / Neutral Zone
Neutral Zone
Neutral Zone executive director Lori Roddy

Lori Roddy serves as the Executive Director of the Neutral Zone, a diverse youth-driven arts and leadership center for high school youth. Before her role as Executive Director she led youth programming at the center for 12 years. Lori’s practice and teaching is focused on positive youth development, youth-driven practices, program design and evaluation, and organizational leadership. Lori has supported the organization to build a three month operating reserve, start an endowment, and guide the development of the youth-driven approach that is reflective of the organization’s center. Lori has been a leader to create Future Corps – an extension of the Neutral Zone to support youth access to work with the City of Ann Arbor, tuition scholarships at Washtenaw Community College, and mentorship support over 2-4 years post high school.  She has also worked in partnership with Washtenaw County to initiate and support the first-ever county youth commission.


The Neutral Zone

New York Times: "MacKenzie Scott Gives Away Another $2.74 Billion Even as Her Wealth Grows"

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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