• Rip Rapson President and CEO, The Kresge Foundation
  • Robert Rosen Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Zhenyao Wang Dean, Beijing Normal University China Philanthropy Research Institute


  • Paul Carttar Founding Director, US Social Innovation Fund

Presentation Slides


This session addressed how foundations can play a role in fostering better cities and in leveraging philanthropy to tackle social issues in urban settings.

To set the stage, urbanization is a recent phenomenon. Before 1800, only 3% lived in urban areas. By 2008, the portion of people living in urban areas exceeded those in rural areas, with 400 cities having population over 1 million, of which 19 cities with over 10 million people.

As a result, foundations engage in cities because: 1) they have interest in the city where they live and work; 2) they care about a specific set of issues; and 3) they care about a specific set of population groups.

Mr. Rapson shared his experiences in Detroit and highlighted the role of philanthropy in taking risks after the city’s bankruptcy via 1) injecting money into the economy; 2) using loans as a financial provider; and 3) investing both in organizations and in people via training. He also lamented how difficult collaboration is in practice.

In contrast, Mr. Rosen described how the Gates Foundation approach their focus areas first looking at the national model and then thinking about how to apply it to a city’s context. The Gates Foundation has deployed around US$4.2 billion a year for the past sixteen years. Mr. Rosen also added three points in regards to scaling: 1) funding itself matters; but only if 2) it is combined with strategy in leveraging talent among partners; while 3) raising awareness to galvanize around a shared vision.

The third panelist, Mr. Wang, talked about the evolution of the China Philanthropy Research Institute founded by five funders including the Gates Foundation and how this collective effort has catalyzed government funding support.

The three panelists also discussed common themes that included: 1) role and ability of foundations to take risks, explore, and apply tools to tackle social issues; 2) ability to innovate without being beholden to corporate or government/political pressures; 3) convening and advocacy role in bringing stakeholders together; and 4) building community capacity or voice in how interventions can be shaped.