We use Tracy McGregor’s name while explaining our mission, and you’ll find his photo all over our website and social media channels. There’s a good reason for this. Every day we work hard to honor his and his wife and partner Katherine’s life’s mission, particularly now. As we’ve re-oriented our grantmaking framework — adopting a multi-layered, whole person approach to promote individuals’ mobility out of poverty — we’ve kept Tracy’s lived example, that of a pioneering social entrepreneur, constantly in mind. 

From his childhood, Tracy learned that sharing his resources with others wasn’t a passing event, but the responsibility of a lifetime. He observed his father’s transition from business to mission work and his constant efforts to provide for mission residents. Soon after his father’s untimely passing when Tracy was still in college, this work became his own, as he took over running the fledgling Mission for Homeless Men in Detroit.

Immediately after assuming leadership of the mission, Tracy moved to secure its financial future. To do this, he appealed to Detroit’s business leaders and local congregations for help, winning them over with his passion for the work, his apparent intellect and gentle demeanor.  Once he ensured the mission’s financial solvency, Tracy moved to expand long-term services to support residents transitioning to new ways of living. Although the mission’s primary work had originally been to house, feed, and tend to the spiritual needs of residents, he also wanted the men to develop the skills — and income — they needed to create long-term stability for themselves and their families.

Creating Opportunities, Building Skills

Soon the mission had an employment bureau to place residents in short- and long-term employment with area businesses.  But some of the men lacked the confidence and self-presentation to be hired out, and needed a first work experience where they could learn the soft skills and build the confidence necessary to rejoin the labor market.

Needing to find entry-level work opportunities for many of the mission men, the entrepreneurial Tracy created two businesses: first, commercial farms on Detroit’s outskirts, followed by a new wood processing business. The latter proved to be particularly successful, providing jobs for mission residents and turning a significant, and very helpful, profit. 

Through the early 1900s, homes were primarily heated with wood, much of which came from small pieces of leftover lumber transported to Detroit for processing. Tracy secured property to store the wood and mission residents cut the pieces down into kindling, packaged them and delivered them to families across the city. The business grew quickly to employ up to 50 men, and “McGregor Mission for Homeless Men” horse-drawn delivery wagons could soon be found all over the city. 

At the same time, he expanded the five-acre farm with a hundred-acre land purchase, another investment that was successful in its own right. Moreover, some of the food raised supplied the mission’s large kitchen and fed the horses used for making deliveries.

This work is what we today call social enterprise: creating a profitable business, reinvesting the profits into the organization or community, and using those funds to meet needs and improve lives.  The wood business wasn’t just about sustaining and expanding the mission. It offered a hand up and income for the workers themselves.

Adopting a “Whole Person” Approach

Tracy also realized that meeting basic needs, though a crucial part of his work, was only the first step in a continuum of support. The men arriving at the mission door were more than mouths to feed. Each had a unique history, his own complex challenges, and often, a family. 

Understanding this, Tracy adopted a comprehensive, whole person approach to their care. He provided for their spiritual guidance, developed house rules of accountability, taught residents how to manage their finances, connected them to work, and provided opportunities for them to develop the skills they needed to make a living. He hoped that they would, after gaining their footing, permanently move away from homelessness and poverty.

As spouses and mission partners, Tracy and Katherine expanded their imprint upon the community, moving beyond the mission’s day-to-day service to inspire change in services and conditions for many. Tracy in particular became a vocal, well-regarded advocate for all Detroiters, especially those in most need. He drove conversations and led change on issues, from sanitation and housing to city planning and poor labor conditions, being experienced by children and adults. 

Katherine and Tracy McGregor

In time, Tracy took his work to a national level, pursuing interests “aiding the homeless, destitute and unemployed” in Washington, D.C. There, he worked with government agencies and associations supporting the disadvantaged, was recognized as a national leader, and served as a keynote speaker at the National Conference of Social Work. All the while, he solidified his and Katherine’s legacy endowment, which lives on in today’s McGregor Fund.

Honoring the McGregors’ Legacy

Tracy and Katherine’s philanthropic legacy still permeates our work. We continue their example of careful use of data to learn how and when to support organizations in a thoughtful and meaningful manner. We closely observe the conditions our neighbors experience day to day and use that to inform our grantmaking.  Also, we seek out best practices from other communities and support innovation by our grantee partners.

Although the barriers many individuals face today are different in form from those of Tracy and Katherine’s era, their substance is similar. The safety net, though expanded since the days of the McGregors’ work, lacks cohesion and is fraying, badly. Further, how do we move individuals and families from crisis to stability?

Following Tracy’s example, we’ve used what we’ve learned to expand our grantmaking focus to include proven skill-building opportunities for individuals living in poverty. We support programs designed for teenagers and adults with complex lived experiences and that enable them to build knowledge and self-confidence, to make a living, and to move away from poverty and homelessness, just as many of the residents of the Mission for Homeless Men once did.

Though fulfilling basic needs remains an essential part of our mission, that mission has grown to include constructive, long-term responses. As Tracy demonstrated through his own work, our intention today is to fund programs which support individuals in building a sustainable, permanent forward path for themselves and their families.