Truth When Kindly Fibs Would Feel Better – Foundation Accountability (Part 1 of 3)

It is an undeniable truth that foundations rarely admit to their mistakes yet-- big breath o’ fresh air-- two recently-released reports counter that longstanding tradition.

Both reports, one from the James Irvine Foundation and one from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, critically assess the execution of multi-year, multi-million dollar efforts to strengthen communities. Such efforts, often called “comprehensive community initiatives,” are characterized by big money, deep involvement by foundation staff, longer timelines, and the courage to focus not on symptoms, but on root problems. In an era in which new philanthropists are bringing growing resources to increasingly ambitious aspirations, the importance of this “truth-telling” by those who have undertaken such efforts cannot be underestimated. I often quote Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Ralph Smith, who has talked about “making new mistakes”, and very much believe that reports like these promote philanthropy’s collective capacity to do so.

The first is “Mid-Course Corrections to a Major Initiative – A Report on the James Irvine Foundation’s CORAL Initiative.” The goal of CORAL (which stands for Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning) was to improve educational performance of low-performing California students in five sites. To this end, Irvine made a commitment of $60 million over eight years. It was the largest in the foundation’s history. Irvine President James Canales introduces the report by writing, “While we do not yet have final evaluation results (and we intend to share those in fall 2007), we do have a story to tell about our need to change the course of the initiative mid-stream. It is a complicated story and difficult story, for it reveals numerous shortcomings on the Foundation’s part.”

The report from Hewlett is entitled “Hard Lessons About Philanthropy and Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative.” Written by Prudence Brown and Leila Feister, it describes a ten-year, $20 million effort to improve three Bay Area neighborhoods. Hewlett’s president, Paul Brest, doesn’t mince any words when he opens the report by stating, “This is the story of a philanthropic initiative that did not meet the expectations of its many stakeholders.”

I’ve got a very personal take on these reports because I walked the road described in these reports when I headed an earlier “comprehensive community initiative” called the Children, Youth and Families Initiative. This 10-year, $30 million effort to strengthen seven Chicago communities was conducted by the Chicago Community Trust, and I served as director for the final four. My take as a funder is nuanced by the fact that prior to heading that Initiative, I had spent the previous seven years raising money a nickel and dime at a time as the director of a youth development agency. Looking back on the Initiative after it closed in 2000, I wrote:

I came to this role with deep frustrations about the generally dysfunctional nature of interactions between foundations and the nonprofits they fund. Rather than vigorously honest explorations between peers who occupy two sides of the same social change spectrum, these interactions are more often sales pitches by supplicants who, if they are to be successful, must maintain the illusion that all power lies on the hands of those with money. I felt hopeful when I came to the Trust in 1999, that my experience ‘in the trenches’ of nonprofit management would enable me to forge relationships I had had with only a handful of Chicago grantmakers whom I most admire.

Read Part 2, and Part 3.

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:38 AM on June 08, 2007

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):