Hard Lessons about Philanthropy & Community Change
The Neighborhood Improvement Initiative
In 1996, the Hewlett Foundation embarked upon an ambitious, multiyear, multimillion dollar initiative designed to improve the lives of residents in three disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Bay Area.
Ten years later, the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, as it came to be known, was an acknowledged disappointment. While the initiative did improve life in the three neighborhoods, its impact did not reflect the large investments of financial and human resources.
What went wrong? How can the Hewlett Foundation and its colleagues in the community and philanthropy learn from the experience of the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative? Those are the central questions the Hewlett Foundation sought to answer in a report called Hard Lessons about Philanthropy and Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, by researchers Prudence Brown and Leila Fiester. Read the report by clicking here.
With the report’s release, Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest reflected on what it means to admit that a strategy and a large investment failed.
This is the story of a philanthropic initiative that did not meet the expectations of its many stakeholders. Given the challenging social problems that foundations and our grantees try to solve, we should expect that we will often fail to achieve our shared aspirations. When this happens, we should seize the opportunity to understand the causes in order to improve our own performance and benefit others working in the field.
From 1996 through 2006, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation committed over $20 million to a Neighborhood Improvement Initiative (NII), an initiative designed to improve the lives of residents in three Bay Area communities—West Oakland, East Palo Alto, and the Mayfair area of East San Jose. The Hewlett Foundation enlisted three community foundations as “managing partners,” and we created new organizations as well as involving existing ones in the neighborhoods. The NII was intended both to achieve tangible improvements for residents and to strengthen the long-term capacity of the community foundations and neighborhood organizations to sustain change.
While the West Oakland project self-destructed early on, the NII left Mayfair and East Palo Alto better than it had found them, and helped create organizations that continue to serve their residents in youth development, education, public safety, and other areas. Despite the huge investment of financial and human resources, however, the NII fell far short of achieving the hoped-for tangible improvements in residents’ lives. While some stakeholders view characterizing the NII as a failure as too harsh, it certainly was a great disappointment.
Learning from failure or disappointment is more easily said than done. Understandably but regrettably, “failure” is treated as a dirty word in the nonprofit sector. While the main cost of a foundation’s acknowledging failure is some bruised egos, other organizations’ future funding may be on the line. In any event, consistent with the adage that victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan, unsuccessful ventures more often lead to finger pointing than reflection. Thus, the learning process begs for the perspective of a neutral party.
The entire field is fortunate that two acknowledged experts in community development were willing to undertake this study, and also fortunate that many participants in the NII were willing to speak frankly to them. In the face of the Rashomon-like quality of this complex venture, Prudence Brown and Leila Fiester have done a remarkable job identifying what is known and what is contested. Most important, they have drawn valuable conclusions that will help others who are undertaking comprehensive community initiatives.
I leave it to their study to describe implications for the field. Here, I will just mention the major lessons that the Hewlett Foundation took away from the experience. For us, it reinforced the critical importance of clarity about goals, strategies, and indicators of progress, as well as the need for all the participants in a joint venture to agree on these matters at the outset. This does not foreclose significant course corrections along the way—but that term implies that there is a course to correct, and this was not always evident in the NII.
At any given time, the NII had a mix of substantive and capacity-building goals for improving residents’ lives and building indigenous capacity to continue doing so after the initiative ended. But the specific projects were constantly changing, and the strategies never quite kept up with them, nor did efforts to assess their progress. Indeed, it was not until some time into the venture that the NII articulated and pursued clear, tangible objectives for improving the communities and began to assess progress toward them.
Efforts to strengthen disadvantaged communities require perseverance, patience, and sustained focus on a limited number of strategies. The role of evaluation is seldom to determine whether one has ultimately succeeded, but rather to give the participants the feedback necessary to know whether they are on the path to success so that they can make adjustments if they are not.
Like most of the other participants, we came to understand these principles better during the course of the NII. The Foundation’s efforts to induce other NII participants to focus on outcomes were seen as heavy-handed, doubtless with some reason. Given the complex relationships among the various organizations, and the power dynamics that infused them, what the Foundation intended as helpful interventions were sometimes taken as capricious intrusions.
The NII experience has not made us skeptical about undertaking ambitious systemic approaches to social change locally and globally. But it has given us a renewed understanding that such change is as difficult as it is important. It has heightened our consciousness of the power that funders wield. And I hope that it has improved the Foundation’s ability to wield that power respectfully at the same time that we press grantees and ourselves to attain the clarity of goals, strategies, and feedback that is essential to such ventures having even a chance of success.
For all the problems described in the report, we are proud of our partners’ and our own work in East San Jose and East Palo Alto—work that continues to bear fruit. And we continue to collaborate productively with Bay Area community foundations to improve the prospects for disadvantaged communities in the region.
I hope that readers will find Prudence Brown’s and Leila Fiester’s report as helpful as my colleagues and I have.
Paul Brest, President
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation