It isn’t a typical tourist stop in this Central Valley city, but Sandra Flores, showing a visitor the sights, thought it too telling to ignore.

The stop, at the edge of downtown Fresno, California, was at a homeless encampment, a sagging jumble of castoff plywood, blue plastic tarps, and wooden pallets all tacked together to serve as shelters for dozens of families. From the looks of it, it’s been there a while.

For Flores, who recently joined the Fresno Regional Foundation as a program officer, the latter-day Hooverville represents the culmination of civic work deferred: not enough jobs, education, health care, counseling-you name it.

But thanks in part to a $1.4 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the Fresno Regional Foundation is poised to make a difference again in public life in the Central Valley’s largest city, addressing problems that ultimately contribute to encampments like the one in the downtown’s shadow.

The Hewlett grant, along with earlier grants from The James Irvine Foundation, is an acknowledgement that, after years in eclipse, the city’s community foundation again is on the move. The foundation has a new staff (including Flores), new offices, and a new motto: “Your Vision-The Valley’s Future.” It also has a full complement of prominent Fresnans filling its board for the first time in years and, most crucially, a doubling of assets since 2005.  Still, as the foundation’s chief executive officer, Dan DeSantis, is first to acknowledge, the foundation has yet to realize its potential and much work remains to make it a major force for change in the region.

“We’re gaining credibility in the community,” says DeSantis, who arrived in 2005 and began reshaping the organization. “We’re invited to the right places, and people are beginning to share with us.”

How Community Foundations Work

A community foundation is a gathering of funds donated by local individuals who look to the foundation to help them engage in effective philanthropy. Typically, these foundations balance funds earmarked by donors for specific purposes and unrestricted money the staff can use as it sees fit.

With the leaders of the Fresno foundation intent on its revitalization, the institution was a good candidate for support from Hewlett and other large national foundations, which make the health and effectiveness of nonprofit organizations an integral part of their grantmaking. Hewlett designated $150,000 of its grant to help the Fresno foundation plot a course. The money underwrote the hiring of a consultant to guide the foundation in creating a strategic plan, enabled its new board to attend conferences on philanthropy, and supported new initiatives to increase the foundation’s assets to better tackle Fresno’s cultural and social needs. In March 2008, the board introduced three new grantmaking programs with a focus on arts and culture, youth, and human services.

It is the region’s needs in this last area that most often have landed the Fresno metropolitan area in the headlines in recent years.

“Worse than Appalachia,” read the headline in the Fresno Bee last summer. The accompanying story reported the disheartening findings of researchers funded by Oxfam America and the Rockefeller Foundation that Fresno’s 20th Congressional District ranked dead last in the nation in the well-being of its residents. The 246-page study, which used the same measures of well-being that Oxfam International applies in the developing world, considers the health, education, and income of residents.

Ultimately, though, all acknowledge that the problems are regional, not confined to a specific neighborhood or district, and the solutions will need to be, too.Earlier, a 2005 study by The Brookings Institution ranked Fresno first in the nation-ahead of  runners-up New Orleans, Louisville, and Atlanta-in concentrating poverty in certain neighborhoods.

Congressman Jim Costa, who represents the 20th District, said the Fresno Foundation is a welcome partner in that work.

“In our current economy, a partnership between the public sector and private, nonprofit investment in a community is an essential,” says Rep. Costa, “and funding from local nonprofits can be much better targeted to parts of a community that truly need assistance.

“The Fresno Regional Foundation is a perfect example of a local nonprofit helping to lift people out of poverty and addressing the broad concerns in our valley.”

Bucking Progress on Teen Pregnancy,
Fighting for Better Air

Key among urgent social problems in the region are two: air quality and teen pregnancy.

The Hewlett grant to the Fresno foundation designated $200,000 for it to support grassroots organizations in their work to improve air quality. As the Fresno Bee observed in its series “Fighting for Air,” air pollution is driving residents away and hindering efforts to recruit badly-needed talent to the region’s work force. Fresno is the California’s asthma capital-more than 1 in 3 children have asthma. Fresno has the 5th worst ranking for smog-causing ozone in the entire country.

To date, the Fresno Regional Foundation has established an advisory group to make recommendations on grants to reduce the impact of dirty air and begun making grants.

Another $1.2 million of Hewlett funding is intended for  organizations to address teen pregnancy, which remains the one of the Fresno region’s most pressing problems.

While the rest of the nation has experienced declines in the rates of teen pregnancy over the past decade, California’s Central Valley has bucked this trend. Fresno County has one of the highest teen birth rates in the Central Valley, according to the California Department of Health Care Services. The Public Health Institute-an independent, nonprofit health research organization-has estimated that Fresno’s unusually high rate of more than sixty-one births for each thousand teenage girls costs society $160 million a year in the delivery of additional government services, losses to the workforce, and other secondary costs.

A study of teen pregnancy in the Central Valley conducted by the Health Equity Initiative-a research and community training project at San Francisco State University-notes that, along with poverty, other contributors to high teenage pregnancy rates are isolation, ignorance, poor self-esteem, poor parental supervision, and poor access to information.

Those are facts of life that the staff at Fresno Barrios Unidos know all too well. The organization, a Fresno Regional Foundation grantee supported with Hewlett funds, is one of the grantees with a successful track record in combating teen pregnancy.

Socorro Santillan, executive director of Fresno Barrios Unidos, says her organization began as an anti-gang effort, but gradually evolved into something much broader, as it became clear that violence wasn’t gang members’ only risky behavior and that teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections were also part of their lifestyles.

From its storefront office directly across the street from Fresno’s Roosevelt High School, Fresno Barrios Unidos draws the worried and the curious to come by to be tested for sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy and stay for their after-school program Healthy Decisions, which counsels kids on self-esteem, anatomy, birth control, teen dating violence, and communications skills, among other topics. If students stay for the whole course, they receive $20 gift certificates.

Santillan’s organization does similar outreach at Fresno’s other high schools. In addition to providing health services and accurate information about reproductive health, Fresno Barrio Unidos offers parenting classes for teenage moms, mentoring programs, and health fairs throughout the county.

For Fresno Regional Foundation Program Officer Flores, the work is one more way to keep that tent city at the edge of downtown from growing and perhaps someday eliminate it. And with her foundation growing and more active than it has been in years, she’s hoping it will be one success among many.

“It’s an exciting time to be at the foundation,” says Flores. “There is so much to do.”