MENLO PARK, Calif. – 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 and $20 million later, the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, as it came to be known, is 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 new report called Hard Lessons about Philanthropy and Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, by researchers Prudence Brown and Leila Fiester.
The Hewlett Foundation turned to Ms. Brown and Ms. Fiester, who are acknowledged experts in the field of community development, to interview some two dozen individuals inside and outside the Foundation to undertake a frank assessment of what went right, what went wrong, and to provide lessons to others who choose to participate in initiatives like this.
“The report is humbling, but not necessarily surprising,” said Paul Brest, President of the Hewlett Foundation. “It reminds us what happens when a foundation and its partners fail to achieve clarity about goals, strategies and how to measure progress. As the funder, it was our responsibility to find effective and respectful ways to make sure that the initiative stayed on track. As we continue to make grants to address the needs of disadvantaged communities in the Bay Area, the specific lessons we learned through this initiative and this report will be particularly important.”
Hard Lessons examines the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative’s efforts in its three community sites – East Palo Alto, the Mayfair area of San Jose, and West Oakland – and provides a wealth of suggestions about how others can learn from the Hewlett Foundation’s experience. The sixty four page report can be downloaded from the Hewlett Foundation’s website here.