The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has commissioned and made public a report that critiques a largely unsuccessful, ten-year, $20 million-plus effort that it undertook to improve the lives of residents in three disadvantaged neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The sixty-four-page report, entitled “Hard Lessons about Philanthropy and Community Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative,” explores various missteps as the Foundation attempted an ambitious plan to reduce poverty and develop new community leaders in East Palo Alto, San Jose, and west Oakland neighborhoods. While the effort did score some successes, it fell far short of the Foundation’s goal of broad, deep, and sustained change in the three communities, Foundation officials and the report’s authors agreed.

“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 be clear about their goals and how to achieve them. And it is also a good lesson in the complexities of the power dynamics among a network of foundations, community organizations, and consultants.”

Prudence Brown, a research fellow at the Chaplin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, who created the report with independent researcher Leila Fiester, said she thought the self-examination would be good for the field of philanthropy.

“Many foundations have funded reviews of comprehensive community initiatives like this one and found mixed results,” said Brown, whose work focuses on how to evaluate community change

But, she added, “foundations find it difficult to talk about these things openly. This gets a conversation going publicly that has been going on in private for ten years. It will allow others to come forward and say, ‘That happened to us too.'”

Good for the Field

Joel Fleishman, a professor of law and public policy at Duke University and author of the recently published The Foundation: A Great American Secret, said the report, by virtue of its candor in exploring the Hewlett Foundation’s shortcomings on the project, should bolster the credibility of the foundation world.

“Foundations don’t want people to know they don’t succeed at everything they do,” said Fleishman, himself a veteran of various foundations. “But as long as they maintain that pose, no one will believe them. It hurts their claims about their successes, and it makes people angry that they pretend they are perfect.”

As originally envisioned in 1996, the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative set six ambitious goals for each of the three target neighborhoods: connect fragmented efforts to ease poverty; increase the capacity of local community organizations; improve the ability of community foundations to support neighborhood improvement; develop new community leaders; leverage available resources to improve communities; and, perhaps most ambitious of all, provide long-term, statistical evidence that poverty had been reduced.

To do the work, the Foundation engaged three community foundations-the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, the Peninsula Community Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation-to act as managing partners for the work with each neighborhood.

The Eyes of the Beholder

In their report, researchers Brown and Fiester describe a “Rashomon-effect”-that is, all the participants produced substantially different, but equally plausible, accounts of the difficulties of they encountered working with one another.

In some instances, the emerging neighborhood groups resented the intrusions of the various foundations, which they perceived as a betrayal of the promise that solutions to community problems would be generated from the bottom up. Some community foundation participants resented what they perceived as meddling by the Hewlett Foundation staff, whom they thought treated them as grant recipients, rather than as partners.
In the end, preoccupation with the difficulties of these relationships made it more difficult to achieve the initiative’s goals, the researchers say in their report.

The researchers acknowledged that some of the shortcomings in planning the initiative were typical of the way foundations went about their work eleven years ago. For example, while planners did have an overarching theory of how the initiative would succeed-that greater involvement of community members and additional resources would result in improved conditions-they never took the next crucial step of explaining how each of the project’s half dozen ambitious goals connected to one another or would lead to the ultimate goal of “deep and sustained” changes in the neighborhoods.

Brown also concluded that the goal of a measurable reduction in poverty probably was not realistic in the initiative’s relatively short six-year time frame.

Brown said the two overarching lessons for other foundations undertaking such complex projects were that they must directly address the power dynamics among the different participants and that all parties must be willing to learn and modify expectations as work unfolds.

“This hasn’t made us skeptical about undertaking such ambitious and complex projects,” Hewlett’s President said. “But it has given us a renewed appreciation of how hard they are and how crucial it is to wield our power respectfully, even as we press for results.

“Meanwhile, we continue to work productively with Bay Area community foundations and the communities themselves to improve life for disadvantaged residents.”