Promises, Promises: Rural Advocates vs. Big Philanthropy

In November 2002, a Yakima County, Washington, organizer filed a class action suit against the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) for breach of contract. He argued that the community had done everything it was supposed to do to qualify for the grants tentatively proposed by the foundation, and that NWAFaEU(tm)s ultimate decision not to make the grants violated an implied contract.

Some six years later, community advocates in Yakima County, Washington, and the St. Paul-based Northwest Area Foundation are still picking up the pieces after the disastrous encounter that led to this unique lawsuit. How did all this come about?

The sprawling eastern Washington farming county, where more than one-fifth aEU" nearly twice the state average aEU" of the residents lived below the poverty level in 2005, was among the foundationaEU(tm)s aEUoecommunity ventureaEU sites. NWAF had allocated a portion of its resources to community-wide antipoverty grants of $10 million to be disbursed over a decade to select communities. The foundation required the sites to undergo a lengthy planning process to qualify for the grant. Brand new organizations were to spring from the planning.

Beginning in 2001, hundreds of Yakima activists and community leaders participated in meetings, seminars, visioning efforts and more meetings. This nearly 2-year, $750,000 process sparked and led by NWAF was long and exhausting.

Like other candidate communities, the Yakima Countians had come to the table knowing they faced steep obstacles aEU" especially racial and ethnic divisions. The county is home to the Yakama Nation, one of the largest Indian nations in the Northwest; some 45 percent of the residents are Latino, many of them farmworkers. They tried to come together because the area had almost no indigenous philanthropic resources. The possibility of a $10 million infusion lured them to the table.

In the end, the foundation declined to fund implementation of the plan, much to Yakima ValleyaEU(tm)s shock.

The experience was so traumatic that it spawned a lawsuit, soul-searching by the foundation and much bitterness all the way around. Some in the community are still recovering. Teri K. Johnson-David, economic development director of the Yakama Nation, declined to talk about the experience, writing in an e-mail, aEUoeThis is in the past and should stay there (buried).aEU

Many community participants believed that the foundation misled them. NWAF, recalls Carole Folsom-Hill, executive director of La Casa Hogar Yakima Interfaith Coalition, said that it aEUoewanted this to be an integrated process, they wanted to build a structureaEU that would involve the whole community. Community groups agreed to participate, she said, because aEUoethe carrot was very enticing. WeaEU(tm)re kind of powerless; weaEU(tm)ll do what they say. We donaEU(tm)t have any money, [so] we tried.aEU

The nonprofit organizations, she recalls, aEUoewere the voice of the community. We knew the community well and thought we could influence [the foundationaEU(tm)s] decision."

People from all perspectives have various explanations for why (or even whether) the process broke down and why the foundation failed to award the grant. These include problems with NWAF staff turnover, unclear expectations at the start, racial and class tensions among the Indian, Latino and white communities, and the particularities of the Yakama NationaEU(tm)s engagement process.

According to an NWAF leader, there was no contract, implied or otherwise, that guaranteed that by going through the planning process, the Yakima Valley would automatically receive the grant. The foundationaEU(tm)s view is that the community didnaEU(tm)t come together sufficiently to warrant the 10-year investment. Among the factors NWAF cited was the unwillingness of the Yakama Nation to sign off on the idea of a new organization that, as in the other venture sites, would have implementation authority.

aEUoeIt was not nice,aEU lamented Folsom-Hill. aEUoeIt looked like it wasnaEU(tm)t top-down, but in the end it was a top-down process.aEU

Perhaps attorney Matthew Metz put his finger on the nub of it when he said that NWAF was aEUoetrying to substitute for the political process, but government is there for the long haul and [the foundation] proved they werenaEU(tm)t.aEU He might have added that many of the community advocates are deeply committed to the long haul as well.

Despite their disappointments, it seems that very few in Yakima County supported or were even involved in the lawsuit brought by former United Farm Workers organizer Julio Romero. A foundation lawyer, according to former NWAF staffer Ellery July, considered it a aEUoeshakedown.aEU

RomeroaEU(tm)s legal action, Romero v NWAF, never bore fruit; the courts gave the breach of contract theory some credence, but in the end awarded the plaintiffs inconsequential compensation for the out-of-pocket travel expenses residents incurred to attend planning meetings. Romero did not respond to Blue AvocadoaEU(tm)s attempts to reach him but Metz, who represented him, says aEUoethe foundation was playing with peopleaEU(tm)s lives.aEU Nonetheless, he hopes that NWAF continues to move forward with its antipoverty effort.

aEUoeIt was a good program,aEU Metz said. aEUoeThey should give it a chance, but there were difficulties with their administration and personnel.aEU

Meanwhile, NWAF ultimately awarded payoff grants of $250,000 each to a farmworkers clinic and a local college. Unconfirmed reports indicate that a third grant went to the Yakama Nation.

Still, the outcome was so crushing that some might have turned away from community organizing aEU" or antipoverty grantmaking aEU" for good. Instead, participants are drawing on the experience to shape new projects.

In announcing the appointment of a new president late last month, the foundation said in a press release that its board had moved to adopt aEUoesignificant changesaEU based on aEUoelessons learnedaEU from the community ventures program, including the Yakima Valley experience. (Another NWAF endeavor aEU" a community ventures program targeting urban Indian communities in Seattle, Portland, Billings and Rapid City aEU" had faced similar problems, prompting an NWAF special committee to reconsider the situation and ultimately disperse more than $6 million in grants.)

Future foundation strategy aEUoewill be to make grants to proven or promising organizations doing effective poverty reduction work in their communities or in the region.aEU In other words, NWAF will no longer try to construct new organizations where established groups already exist, an approach confirmed by NWAF Board Chairman David Kemmis.

aEUoeThere are always subtle local dynamics and nuances of relationships that itaEU(tm)s almost impossible to know unless you have lived with them for years or decades,aEU Kemmis told Blue Avocado.

In Yakima Valley, faith aEU" tempered by bitter experience aEU" is bringing community advocates to the table once again so that the community can take advantage of a large new project initiated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has decided to launch an early childhood education program in the Valley as part of its Thrive by Five program. With a plan made in the Gates Seattle headquarters, not Yakima Valley, community leaders sometimes whisper and wonder whether this initiative will be just one more ill-fated foundation experience like the one they had with NWAF. Even so, in the hope that Gates will bring desperately-needed resources to Yakima Valley, the community is again gearing up its hopes and working through a process with a big foundation, hoping that this time they wonaEU(tm)t end up feeling misled and abandoned.

Rick Cohen is the national correspondent of Nonprofit Quarterly magazine. Before joining NPQ, he was the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Comments (4)

  • I was disheartened to hear of the Yakima area's experience with NWAF. Our community piloted a Horizon's Leadership project with NWAF with an eye toward finding ways to mitigate poverty in our community. The result was disasterous. Our thriving, involved and very active community association disintegrated through the process, we ended up with no financial advantage through grant opportunities for having endured this 18 month process and two years later we are still struggling to find a way to put humpty dumpty back together again. As for poverty reduction - that hasn't happened either. It was a disappointing experience all the way around.

    Apr 15, 2008
  • Duchess, Thanks for your comment. (I loved that you were able to share what sounds like a bitter experience without ranting!) Seems this was a really tough experience. What are some of the ways you all are trying to get yourselves back together?

    Apr 21, 2008
  • Facinating that so much money caused so many problems. I wasn't close to it, but my community in Central Oregon received the NWAF grant and seemed to be worse off for the investment. Funding working models seems prudent, but I would like to believe commnities could come together and create spectacular results with this kind of investment.

    Apr 22, 2008
  • The conclusion in a comment by Greg that Central Oregon is worse off due to a grant from NWAF is ill-supported and regretfully too widely held. If results were duly researched you would find extraordinary results from the early community model including: the rapid launch and development of 4 new rural clinics enabling 8000 patient visits with caseworker support, spawning of the tri county childcare coalition, investments in early childhood and youth initiatives, boosting community kitchen in conjunction with community newspaper that led to incorporation of a new city, spawning a land-trust affordable model that was adopted by housing authority, and an effective action team on Warm Springs reservation has and will continue to forever change the economic future due to this legacy grant with NWAF. After structural changes the Central Oregon grantee is now making regional institutional benchmarks with education and workforce initiative and a focus on collaborative solutions with public and private sector addressing the causes of poverty rather than more resources to the symptoms.

    Aug 04, 2008

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