Public Policy Forum Blog

Zilber effort shows signs of avoiding philanthropic pitfalls

Judging from a recent newspaper column, I am not the only one with a wish-list of things I would love to do with Joseph Zilber’s money to help Milwaukee. The philanthropist plans to invest $50 million of his own funds (in addition to $50 million in other gifts that he announced in 2007), matched by at least $150 million from the community. While it is nice that Zilber is actively welcoming new ideas about how to spend millions of dollars in our city, what is most critical is that his initiative avoid common pitfalls of philanthropy. Some elements to watch for as this effort progresses:

Replicating a successful model

Funders who only support flashy, innovative strategies (some of which are sure to be on the wish-lists written in response to Eugene Kane's most recent column) end up throwing short-term money at long-term problems, never supporting proven strategies. Zilber seems interested in replicating the New Communities Program, a community development strategy shown to be effective in 16 Chicago neighborhoods. This could allow Milwaukee to learn from Chicago’s experience and hit the ground running.

Building local support and rejecting one-size-fits-all solutions

The Zilber Neighborhood Initiative presumes that different neighborhoods have different needs. The initiative’s consultant, Susan Lloyd, explains that the aim is “providing long-term support in a flexible way so that efforts can be fashioned to what individual areas need and can do.” Though time will tell how closely Zilber follows Chicago's New Communities Program, that model emphasizes involving neighbors in planning, coordination by neighborhood-based lead agencies, and tailoring solutions to unique characteristics of each area. The Chicago program used 14 neighborhood-based agencies to lead locals in structured community planning processes. Three thousand people across Chicago participated in creating quality-of-life plans for specific neighborhoods. As the program website explains, it was designed to “strengthen communities from within.”

Meeting strategic objectives

If the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative follows the New Communities method, it will likely generate a roadmap of clear implementation objectives. Community visioning processes in Chicago addressed issues in the following categories: physical, family, economic, social, and government.

Collaborating and leveraging funds

Philanthropy works best when not in isolation. The Zilber Neighborhood Initiative so far has preached collaboration as an element in both the programming – with multiple nonprofits expected to work together – and the funding. A true measure of success will be whether the initiative successfully meets its goal of using the initial $50 million investment to catalyze corporations, foundations and philanthropists to give at least $150 million in additional gifts.

A long-term commitment

Long-term timelines prevent a negative scenario in which programming is expected to be successful immediately, with no plan to sustain the efforts. Zilber envisions a ten-year effort -- a lifetime in the philanthropic world -- allowing for the planning efforts that are often necessary for long-term success and sustainability.

Managing for results

At this early point, little information is available about the initiative's plans for financial management, program evaluation, organizational capacity-building, and cultural competency, elements that will be key to successful implementations. Zilber's openness in welcoming the community's ideas for how to spend his own money has the ring of good P.R., while also having the potential to help Milwaukeeans to feel engaged in and invested in the project's success. It would be a good sign if research-proven methods (best practices) carry weight along with the wisdom of local residents, to avoid the danger of funding well-intentioned intervention methods that studies show are ineffective.

Joseph Zilber’s willingness to invest $50 million in Milwaukee neighborhoods is impressive in and of itself. It will be equally praiseworthy if his bottom-up, replicated strategy continues on a path of smart philanthropy and resident engagement.