Note: Last week I published an essay about the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and Greater Together, the Foundation’s program that provides $100,000 to each of 29 towns to fund current and future citizen-driven grantmaking in support of projects in each town. Jay Williams, the President of the Foundation, sent me the following excellent response. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but the point of this never has been about who’s right and who’s wrong. The point is that greater Hartford needs to be talking about this and moving forward.

Here’s what Jay had to say:

You may be surprised to learn that I’ve shared your view about cities like Hartford for many years. As a matter of fact, as Mayor of the City of Youngstown, Ohio (a city very similarly situated to Hartford) I expended significant political capital pushing a proposal fundamentally similar to what you envision for Hartford. I actually staked my elected office on such a proposal, knowing that such a “merger” would dilute my political base. I did so, because I firmly believed that the future prospects of the region were vastly more important than any single elected office holder. So, we are actually on the same page in that regard.

Where perhaps we diverge, is in your interpretation of the Hartford Foundation’s activities. Your essay is built on a faulty premise, which makes it difficult to address the subsequent conclusions that you draw from that premise. So, without trying to litigate each point, I’ll try to summarize my response.

The Community Funds the Foundation established, were never presented or intended to be the singularly “transformative” regional catalyst that perhaps you interpreted them as. The Community Funds were a direct result of our listening tour, in which the communities expressed a wide array of localized needs that could be better served through grant making at the grass roots level. The funds serve as a tool to anchor our relationship and engage with those communities in a way that had clearly been lacking. The $2.9 million was an initial investment, not a one-time grant.

Ironically however, in virtually every one of those 29 meetings, the issue of our fate as a region was also discussed at length. A number of these communities have already raised the prospect of cross-community and regional funding collaboration, specifically citing collaboration with Hartford. Whether region is defined as one merged city of 350,000, or multiple communities that are less “municipal border-conscious” is secondary.

As an aside, I also have several years of first-hand experience from communities across the country that have merged or attempted to merge. The outcomes range from relative success, to failed aspirations, unfulfilled promises and lingering hostilities. (A common thread is that most efforts took decades and always looked better from afar, than the reality on the ground.) With all that being said, I still remain a proponent of the approach under the right circumstances, albeit also a pragmatist.

Instead of looking at the Community Funds as the Foundation’s foremost transformative effort (which again, they were never intended to be, and which also negates your cost/benefit analysis), I’d invite you to examine our new strategic focus. This is the transformative work that we are committing ourselves to. It has implications and importance which far exceed the, admittedly inadequate, 19th century governance model that exists in our region.

In closing, I’d be amongst the first to help champion and facilitate a discussion about a “merged Hartford.” I‘d even advocate for significant involvement and investment from the Foundation. Actually, I’m co-chairing the Hartford 400 initiative, which at its core seeks to address this very issue. Nonetheless, the reality is that absent a groundswell from citizens, unprecedented and courageous political leadership, changes in State policy, an existential crisis or some intersection of “all of the above,” we’ll be discussing this proposal fifty years from now. In the interim, the Hartford Foundation has committed itself to helping to transform our region in ways we believe we can be most impactful.

I’ll leave you with this, in March 2008 during your tenure as Board Chair, you issued a (well-reasoned) memo to your fellow directors that contained a set of conclusions and you also shared the journey in how you reached those conclusions. I’d argue that an objective comparison of the broader evolution of the Hartford Foundation over the past few years, in light of your March 2008 memo, reveals an organization with more work to do, yet, also inarguably well on its way to becoming the foundation you envisioned.

So, while I fully agree with the last sentence of your essay, “Greater Hartford and the Hartford Foundation have a long way to go,” I equally disagree with your title suggesting, “The Hartford Foundation Gets It Wrong.” Based on the data reflecting the challenges in our region and the responses from our donors and other stakeholders, we have every reason to be encouraged thus far that, the Hartford Foundation is getting it right.

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