I love the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. I served on its Board of Directors for ten years. The Foundation has great volunteer leaders and great staff. I say that with all sincerity. The Foundation is among the great assets we have in greater Hartford. Nevertheless, I think the Foundation’s recent efforts are sorely misdirected.
Shortly after assuming his job as President of the Hartford Foundation, Jay Williams mounted a speaking tour of the 29 towns served by the Foundation. The tour was an opportunity for Jay to get to know the area better, and for people in those towns to express their views about their towns’ needs and how the Foundation could help.
In the meeting for residents of Wethersfield and a few other towns, Jay said the Foundation was looking to do something transformative. I was encouraged, because I think greater Hartford is in trouble unless it changes. I welcomed the notion that the Foundation was prepared to step up to the challenge.
At the Foundation’s 2018 annual event for donors a few months later, Mr. Williams proudly announced the Foundation’s new initiative. He was introduced with great fanfare and a dynamic video featuring separate slides naming each town over a photo of a landmark or other structure representative of the town. Historic buildings, farms, statues of historic figures, pastoral scenes passed across the screen. Almost without exception, the photos represented the past, nostalgic representations of New England life preserved in each town. The principal exception was Hartford. Hartford’s photo showed a bustling urban environment on Constitution Plaza overlooking the river. A modern cityscape.
Then, as though he were a silicon valley CEO introducing the latest tech gadget before an adoring crowd, Jay Williams announced that the Foundation is creating 29 funds of $100,000 each, one fund that will be distributed as determined by groups of citizens in each of the towns the Foundation serves. Of the $100,000, $50,000 can be distributed to support projects in the town, and the remaining $50,000 will fund an endowment that the Foundation hopes will attract donations from the residents of the town.
In 2019, the Foundation began implementing the new program. Organizational meetings were held in various parts of our community. I attended the meeting for residents of Wethersfield, Glastonbury, Rocky Hill and one or two other towns. The meeting was run by four Hartford Foundation staff members and a consultant the Foundation had hired to assist the staff in the implementation.
I met a man who had lived in Wethersfield for decades but recently moved to Hartford. He had some ideas about how Wethersfield might use it’s $50,000.
We were required to sit at tables by town, so being a Wethersfield resident, I was unable to sit with my long-time friends from Glastonbury who attended the meeting. My new friend from Hartford sat at the Wethersfield table with me (Hartford wasn’t included in this meeting). We were told that a committee would be formed to select a second committee that would eventually make a decision about how to spend the $50,000. Members of the selection committee could not be on the distribution committee.
When we were told that committee membership would be limited to residents of the town, my new friend went home. He was ineligible to serve on any Wethersfield committee, despite his decades living there.
What’s wrong with this picture? Sadly, just about everything.
Let’s start with the money. The Foundation committed $100,000 per town to 29 towns. That’s $2.9 million dollars. Call it three million. In addition, it has four staff members committed to staffing regional meetings and then town-by-town meetings to manage the process, a process defined to the finest details. Without knowing, I’d guess by the time the process is complete, the Foundation will have committed a couple of person-years to running this effort. And they hired a consultant to help. Add in meeting room fee, drinks, snacks and sandwiches and other costs, the whole thing will end up costing the Foundation something approaching $1 million to staff and implement.
What are we, the community, getting for the $4 million? Not very much. In the first place, each town can spend only $50,000; there is practically nothing that can be done with $50,000 that will be transformative. Remember transformative? That was the goal.
The other $50,000 for each town will be held in an endowment fund at the Foundation, and the town will be able to spend about 5% of that amount each year. That’s $2500 annually. Transformative? Hardly.
That’s $4 million to allow 29 towns to each create two committees and eventually spend $52,500 each, or about $1.6 million in total. $4 million spent on $1.6 million of impact doesn’t do it for me.
(As an aside, notice how this wasteful allocation of funds mimics how our community spends its own money. Hartford and the contiguous towns have eight town halls, eight school boards, eight fire departments. We’ve separated our tax dollars into multiple separate pots and lost the purchasing power that comes with larger sums. Each year we waste tens or hundreds of millions of dollars doing things separately, and here’s our community Foundation doing the same thing. Why? Well, that’s the way we do things here. We’re good at getting the least bang for the buck.)
What is the Foundation really accomplishing with its $4 million? It’s perpetuating the notion that we are 29 separate communities with 29 separate sets of problems and 29 separate solutions. It’s giving pocket change to each community; years, or perhaps only months, after the money is spent, nothing will have changed. It’s reinforcing in each of us that what happens in the other towns is not important. It’s telling my friend from Hartford that his ideas about Wethersfield aren’t valued. It’s telling me not to collaborate with my friends from Glastonbury.
Remember the Foundation’s slide show? Photos of historic or pastoral 19th century scenes from our towns. The photo of Hartford presented a town building for the future. Hartford recaptured the riverfront. Hartford built a baseball stadium. Hartford built a soccer stadium. Hartford built and continues to build thousands of new housing units, including affordable units Hartford is building a future for the region. What are the other towns doing? They’re apart, preserving their past, the past the Hartford Foundation showed on the screen. And, by the way, they’re preserving their 19th century governance model, too.
Every bit as much as Hartford itself, the Hartford Foundation should be about building the future for the region, not about preserving the region’s past. The Foundation compounds the problem and reinforces separatist attitudes by giving each of the towns $100,000 to spend on themselves.
I saved the best for last. Do you know what the Hartford Foundation calls this initiative?
Are you ready?
This is too good.
It’s called Greater Together.
Think about that. An initiative by which 29 towns will look inward and act separately without regard to their neighbors, an initiative by which they will dribble away, collectively, almost $4 million, is called Greater Together. It’s Orwelllian Newspeak. Greater Together will not make us greater and it most certainly is not together.
I don’t blame the Foundation. I really don’t. The Foundation is a product of this community, and we have steadfastly ignored the problems we create by operating eight municipal governments and thinking of ourselves as eight separate communities. If we, all of us, were actively working to bring ourselves together as one, the Foundation’s grant-making would reflect that activity. If we were focused on being one city and one community, if that attitude were part of the working ethic of greater Hartford and its leadership, the Hartford Foundation never would have committed $4 million to sustain the isolation and separatism of the towns in the region. The Foundation would have found a way to actually help make our region greater together, rather than saying “together” but doing the opposite.
Greater Hartford and the Hartford Foundation have a long way to go.