Lessons from the Street: Capacity Building and Replication

1. Policy Framework

It is striking how much less talk there is about the poor than there was eight years ago, when the country was economically uncertain, or in previous eras, when the country felt flush.

James Fallows
"The Invisible Poor"
New York Times Magazine
March 19, 2000

This report is written for private and public funders who wish to supply technical assistance to grassroots nonprofit organizations on how to build capacity and how to replicate success. It also is written for technical assisters, whether or not they are funders, and for grassroots nonprofit organizations that seek lessons in how to enhance capacity and replicate what works.

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation does not believe that technical assistance and training can be pursued in a vacuum. Where is the nation heading? Where does the Foundation believe the nation ought to be heading? What role should technical assistance in capacity building and replication play in any vision of the future?

To answer these questions, our point of departure is an uneasiness over how America's economic system controls its political system. For example, consider the failure to legislate campaign finance reform, the resulting continuation of what some call a "one dollar, one vote" democracy, the success of the media lobby to secure from Congress free use of public airwaves, the consequent use of these public resources by the media to gain still more control over the people, the not-unrelated existence of a twenty-three percent poverty rate for children five and under after almost a decade of unprecedented economic expansion, and the not-unrelated enormous income, wage and wealth gaps between the rich and the rest of the population that have grown faster over the last twenty years in America than in any other industrialized democracy.1

A symptom of the times has been the well-financed strategic communications plan carried out over recent years by think tanks that promote tax breaks and market solutions for the rich, combined with prison building, boot camps and disinvestment for the poor. In the 1990s, foundations with this ideology made grants totaling over $1B to think tanks with a similar ideology to carry it out.2 Public attitudes have been influenced. For example, polls often show that, while majorities nationally want progress in the inner city and for the truly disadvantaged, they believe the major obstacle to doing more is "lack of knowledge."3

However, based on scientific evaluations over the last thirty years, we have learned a great deal about what doesn't work, and what does, for the inner city and the truly disadvantaged. Many of the interrelated, multiple solutions that work in child development, youth development, public school reform, job training and retention, job generation, economic development, community-based banking and problem oriented, community equity policing are led by grassroots nonprofit organizations -- or they involve such groups in partnership with other local institutions, like school systems and police departments. Accordingly, some believe we need a national policy, based on knowledge and not ideology, that stops doing what doesn't work and uses the money so saved to help invest what works -- but "at a scale equal to the dimensions of the problem," to quote the Kerner Riot Commission of the late nineteen sixties.4

To carry out this vision, the Eisenhower Foundation believes that a national communicating what works movement is necessary. Such a movement needs to convince the poor, working income people and middle income people that we do have the knowledge to carry out the education, job training and retraining reforms needed by all of them to compete in the global marketplace. We seek recognition that, for the inner city and the truly disadvantaged, public and private sector resources ought to be devolved to the local and grassroots level, not to the states. And we must enhance the capacities of the grassroots nonprofit organizations responsible for so much of what works, so that they can be replicated on a broader national scale. One model for such capacity building and replication is the process through which nonprofit community development corporations have grown from the original ten associated with Robert Kennedy's Mobilization for Youth in the nineteen sixties to over 2000 in the year 2000.5

The present report provides street level lessons for the last component of this knowledge-based vision -- capacity building and replication.

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