by Susan Hirsch,

Executive Director
Peter and Miriam Haas Fund

From Parks As Community Places: San Francisco, 1998, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

Susan Hirsch has served as the Executive Director of the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund since 1992. She has overseen the conceptualization and development of the Fund’s Early Childhood Grantmaking Program, which is currently in its third year of implementation. Early childhood is the primary focus of the Fund’s grantmaking. Previously, Ms. Hirsch was the Executive Director of Bay Area Strive for Five, a corporate and foundation-sponsored regional project aimed at increasing personal philanthropy and volunteerism in the San Francisco Bay area.

We are interested in supporting issues that transcend one particular program area. Parks are one of these issues, because parks are a meeting place for the community. They are places where – regardless of your education, your background, where you live, your age – people come together. So, from our perspective, we have become involved with parks because they impact the community as a whole.

“We believe very strongly that leadership is critical, and that one person can make a difference.”

As a foundation, we are interested in systems – from management to transportation to facilities to delivery of services. We are not looking to simply plug holes by, for example, painting a building, believing that it will take care of the graffiti. Rather, we ask, “How do you engage kids so that they take pride so that the graffiti is not put back up?”

Foundations are conveners. We can work with community organizations and other foundations to ask questions about better coordination of programs and services, and we can also be active participants in public/private discussions. Every community is looking at these issues, and there is a role for a foundation in that dialogue. We can leverage our funds with those of the city government, working with boards of supervisors, and other taxing authorities.

When we are doing our program reviews and meeting with people in communities, we ask lots of questions, ranging from, “What went right?” to “What didn’t go as you expected,” “What are some of the challenges that you faced?” and “How would you look at it differently?” Real leaders who embark on a major initiative, whether it’s a park program or an early childhood program, think about what went right, and also what could have been done better. Being willing to share experiences helps eliminate some of the misperceptions that a community may have about foundations and what foundations may know about communities.

“In the absence of leadership and a strong commitment to look at all of the issues, it is very hard to convince foundations and individual donors to take a risk.”

Foundation support doesn’t only mean more dollars. A foundation can step back and look at how a city department can be strengthened. A foundation can ask questions such as, What are the roles of non-profit groups? What are the capacity and technical assistance issues that need to be brought to bear across departments? Are there relationships across departments that haven’t yet been looked at – whether it’s the police department, the school district, the fire department, or the public health department? Are there management issues to consider, or economies of scale to include? What duplication can be eliminated? We believe that everyone who has a vested interest in what happens in neighborhood parks as well as the larger parks should be approached.

A tough thing for every community – and this cuts across every issue and every program area as well – is being willing to face difficult issues directly. Otherwise, sensitive issues such as privatization and corporate sponsorships are sometimes avoided. By not talking about these difficult issues, people stay skeptical, don’t explore the possibilities, and as a result, they may miss opportunities.

Among the issues that we look at across program areas is leadership, both in the public sector and in the private sector. We believe very strongly that leadership is critical, and that one person can make a difference. In the absence of good leadership and a strong commitment to look at all of the issues, it is very hard to convince foundations and individual donors to get involved and take a risk in a project.

In some ways money can be the easier part of making things happen. The blood, sweat and tears commitment, passion, and long-term investment by those of you who are in the community doing the work is much more difficult. You have a sense and a perspective that is terribly important for us to understand as we go about our business. Putting aside concerns about turf and control, looking objectively at what the needs and resources really are – these are the essential hard first steps to solving problems – and creating solutions.