April Fools,” Sean MacEntee

April 2, 2019; Fast Company

Although the shutdown of Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities program was reported last week, the program’s closure only became official Monday—perhaps appropriately, on April Fool’s Day. The juxtaposition of the winding down of the foundation’s leading sustainability program as climate adaptation challenges continue to mount is nothing if not ironic.

When the announcement came, it was buried “seven paragraphs down” in a press release that led with a new grant, reports Ellie Anzilotti for Fast Company. The title of the press release: “The Rockefeller Foundation Announces $30 Million Grant to the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council.” The grant, the press release explains, marks the “next phase” of the foundation’s “leadership on climate and resilience.”

But apparently, “leadership” involves letting go of the very program that established the foundation’s reputation in the field. Just last year, the Urban Institute released so-called “midterm findings­­­” stating that 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) “in the five years since its creation, is making important progress in helping urban areas around the world institutionalize and build resilience to a wide range of shocks and stresses.” (The full report is here). Doing some quick math, if 2018 was supposed to be the middle of the program and the program began in 2013, then the program had at least a few years left. Indeed, the Urban Institute indicated in its 2018 report that it expected its program evaluation effort to continue through 2022.

The idea behind the 100 Resilient Cities approach was to encourage cities to develop a plan for climate resiliency and to hire a full-time official—a chief resilience officer, if you will—who would oversee implementation. The 2018 Urban Institute report found that participating cities “have hired 83 Chief Resilience Officers and released 49 Resilience Strategies.” The study also found that Rockefeller’s $164 million investment in the program had helped partner cities secure “more than $3.35 billion in external funding for urban planning projects.”

As Anzilotti explains, “Each of the 100 member cities received two years’ worth of seed funding to create a new Chief Resilience Officer position in the local government, which would oversee the development of a resilience strategy, and eventually implementation of that plan. Since the program launched, the cities have been working toward those goals at varying speeds, and communicating with each other about strategies and approaches through the collaborative forum that the 100RC platform provided.” Cities that had participated in the program were located in 47 countries on six continents. US cities that have been part of the program were Atlanta, Berkeley, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Washington, DC.

In the Urban Institute’s evaluation, Sarah Rosen Wartell, the nonprofit’s president, said, “We know from our research how important it is to build capacity in city governments to foresee challenges, involve citizens, and provide equitable services. These goals require time and commitment and, as this midterm report shows, both are showing signs of paying off.”

The evaluation also highlighted the program’s focus on long-term institution building. “Most comparable programs have focused directly on projects or services, while 100RC’s theory of change focuses on the long-term transformation of institutions and systems in cities as a precursor to project implementation,” the report notes.

But now, Rockefeller says, “the grant that funds 100RC will conclude in 2019.” According to Anzilotti, the program will formally dissolve in July, only three months from now. In Bloomberg, Christopher Flavelle reports that all 86 staff at the 100 Resilient Cities program have been told they will be laid off effective July 31st.

Clearly, the early termination was a surprise. Anzilotti explains that staff participating in the program “did not see it coming.” Anzilotti adds that, “Those familiar with the program (who requested anonymity) told Fast Company they expected the program to continue in perpetuity, or at least through the bulk of cities’ implementations of their strategies.”

One can tell, too, through the wording of the press release, that there is more than a bit of shame and defensiveness about the foundation’s change of heart. Even the phrase “the grant that funds 100RC will conclude in 2019” is a subordinate clause of the last sentence of the eighth paragraph of the press release.

Former Rockefeller Foundation president Judith Rodin once said that, “Philanthropy is littered with short-term success and long-term lack of sustainability.” Rodin, who preceded the current president Rajiv Shah, hardly had a perfect record, but she might have had a point nonetheless.

Anzilotti adds, “There’s no doubt that the resilience projects the Rockefeller Foundation will fund going forward will deliver immensely positive benefits to the communities they affect. But there was something to be said for the visibility and structure of the 100RC cities program that this next phase of work can’t possibly replicate… One can imagine looking back 20 years from now and feeling that abandoning it was a mistake.”—Steve Dubb