Evaluation of the Fighting Back Initiative

Published: April 2005

Type: Publication

This teaching case covers the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Fighting Back Initiative. It offers a complicated story about the many issues foundations face in evaluating their investments.


Teaching cases are factual stories of one foundation’s in-depth experiences related to evaluation and learning. Stories highlight important challenges that confront foundations in their evaluation work, and put readers in the role of decision makers who are confronted with problems and options for solutions as the story unfolds. This teaching case was produced for the Evaluation Roundtable, a network of evaluation and learning leaders in foundations.


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation developed a multi-site initiative that used community-generated strategies to reduce the use and abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs. From a community planning phase through two phases of implementation, the Fighting Back initiative was in place for 12 years, backed by a Foundation investment of $88 million.

At the end, evaluators concluded that across the Fighting Back sites, the initiative did not produce significant reductions in use. There were measurable reductions in the use of some substances in some individual sites, but the evaluators did not attribute them to the activities of the Fighting Back groups.

These findings were not the end of the Fighting Back story. They stirred new attempts to understand what happened. Much about the evaluation was questioned by some stakeholders. Equally significant issues were questioned, usually by other stakeholders, about the Fighting Back intervention and the broader role of the Foundation in the Fighting Back story.

The case offers multiple perspectives on the Fighting Back evaluation, high emotions, and unresolved conflicts.

This case presents the differing perspectives without judgment or conclusions. It is a complicated story that covers many issues foundations face in evaluating their investments. On most issues presented here, there are generally two views – the “program” view and the “evaluation” view. Interestingly, only a few of the facts are in dispute. The interpretations of the facts, the meanings, and the lessons are mainly at issue.