Making Changes

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation (assets: $3 billion) is calibrating its 10-year, $500 million (or more) Making Connections initiative, which targets 22 cities. Three years ago Casey launched its intricately designed master plan to uplift some of the nation’s most woe-be-gotten neighborhoods by declaring, “Too many young people cannot attain their full potential in America because they live in neighborhoods that are disconnected from the support, help and opportunity that parents need [in order] to give their children the best possible chance to succeed.”

The Casey game plan began when it selected low-income areas – or in the case of Camden N.J., the entire town (population: 87,492). During the next three years “the primary aim” was “to stimulate and support a local movement … in an effort to help transform tough neighborhoods into family-supportive environments.”

This approach required Casey to sit elbow-to-elbow at the neighborhood level with community-based organizations, rather than with established road-show nonprofits.

Now the “listening and learning” phase is over. Here’s the scorecard: Five of the 22 cities – Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Des Moines, Iowa, – have “moved into the second phase.” These sites are expected to move toward “specific, measurable results for children, families and neighborhoods over the next three, five and 10 years.”

Six more cities, says Casey Senior Vice President Ralph Smith, will soon arrive at the same status and remain eligible for continued financial support as Making Connections sites: Boston, Milwaukee, Louisville, Ky., Oakland, Calif., Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn.

The rest of the original 22 sites fall into two categories. In Casey parlance, three are “civic investment cities” eligible for indefinite Casey grant-making. The rest are part of a consolation prize, the “Family Strengthening Investment Program.”

The civic investment cities are Baltimore (Casey’s homeport), Atlanta (the corporate headquarters of United Parcel Service, whose executives serve on Casey’s board of trustees) and Washington. The three cities tagged with the new (or at least different) status drew the attention of the Baltimore Sun, which headlined the local news as, “Anti-poverty Program Quietly Fades Away.” Casey officials were not amused. The Sun reported that “officials of the foundation” – that would be Sandra Jibrell, the director of civic investments – “say their programs were stretched too thin to effectively run Making Connections and other efforts to help youths in Baltimore.”

Not so, says Smith. He says Baltimore and the other two cities represent for Casey “a broader civic obligation.” Casey spokeswoman Diane Camper went one better, saying, “We’re actually expanding our focus and doing more.” While the Sun reported that “over time Baltimore programs will get more money,” it’s hard to explain – even if it’s true – how not being part of an effort that is slated to spend up to half of Casey’s grant-making over the next seven years is good news for Baltimore.

Writing in mid-April to Casey’s grantees and friends, President Doug Nelson defended the foundation’s contribution since moving to Baltimore in 1994. As for “quietly fading away,” Nelson wrote, “nothing could be further from the truth,” noting that Casey has made over $35 million in grants to Baltimore. Among those funded is the Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, directed by Jann Jackson, the leading statewide campaigner for improved childhood well-being, along with almost 200 local nonprofits.
The quotes from disaffected neighborhood activists in the Sun reflect the resentment and dissent that are inevitable when a wealthy foundation puts money on the table, then asks for the overworked and underpaid working poor of a neighborhood “to bring resident-driven issues to the forefront.”

Casey’s three-year course adjustment, says Smith, was always an option. Making Connections “is not a cookie-cutter” design. “All 22 cities remain” in the initiative, says Smith, because they’re in the Making Connections Network, which hopes to keep ideas and energy flowing between the cities. The initiative that has evolved is evidence that Casey has been “paying attention to what it learned” in each city. That, Smith notes with satisfaction, is “uncommon foundation behavior.”

As an example of Casey’s flexibility, Smith cites St. Louis, where Casey decided to join a local initiative, St. Louis 2004. In Philadelphia, Casey joined forces with the Safe and Sound organization, started in 1998 as part of a five-city adolescent health effort called the Urban Health Initiative, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ). And why fight city hall, since Philadelphia Safe and Sound is run by CEO Naomi Post, the wife of Mayor John Street? Post says Safe and Sound received funding from Casey for programs that are “complementary” to Making Connections. (Safe and Sound received another $4.5 million in multi-year base funding from RWJ this year.)

In addition to St. Louis and Philadelphia, Casey’s Family Strengthening sites are Camden, Savannah, Ga., Miami, Detroit, New Orleans and San Diego. Each will remain eligible for grants targeting specific low-income issues.

But nowhere has the Casey revamping caused more angst than in long-suffering Camden, the second poorest city in the country, where half the residents over 25 have less than a high school diploma, 45 percent of the city is tax exempt and a quarter of taxes go uncollected. The city’s previous mayor, Milton Milan, was convicted of 14 counts of fraud and corruption. “The city has been threatened for several years by a state government takeover of city hall,” observes Carole Thompson, Casey senior program associate and Camden site leader.

Thompson says this overriding concern among city residents about a takeover prompted Casey to undertake an “analysis” of the city’s problems to focus on what could be done to stave off a receivership approach to the city’s ills. Thinking they were being “supportive” of the populace by such an action, Casey staffers were knocked for a loop when all hell broke loose within the community over the $500,000 cost of the 30-page “A Path Forward For Camden” report pulled together by management consultants McKinsey & Company. In a stark example of the inescapable social distance between an impoverished community and a business-like foundation, many Camden activists gleaned only one salient fact from the report: It cost enough to buy up both sides of the street in a typical Camden neighborhood. Insisting that nothing was reported that wasn’t already known, one veteran youth worker sneered, “They ate well off of this thing.”

Smith responds that the $500,000 paid for three reports that helped Camden’s residents formulate a workable plan for economic improvement. One of the Camden stakeholders is Richard Stagliano, executive director of the Center for Family Services. He laments that Camden is “not organized well enough,” but he defends the McKinsey report as money well spent. “I certainly am disappointed” Camden did not make the cut into Making Connections’ second phase. “For 20 years there has been talk of rebirth.” Stella Horton, executive director of the Juvenile Resource Center and a veteran youth worker who leads a staff of 42, points to several Casey inspired and financed programs. She cites CAM Connect, a data warehouse and information center that helps local service providers and others improve their program and fundraising acumen.

Despite the mutual disappointments in the Camden/Casey connection thus far, the foundation will spend up to $1 million there through its Family Economic Success grants. Battered Camden’s experience with Casey is analogous to a foster child again being bounced from a placement. Wrote Camden’s most famous resident, Walt Whitman, “Not i, nor anyone else can travel that road for you, you must travel it yourself.”