Tumbled Village

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When the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (assets: $5 billion) gave $3 million in operating support and a $5 million endowment to set up a foundation to fund projects serving African-American men and boys in 1996, supporters were enthusiastic. None was more ebullient than Kellogg Program Director Bobby Austin, who conceived, designed and became CEO of the venture, known as the Village Foundation (VF).

Austin left Kellogg’s aromatic precincts in Battle Creek, Mich., and set up shop in Alexandria, Va. Austin’s new village had many neighborhoods mapped out in a “25-year action plan.” There would be an American Futures Institute, an operating division of VF facilitating education and career development for “80,000 to 100,000 young men, boys and their families each year.” All were to be pulled together by a nationwide database emphasizing vocational education.

Next would come the Institute for Economics Empowerment and Entrepreneurships, immodestly created “to help impoverished communities across America achieve new prosperity.” In Los Angeles, VF would establish the Media Center, “creating new media images by and of African-American males.” That center, says a VF brochure, “formed a relationship with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.”

Plus, VF would launch the Race and Cultural Relations Institute, “promoting an ongoing dialogue on race,” and the Technology Project, “promoting mastery of communications technology.”

But the core of VF’s village was the National African-American Male Collaboration, a hodgepodge of 33 groups tied together by a “secretariat” – Chicago’s Hull House. Most were grantees of Austin’s when he was at Kellogg, and most continued to receive funding via VF.

According to VF’s 2000 IRS tax returns, some of the grantees are well-established in their communities – such as the Boys Choir of Harlem ($53,000) and San Francisco’s Omega Boys Club ($75,000). Others, like the Al Wooten Jr. Center in Los Angeles ($69,314) and Project Keep Hope Alive in Commerce, Texas ($52,000), are gripped in the daily struggle to keep staffing alive.

At least two grant-winners succumbed to that struggle: Project LEEO in Roxbury, Mass., and the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Center for Democracy and Citizenship. But the latter group’s co-director, Paul DuBois, did manage to land a $50,000 consulting fee from VF. He had plenty of other consultants to consult with, since VF spent $885,474 on this always-mysterious collection of people. That includes $167,517 to develop VF’s website and $291,350 to a New York fund development outfit called August/Seagull Ventures, which didn’t produce guano.

VF did produce a $238,986 compensation package for CEO Austin in 2000. A former Kellogg Fellow, Austin is a well-liked and creative guy with a doctorate and a career spent in the well-financed and comfortable confines of academia and philanthropy.

Once out on his own, Austin says, he received some “awful learning lessons” about just how entrepreneurial a national grant-eater in the youth field must be in order to accomplish its mission and meet payroll. From the start, Austin knew the big question was, “Could I raise the dollars for that big a mission?”

The Kellogg Foundation did provide a total of $12.4 million. Austin also raised $4 million from other sources. In 2000 VF received $421,545, but spent $5,520,956 – with 30 African-American-oriented groups receiving $1,694,957 that otherwise would not have been available to youth work. But two-thirds of VF’s spending, or $3,825,999, went elsewhere.

And in June, VF went under.

Says one national veteran and gifted survivor, assessing Austin’s game plan, “he was all over the place.” Even Austin acknowledges that VF was “maybe too broad.”

One VF board member, Frances Hesselbein, the former national executive director of the Girl Scouts of the USA and current CEO of the “do nonprofit management my way” Peter F. Drucker Foundation, wrote in a VF brochure that “the Village Foundation is the result of many years of probing discussion and planning among our nation’s most knowledgeable experts on the plight of the African-American male.”

If that’s so, it would certainly disqualify the probing Hesselbein from receiving the annual Peter F. Drucker award for Nonprofit Innovation. Austin cites Hesselbein as one of his best board members, which consisted mostly of wealthy African-American movers and shakers. Upon reflection, says Austin, “I’m not sure we had the right board.”

As for the status of African-American boys and men in contemporary society, Austin muses, “I don’t think our cause was popular, I’ll be frank.” With VF tumbled into bankruptcy, its cause lives on in a speck of a village named the Austin Institute. “It’s not the grand dream,” says Austin, now crusading from home.