America’s Promise: 6 years, 5 promises and $53 million later

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April marked the sixth anniversary of the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, held in Philadelphia. Needed or not, a gathering of more than 3,000 (including President Bill Clinton and former presidents Bush, Carter and Ford) launched America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth with the summit’s chairman, retired Gen. Colin Powell, the dominant personality.

Powell, now secretary of state, has found international alliance-building to be tough going. His wife, Alma Powell, co-chair of America’s Promise (AP), is finding alliance-building with the nation’s politicians, business leaders and fractious youth-serving organizations to be just as tough.

For the past six years, AP has been run out of an Alexandria, Va., headquarters with a staff of 60 led by President Peter Gallagher, who earned $322,628 in 2001. In 1997, the newly minted group took in more than $9 million, little of it directly from the federal government.

By 2000, the group, endlessly in search of a viable niche to justify its existence, was down to a still handsome $6,285,584. That was the year AP broke its kick-off ceremony promise to other national youth-serving agencies.

With those agencies leery of having another grant-eating group to compete with, AP had pledged that it would go out of business after three years. In March 2000, Powell explained his about-face in his column, in AP Bulletin No. 32: “It is not too soon for us to take pride in all we have accomplished so far. But these accomplishments will be diminished or lost if we quit before the work is done.”

That led to another broken promise: to not compete directly with others for funds. Rather, AP would mine (went the public relations line) heretofore unavailable gold from America’s highly profitable multinational corporations. Thanks to Powell’s charm, that is exactly what happened.

But even as the group blew past its three-years-and-we’re-out pledge, corporate support waned. AP soon turned in earnest to America’s favorite philanthropist – Uncle Sam. In fiscal 2000, the group wheedled $1,737,628 from the Department of Defense budget, and $193,107 from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJ).

Beginning in 2001, AP joined thousands of other special interests and went directly to Congress for an accountability-free donation. No congressional Republican nor most Democratic members would just say no to Gen. Powell.

AP backed up its salesman-in-chief by spending $592,568 on lobbying that year, winning $10,363,461 in congressional earmarks in 2001-02 through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) budget. The funding began during the waning months of former Sen. Harris Wofford’s (D-Pa.) tenure as CEO of the corporation. Always an enthusiastic AP booster, Wofford now co-chairs AP’s board with Mrs. Powell.

In fiscal 2003, the Bush White House requested $7.5 million for AP; that request was cut back to $5 million by a post-tax-cut, strapped-for-cash Congress. For fiscal 2004, the president is again asking for $7.5 million, but insiders say AP will have to make do with its current funding level. One AP lobbyist, the affable Ralph Forsht, stresses that any rumor of staff cuts is “completely false.” Still, there’s been plenty of change in the senior ranks.

Former Bush I White House aide Gregg Petersmeyer resigned as senior vice president last fall, after five years in AP’s senior ranks, but remains on AP’s 20-member board. Recently added to that august body are former Baltimore Orioles demi-god Cal Ripken Jr. and Jin “Roy” Ryu, CEO of Poongsan Corp.

Also departing from AP was the Rev. Tony Campbell, who was in charge of community mobilization, and the Rev. Mark Farr, AP’s liaison with faith congregations. Farr calls AP “a clear gift to the nation.” He now brings mission clarity to the volunteer-promoting Points of Light Foundation (PoL), led by Bob Goodwin.

Farr heads up PoL’s interfaith initiative. The 13-year-old group, with a 2001 budget of more than $18 million, has had an uneasy relationship with AP. Some within PoL continue to see AP as an interloper, adding little more than another hungry mouth at the table for national efforts to advance volunteerism.

AP’s 2001 tax returns are the most recent available. They show government contributions of $5,361,112 and direct public support of $6,726,318, for a total of just over $12 million. AP spent more than $4.3 million on salaries and benefits that year, $488,470 on travel, $338,534 on rent and leased equipment and $648,424 on lobbying. During last year’s federal appropriations process, the Senate Transportation, Treasury and General Government subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Chris Bond (R-Mo.), with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as the ranking Democrat, ordered AP to submit a progress report to Congress this March. AP reported to the subcommittee that the total federal contribution to its operation totaled just under $13 million through December 2002, or 24.4 percent of AP’s $53,196,371 in revenue since 1997.

As with so many other nonprofits, the Bush II recession has not been kind to AP’s investments, which report losses of almost $1 million. But the portion of AP’s budget coming from federal agencies in 2002 was 57.5 percent. AP’s goal, says the report to Congress, is to have “additional operating funds raised, at least equivalent to federal support.”

Rocky Mountain Low

In March, AP also released its annual “Report to the Nation.” In it, the group moved away from its much-ridiculed approach of simply reporting on what an array of large corporations and national nonprofits had told AP they’d done to meet their “pledges” to fulfill AP’s Five Promises. Instead, state and local efforts are simply highlighted in the 767-page tome ( While this represents an improvement in accountability, it also enables an inquirer to assess the accuracy of AP’s claimed accomplishments.

Consider Colorado, where “progress” in the 2002 report consists of a summit held in 1998, and a September 2000 signing by Gen. Powell and Gov. Bill Owens (R) of a Promise Partnership with AP for “further strengthening the state’s commitment to children and youth.”

AP’s report gets Colorado’s events all wrong, from the trivial to the fundamentals involved in organizational development. It names the wrong elementary school where the 2000 signing ceremony was held, then says that the “partners” are “all working together.” Actually, the intended lead partner, Big Brother Big Sisters of Colorado, dropped its active support in October 2000.
“We tried to launch AP,” says a cautious Kitty Balsley, executive director of BBBS of Colorado, but “it just didn’t launch the way we wanted.”

The effort has been severely hampered by gratuitous partisanship, with Gov. Owens refusing to invite outgoing Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and other prominent Democrats to the Colorado Promise kick-off event. In the faith community, that tight partisan political bent has helped shrink involvement, says one insider, “to prayer breakfasts for the evangelicals and the Mormons.”

Within state government, the Colorado Governor’s Commission on National and Community Service was given lead responsibility. But shortly after the November 2002 re-election of Owens, the governor fired much of the staff, including Director Greg Geissler.

Regardless of the facts, however, AP’s report to the Senate also lists its “state assets.” In Colorado, the governor’s commission is listed as the “lead agent,” with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado and Community in Schools touted as “strong partners.” It claims that five local efforts are underway, but only three are listed in AP’s “Report to the Nation.” Calls over several months to Colorado’s “lead agent” to learn the identity of the two mysterious local efforts were not returned. Must be a secret government agency transferred to getting things done in Baghdad.

Perhaps Colorado’s only AP-linked success is in Fort Collins (pop.: 128,400). There, says the AP report, a Community of Promise – led by Ruth Lytle-Barnaby, director of community and foundation development at Poudre Valley Hospital, working with the mayor’s office – has brought together disparate stakeholders to provide children and youth services.

Aided by a $10,000 grant from Novartis US Foundation, 25,000 copies of the Five Promises checklist ( developed by AP and paid for by a grant from OJJ have been distributed. Lytle-Barnaby says the group is “coming along,” but notes that much of the success is due to the pre-existing Healthier Community Coalition and its Healthy Kids Club.

An enthusiastic AP supporter in Fort Collins is Laurie Klith, executive director of the Center for Community Justice Partnerships, which serves high-risk teens with a staff of seven. Klith says that before AP’s Five Promises came along, the agency was unable to articulate its mission. Now, “because of the philosophy” of AP, she says, the group has “reframed its core mission,” to be consistent with the Five Promises.

AP’s existence, though, hasn’t helped the struggling juvenile justice program raise more money. And youth worker Klith was surprised to learn that Fort Collins was one of the very few places in Colorado with a functioning Community of Promise.

Perhaps Fort Collins’ most impressive accomplishment is the modest claim of results cited in the AP report: “We provided 75 youth with safe places; 250 with a healthy start; 25 with marketable skills; and 27 with opportunities to serve.”

Overall, the actual value-added contribution of AP is impossible to assess. Like any national effort to mobilize volunteers and extra effort, extraneous factors – such as the ups and downs of the economy, government and philanthropic spending, and even jolts like 9/11 and the war in Iraq – can trump even the clearest of missions. In the case of AP, the mission remains opaque at best.

An indication of this opaqueness can be found in an October 2002 e-mail obtained from CNCS through the Freedom of Information Act. In it, CNCS Special Assistant Dana Rodgers writes to Lexie Miller, an AP grants manager senior director about AP’s mission: “The whole issue of what the net result of all these initiatives and activities is, and what discernible role is played by AP in quantitative and qualitative increases in service to, and by, youth, is something that we find of major importance.”
The e-mail ends with, “I hope the Brandeis study will begin the process of looking into the ‘value added’ that AP brings to an already crowded table of youth-serving organizations both large and small.”

In the summer of 2002, the AP national office contracted with Brandeis University’s Center for Youth and Communities to conduct what became a “Comparative Study of Two Effective Communities of Promise: Kansas City and Knoxville.” Among the findings: “Both sites convey the sense of a ‘movement’ rather than a program … that inspires, encourages and energizes.” And “both are mindful of other organizations’ concerns that the Community of Promise will compete with them for funds and influence.

Both [sites] work to demonstrate that they are not just another … competing program – but play a needed role trying to facilitate other organizations working together on the five promises.”

As is the way of Washington, after six years and a secure parking space for AP’s red wagon in the federal budget, the town has grown used to AP’s presence at the table. In the ahistorical world of youth work, six years is forever.

Contact: America’s Promise (703) 684-4500,

Seamless Change

The New York-based W.T. Grant Foundation (assets: $209,441,515 in 2002) has had what board Chairman Kenneth Rolland calls a “seamless change in leadership.” After five years on as president of the 68-year-old foundation, Dr. Karen Hein is departing. Her replacement is the foundation’s senior vice president, Bob Granger.

Hein spent five years early in her career as a doctor at the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in Queens, N.Y. When she took the helm at the children- and youth-focused foundation, almost all of its grants went to academic research efforts, often with tenuous links, if any, to the far more gritty world of practitioners.

Hein ended that languor by patiently steering W.T. Grant’s priorities toward positive youth development and building the public will to support adequate opportunities for youth.

By 2002, grants to premier research universities were eclipsed by grant making to such activist groups as the Youth Law Center ($600,000), led by Mark Soler, for its “Building Blocks for Youth” juvenile justice project, and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law ($344,755), led by Robert Bernstein, for “Coordinated Policy Study to Expand Access to Home- and Community-Based Mental Health Services for Children and Youth.” Youth Today received $225,000 in grants for feature stories involving well-documented youth program outcomes.

Some of last year’s 205 grants seem, well, far afield – such as the $260,000 grant to Xinyin Chen to research “Adolescent Outcomes of Social Functioning in Chinese Children: Follow-Up Studies of the Shanghai Longitudinal Project.”

One new effort was the awarding this year of the annual $100,000 W.T. Grant Youth Development Prize, won by the University-Assisted Community School Program. That’s an 18-year-old collaboration, directed by Ira Harkavy, among the University of Pennsylvania, the West Philadelphia Partnership and the School District of West Philadelphia. Nearly 300 applicants applied for the coveted award.

Hein relinquishes the presidency of a foundation that has been significantly retooled and is decidedly engaged in the issues of the day.

Granger, her successor and deputy for the past three years, directed the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.’s education, children and youth department prior to joining Grant. He has also directed the Bank Street College of Education’s Child Development Associate National Credentialing Program. Fluent in the intricacies of children and youth issues and the groups that support them, Granger is expected to continue Hein’s work. But, given his credentials in early childhood programs, some relief may be on the way for that beleaguered field.

Contact: William T. Grant Foundation (212) 752-0071,

Best Bet, Bad Bet

While most untested youth development programs struggle against long odds, some have best friends among the nation’s political elite. In 1987, when Elayne Bennett launched Best Friends, a run-of-the-mill youth program emphasizing chastity, it wasn’t exactly a case of Russian roulette. After all, her virtue-pedaling husband, Bill Bennett, was the Reagan administration secretary of education and the soon-to-be drug czar during Bush I. (Bennett’s co-founding chairperson: Alma Powell.)

Sixteen years later, the D.C.-based group, incorporated in 1993, has a staff of 17 and revenue of $3,183,920 (fiscal 2001). Best Friends describes itself as an in-school “youth development program with a character building curriculum for girls in grades five through 12, with messages of abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol,” providing each girl with “at least 110 hours of guidance and mentors” every year. In a letter to supporters, Elayne Bennett wrote that Best Friends “now serves 6,500 girls in 25 cities in 14 states,” plus Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

Best Friends claims that “nearly 1,000 boys in five cities have joined” the group’s boys’ program, “Best Men,” and a new high school program, “Iron Men.” In Best Friends’ recent “Heart to Heart” newsletter, Bennett accurately writes, “There are millions [of children] who need guidance through the difficult year ahead.”

Also in need of guidance is hubby Bill, editor of The Children’s Book of Virtues. Newsweek and The Washington Monthly recently reported that the man of the house admitted that he had “cycle[d] through” more than $8 million on one-armed bandits in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, or anywhere else he could gamble while out restoring virtues on the banquet circuit at $50,000 per speech. Bennett’s gambling losses over a decade are more than the total income of Best Friends over the past three years.

So while Gambling Czar-elect Bennett was out feeding the “gaming industry” – while not risking, he manfully points out, the family “milk money” – who’s picking up the tab for Best Friends?

Its very best friend is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (assets: $7 billion), about 100 miles down the road from Atlantic City. According to its annual report, since 1996 the foundation has given Best Friends $1.2 million and its affiliated Freedom Foundation of New Jersey another $290,760.

In addition to its most recent grant from Johnson, other philanthropic friends in the Best Friends August 2001 to July 2002 fiscal year included the W.K. Kellogg Foundation ($200,000); the Cawley Family Foundation ($75,000) and MBNA ($60,000), both based in Wilmington, Del.; the Case Foundation ($250,000) and Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation ($100,000), both in D.C.; plus a $250,000 earmark added to the D.C. government’s congressional appropriation. The largest single gift in 2001 was $1 million from the J. Willard and Alice Marriott Foundation in D.C.

In April, while best dad Bennett was losing $500,000 at the Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, as reported by Newsweek, best mom was assembling the faithful for Best Friends’ annual rock-and-roll gala – held, of course, at a D.C. Marriott Hotel. Even with the milk money still in hand, Elayne Bennett wrote to potential attendees, “We need all the support we can muster.”

The event was attended by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and actress Bo Derek, who is not routinely associated with an abstinence-until-marriage image. The scheduled entertainment included Bobby Vee (his appearance fee in 2001: $59,950). But Fox T.V.’s Bill O’Reilly, the acting MC, stole the show by jesting during a delay in bringing the Best Men on stage that the youth might be out in the parking lot stealing hubcaps.

Entertaining various high rollers doesn’t come cheap. Best Friends says it earned $800,000 on the posh fund-raiser this year. Federal tax returns, though, show red ink for the earlier events. In 2000, the party lost $137,261, and in 2002 the losses came to $178,940. In effect, the wealthy and well-connected get a fabulous party for 700, serenaded by the Supremes and others, while Best Friends donors, such as RWJ and the W.K. Kellogg foundations, pick up the tab. Who says foundations don’t take risks?

The rest of the group’s funds go for staffers who promote Elayne Bennett as a top expert on teens and sex education. In fiscal year 2001, “consultants” were paid $413,833. Best Friends does have a college scholarship fund to which, in a public display of virtue, Bill Bennett donated $25,000 in royalties from his best-selling The Book of Virtues. But Best Friends’ outlay for its successful graduates amounted to $82,000 or just 2.5 percent of its gross income in 2001.


Were this just another example of the well-connected cavorting on someone else’s milk money, then it would be of little interest to youth workers. But Best Friends is the nation’s most visible abstinence-only and GOP-connected group in the national poker game over sex education.

In Best Friends’ Winter 2003 newsletter, Elayne Bennett wrote a column chastising Joe Califano, president of the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (and himself no novice when it comes to dealing from the bottom of the research deck), for failing to cite Best Friends as a model program for girls during an appearance on the Today Show.

She writes, “Either Joe Califano forgot about Best Friends, or his staff never consulted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at HHS. SAMHSA recently funded Best Friends because of our success with girls and young women.”

Actually, it was the D.C. government that was successful – in asking “evidence-based” SAMHSA for a $300,000 grant for Best Friends. Congress earmarked an additional $250,000 to Best Friends through an appropriation in the 2003 D.C. budget.

And if you look on Best Friends’ website, under the heading, “National Research Findings,” the group uses a 1997 White House public relations event at which “the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy honored Best Friends as one of the Nation’s most effective programs.” Not according to the D.C.-based campaign, which strains to be a “big tent” for all interested parties.
The “honor” was for its “good approach,” not for proven effectiveness.

Best Friends has never had an independent evaluation using randomly assigned control groups. Such a well-designed and credible evaluation of sexual abstinence groups was launched by HHS in 1998 through a $6 million, nine-year contract with Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J.

The evaluation of grantees under Section 510, Title V of the Social Security Act, currently funded at $50 million, is led by Rebecca Maynard, a well-known authority in the field and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

But at the urging of the national Best Friends’ office, four eligible Best Friends’ local programs passed up the opportunity to be among the 11 sites to be evaluated by Mathematica. Other abstinence-only groups, such as Recapturing the Vision, based in Miami, and Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in Milwaukee, did sign on. Says Maynard, “The programs that came in were very courageous” – a much admired but little-displayed virtue in the youth field.

Instead, Best Friends hired independent statistician Robert Lerner to do an annual analysis of pre- and post-survey data. That data, says Lerner, will be compared to local data collected by the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

How much is such a comparison worth? In appearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources in November 2001, Maynard provided a written statement which said, “We are measuring program impacts using scientifically rigorous, experimental design methods. This is the ONLY means of measuring with a known degree of certainty how successful the programs are overall and for key subgroups of youth. Findings based on any other evaluation design could be readily dismissed for their weak study design and the potential for ‘selection bias.’ This would include results based designs that relied on comparisons of pre- and post-program outcomes for program youth; comparisons of outcomes for program youth with those for youths in the program site who, for some reason, do not participate in the program; and comparisons of outcomes for program youth with those for youth in another school or district.”

While the conservative publication Headway wrote that “proponents say Friends’ success speaks for itself,” Best Friends itself backs Maynard, noting in a recent newsletter that “without sound scientific analysis, however, all this data [pre- and post-surveys] is of little use.”
That estimate of the “little use” of Best Friends and its pseudo-evaluations is commonplace throughout the teen pregnancy prevention field. Perhaps a source’s comment to Newsweek about Bill Bennett’s devotion to slots and casinos might apply to Best Friends as well: “There’s a term in the trade for this kind of gambler. We call them losers.”

Contact: Best Friends Foundation (202) 237-8156,