Surviving Without Uncle Sam’s Money

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Finding a pot of $30 million in federal grants for your specialty in youth work should make you feel pretty good. But after seeing a recent announcement of mentoring grants, one mentoring program administrator e-mailed colleagues to say, “I have gone from being elated to devastated!”

That’s because the new round of grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), announced in April, is off-limits to current grantees.

That cold reality marks a painful coming-of-age moment for many of the newer providers in the growing field of mentoring. While veteran program operators are used to funders prohibiting grantees from reapplying for another round of grants, mentoring programs that began or expanded with a rush of federal dollars a few years ago are, for the first time, facing the prospect of surviving without that support.

The grant announcement set off a discussion among mentoring administrators about how to diversify their funding for sustainability, whether federal grants are worth the trouble, and whether the funding philosophy of “three years and you’re out” is the best way to go.

“Even in the best of circumstances, three years isn’t enough … to keep a program of our size afloat,” said Debbie Vought, executive director of Citizens for Safe Schools, a mentoring program in rural Klamath County, Ore.

The discussion began on the MentorExchange Listserv, run by the National Mentoring Center, and continued through phone interviews.

The Gift that Ends

As the mentoring movement was taking off like a hot stock several years ago, funding for the ED Mentoring Grants program was expanded by more than $32 million in fiscal 2004 to nearly $50 million, where it’s stayed since. The grants aim to help programs “either start or scale up, and everyone knew they were going away,” said Karen Nussle, senior vice president for public policy at MENTOR, the national advocacy and resource organization based in northern Virginia. “The grant was never meant to be their funding until the end of time.”

In fact, President Bush proposed eliminating the program by 2008. When the new Democratic Congress convened in January, it included the program in a catch-all spending bill.

The new round of grants this year will provide $29.3 million to about 198 school-based mentoring initiatives for youth in grades four through eight. The remainder will support the third year of grants that were originally funded in fiscal 2005, along with training and technical assistance and a national evaluation.

But when the new grant solicitation went out in April, existing grantees learned that they could not vie for the awards, and were further aggrieved because ED plans to put this year’s unfunded applications first in line for next year’s money.

Vought’s program won a three-year, $440,000 grant in 2004, which she says helped it grow from 25 youth served to as many as 70. Now she envisions having to scale back.

“Our program will also continue, but at a much smaller rate,” wrote Joy L. Karavedas, project director of BEACH, a program in Jerome, Idaho.

That’s why mentoring organizations should carefully consider the implications of federal funding, advises David Shapiro, CEO of the Mass Mentoring Partnership, a statewide umbrella group that assists local mentoring programs.

The Massachusetts mentoring field is dominated by organizations with budgets of $250,000 or less, Shapiro said. If one gets a significant federal grant, “you’ve really increased your budget by a large, large percentage based on this one source, and you’re going to be dropped off a cliff in three years.”

“Dependency is what you’re afraid of,” said Terri Curran of Kids on the Rise, a small youth mentoring and services nonprofit in Crossville, Tenn.

Vought, in Oregon, understands the justification for not funding programs forever, because agencies are supposed to learn how to sustain themselves with other dollars. “Sustainability is, in large measure, a lot about relationship building,” which takes time, she said.

She said she believes the federal government has a responsibility to help the grantees “achieve the kind of sustainability they’re talking about. … It’s incumbent upon them to see those high-performing programs to fruition so they don’t just die in the water.”

An ED spokeswoman said the decision was made to help expand the number of sites the department can fund with limited resources, to give first-time applicants a shot at the money, and to encourage local sustainability, among other reasons.

The Diversity Struggle

Diversified funding is the key, but it can be hard to come by.

Friends of Children of Walla Walla, an eight-year-old mentoring nonprofit that serves 200 to 250 kids annually in the small southeastern Washington town by that name, doesn’t have a federal grant, said Jovanna Centre, program coordinator.

Instead, the bulk of her organization’s budget comes from an annual fundraiser, which has helped the group cultivate a 300-person donor pool. The organization’s other revenue-raising activities include using a private foundation grant to craft a development program.

“There [aren’t] a whole lot of mentoring grants,” Centre said. Her organization also uses special programs and expansions to open fresh pools of funding. A new Latino outreach component, for instance, might position the group to win cultural and youth leadership grants.

Nevertheless, Centre is applying for a mentoring children of prisoners grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “A federal grant will help a lot,” she said.

Daniel Bassill, president of Cabrini Connections, a Chicago mentoring organization, argues against taking government grants. They “micromanage how you operate” and impede effective, sustainable programming, he said.

He said he once had a government grant, but one-third of the money was consumed preparing reports and attending meetings.

“People need to be looking at what works and what doesn’t work, and be innovating based on what they can see works better, to find better solutions,” Bassill said. “The bureaucracy of government makes that very difficult.”

Cabrini Connections functions with a mix of corporate, foundation and individual donations.

Curran in Tennessee knows colleagues whose nonprofits went bust when federal money ran out. But she said she would still seek the ED funds, believing she has systems in place to handle an influx of dollars. The organization’s $38,000 budget is blended with money from the local United Fund, sponsorships and fundraisers.

One diversification tactic for mentoring programs, Shapiro noted, is to seek financial support from local companies and civic organizations that have pledged to provide volunteer mentors. But while tapping local businesses is a time-tested method, the prospects are slim in some areas, such as rural and poor communities.

“In rural Idaho, there are very few corporations, community foundations, private foundations and companies with large sums of money to give, and many organizations seeking funding,” wrote Karavedas of BEACH. “It is impossible for a small rural community to sustain a program” at the level funded by the federal grants. “Those types of dollars are just not there.”

Matching Funds

With the No Child Left Behind law up for reauthorization, MENTOR is asking lawmakers to add a scaled matching grant component to the ED mentoring program as a way to promote sustainability.

“It’s sort of like an investment portfolio; the more diverse you are, the better,” Nussle said. She said “there are lots of places where people can go to look for this matching opportunity,” ticking off private foundations, corporate givers, individuals, and state and local governments.

MENTOR is also pushing for Congress to fully fund the mentoring program at its $50 million authorization in fiscal 2008. “We’ve seen this grant funding have enormous impact on the field in terms of funding new programs and getting more kids served through mentoring,” Nussle said.

Contacts: ED mentoring grants,; MENTOR,