Network Forecast: Cloudy, with a Silver Lining

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For six years, a network of organizations that help youth transition from school to work has found ways to survive after its federal funding was eliminated as part of a partisan battle in Washington. Now the Intermediary Network might be facing a defining year: The worsening economy threatens its basic operating plan, but the Democrats’ ascendancy in the White House and Congress might bring renewed interest in programs that connect youth to college and the working world.

The network, known as INet, is “an idea from a bygone era, when all of us were forming associations,” says Larry Brown, president of WAVE Inc., a national organization that serves dropouts and youth at risk of dropping out. “And they are the vanguard of what we have to do going forward.”

INet is a network of more than 30 member organizations in nine states that help manage and assist projects that involve collaborations among public agencies, businesses and nonprofits. It is unusual in that almost all of its budget is covered by dues from the members, such as Jobs for Youth in San Francisco and Linking Learning to Life in Burlington, Vt.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way. INet’s history reflects the shifts in political support for school-to-work efforts.

A Short Life

In 1994, Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STOWA), which prompted creation of a national School-to-Work Office to coordinate funding on behalf of the departments of Labor and Education. The office – led first by JD Hoye, then by Stephanie Powers, now an executive at the Council on Foundations – funded three major types of projects: school-based services, such as career awareness and counseling; work-based programs, including jobs, job shadowing and skills training in various industries; and services to help connect those two experiences for the participants.

That third component was carried out in part by Project Network, a group of youth intermediaries that was designed to manage and assist local projects funded under STOWA. The network connected the schools and employers that were involved in the projects.

“You need someone to staff” the effort on the local level, says Melissa Orner, senior vice president of the Philadelphia Youth Network. “And schools have limited resources to do that.”

Intermediaries “connect local resources and get measurable results,” says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a veteran INet member. “We’re the biggest bang for the buck.”

But while STOWA passed with bipartisan support, some conservatives in Congress challenged the premise of the School-to-Work office. “Someone had gotten the idea that this was … pigeonholing the kids into jobs,” says Don Spangler, policy director of the Philadelphia Youth Network.

The anti-STOWA movement was led by the Eagle Forum, a Washington think tank founded and run by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. This is how a 1997 edition of the Phyllis Schlafly Report described the act: “Designed on the German system, [School-to-Work] is a plan to train children in specific jobs to serve the work force and the global economy instead of educate them so they can make their own life choices.”

Steve Trippe, president of New Ways to Work – an intermediary that oversees the INet – still bristles at the accusation. The point wasn’t job training, he says. It was to help youth see education as a necessary part of where they wanted to go in life.

“It’s contextualizing education in the classroom, project-based learning, [getting youth] connected to the next step after high school,” Trippe says, with still a trace of bitterness behind the words. “It’s not about turning Javier into a welder when he was 12.”

By the time the act was up for reauthorization in 2002, Spangler says, “there was no political juice to sustain it.” STOWA faded out of existence.

Living on Member Support

When the STOWA money ran out, the intermediaries involved in Project Network decided the group’s work was still valuable and affordable. Several members made small contributions for a consultant to develop a business plan. Thus began the Intermediary Network.

The network made up lost federal money with membership dues. Each member organization is expected to pay about $5,000 a year, although a couple of larger intermediaries kick in more. “Subscribing” members that are new to the group pay a lower cost at first, and members claiming hardship can be approved to forgo a year of dues to the network. Its annual operating budget is about $125,000.

Operating mostly on membership payments is a rarity among youth work convening groups, which typically rely on services (such as technical assistance), conferences and grants for most of their budgets. About one-quarter of the Child Welfare League of America’s revenue comes from membership fees, according to recent tax returns. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice draws 30 percent of its funds from membership fees.

INet keeps costs down by keeping things simple. Much of the value of participating, says Orner of the Philadelphia Youth Network, comes from sharing news, best practices and resources through calls and e-mails among intermediaries, and through the network’s newsletter.

INet’s two signature events each year are a leadership forum (this year’s was held last month, in Chicago) and a strategic planning institute, where members assist one another in developing goals and plans for the year.

Membership is hovering in the “high 30s” right now, Trippe says. Many of those are also members of the National Youth Employment Coalition, although the two groups are not formally connected.

Uncertain Future

Since its federal cut-off in 2002, INet has benefited from some philanthropic support. “W.T. Grant for a bit, the Garfield Foundation for a couple years,” Trippe recalls.

But while INet members have believed the basic operation could be sustained with their dues alone, that soon might not be the case. “Our fees are already higher than most [networks],” Trippe says, “and the field is getting hit hard” by the economy. It could get “very tough to survive just on membership.”

Intermediaries could see a drop in income if cities and states cut back on social services, and many anticipate that some employers and corporate supporters will reduce contributions as well.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mary Lou Erlacher, director of INet member Workplace Learning Connection, says, “Having sustained catastrophic floods in this region last summer and coupled with the economic downturn, employers may have more time than money to offer nonprofits.”

In Philadelphia, “It’s impossible to believe that employers won’t have less discretionary money,” says Spangler of the Philadelphia Youth Network. “We will be a tougher investment to make this year.”

INet hopes to find a foundation to match membership payments dollar for dollar. That could enable an expansion through which it would recruit new intermediaries, then fund veteran members of the network to provide technical assistance to others.

Trippe also hopes the incoming Obama administration will make available some federal dollars for intermediaries. INet will push for intermediary funding to be included in the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act and the Promoting Innovations to 21st Century Careers Act (S. 3573), and through a summer jobs component in any Obama economic stimulus package.

“It’s a self-funded, self-governed group of strong national affiliates,” says Sullivan of the Boston Private Industry Council. “I assume we are going to be found” by someone with money.