America’s Promise?

In the 13 years since America’s Promise Alliance was founded under the leadership of Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, the organization has taken in an impressive $160 million from dozens of companies, foundations, and the federal government. With that money, it has held countless public events and started wave upon wave of public relations initiatives – all intended to dramatize the plight of low-income youth.

Yet despite such well-publicized activity, many in the nonprofit community continue to ask: What does America’s Promise accomplish? Even the organization’s CEO, Marguerite Kondracke, has no ready answer. “That’s a question I ask myself every day,” she told Youth Today. “Am I having an impact? Is our work having the desired effect?”

“Raising awareness” – that reliable, if threadbare, fallback explanation used by all nonprofits lacking specific goals – is probably the closest answer to the truth about the purpose of America’s Promise Alliance. It certainly has added a great deal to the current groundswell of publicity directed at the problem of low-income youth who drop out of school and fail to get job training.

There also is no question the organization has a golden touch when it comes to persuading rich and influential people to open their wallets for an opportunity to appear on the same podium with the Powells. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush – who recruited Powell to head America’s Promise – former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama are among those who have spoken on behalf of the group.

But after more than a decade of perpetual awareness-raising, some nonprofits and corporate leaders seem to be souring on the America’s Promise Alliance. Promised anonymity by researchers from Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, some of American Promise’s so-called partners say they would rather see more action and less talk.

“Many partners had difficulty linking the added value of America’s Promise Alliance to specific increases in the number of children served,” the researchers said in a recent report.

Still, the money continues to flow and the organization continues to live large, not even curbing its annual $16 million budget during the depths of the recession. Although its income dropped to $11.6 million in 2009 from $23.3 million the year before, in 2009 America’s Promise still spent $5.2 million on salaries and almost $2 million on consultants and contractors. It operates from offices that cost $690,000 in annual rent and almost $2 million to furnish and equip. (Youth Today’s planned visit to the office was blocked by its communications director.) As of Dec. 31, 2009, its assets were $28.8 million.

Anyone who has struggled to raise money for nonprofit youth programming understands the moral of America’s Promise’s fabulous success story: If your group has the public support of a celebrity, particularly a well-known man with a great reputation, contributions do not necessarily depend on showing results.

But Colin Powell no longer has a direct role in running America’s Promise; he’s not even on the board. Alma Powell has been board chairwoman since 2004 and the Powells’ son, Michael Powell, is also a board member. Still, it’s Colin and Alma Powell who grace the America’s Promise home page; various printed materials tout his role as “founding chairman.”

At the same time, an investigation by Youth Today has uncovered repeated instances of America’s Promise taking full credit for the accomplishments of its allied organizations, not just at public events, but even in government reports.

Taking on school dropouts

America’s Promise has reinvented itself several times since it was founded in 1997 to carry out the goals articulated during the President’s Summit for America’s Future that year. The summit’s message: To secure our future, Americans must commit themselves to volunteer service on behalf of young people.

Soon that was changed to guaranteeing that American youth can count on the promise of five resources needed for strong development: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education and opportunities to help others.

Yet, the organization never sent staff into the trenches where youth service work is actually done. Instead it leans on others – social service agencies, educators, foundations and public officials – to carry out its mission. And they seem to be tiring of shouldering the bulk of the work while America’s Promise gathers the money and the accolades.

Most recently, two years ago, America’s Promise reinvented itself again, this time to focus on a single issue: preventing teenagers from dropping out of high school. Dozens of other organizations were already working on the same difficult problem – often on a school-by-school basis. But America’s Promise took the broad-brush approach, and got the headlines.

Researchers for the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at South Carolina’s Clemson University suggest that the in-depth work has been done; they have identified 25 factors that best predict which students drop out, and 15 effective interventions.

“We know what works,” said Marty Duckenfield, spokesman for the Clemson  center. But to really work communities need plans tailored for local school districts, significant resources and consistent follow-through.

America’s Promise offers none of that.

For the first three years of its anti-dropout campaign, the organization is staging    a 105-stop cross-country series of “summits.” At these day-long meetings, experts, educators, youth service workers and young people talk about what has worked and what hasn’t. Representatives of philanthropic institutions and a few business leaders also have shown up to listen.

The summits drew up to 1,100 participants, who heard from such speakers as Gov. David Paterson in New York, addressing the reality of pending education budget cuts, and Bill Cosby in Cleveland, scolding adults who don’t listen to children, and education experts such as Bob Wise.

Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, addressed more than 20 of the summits, sharing his organization’s research on the economic benefit to local communities of improving high school graduation rates.

America’s Promise paid $10,000 each to local organizers of the city-wide summits  and $25,000 each to organizers of state-wide summits. Conveners were also required to submit action plans for the communities involved in each summit; local organizers and school systems were expected to follow them after the summit.

On the speaking circuit, Colin Powell is fond of saying that a leader takes care of the troops by giving them the resources and training to accomplish the mission.

But the nonprofit troops in the America’s Promise network complain that the job of motivating more teens to stay in school requires money, and they don’t have it.

A national partner, speaking anonymously to Duke University researchers, said, “They don’t give us money. … That’s how we increase services directly. … I mean, you can improve the quality of service by changing the way you deliver it, but in order to deliver more services, you generally have to have more money.”

In a telephone interview, Kondracke said she had hoped that once the $6.6 million series of summits focused attention on the issue, local communities could raise more money themselves to combat the dropout problem.

“We are not promising to be the fundraising arm for the entire nation,” she said.

Assessing progress

Last year, America’s Promise contracted with the Duke University researchers to evaluate the dropout summits, which are still being held.  Duke researchers surveyed national business and youth service leaders who signed up as America’s Promise “partners” and granted anonymity so they could speak freely

Partners had doubts about the purpose of holding the one-day talk-fests. They wanted less talk and more action.

“I think it’s really clear that America’s Promise wants to change numbers and really do things, but there’s no clear plan of how to get from the dropout summits to reducing the dropout rate,” said one national partner.

Most direct-service organizations wouldn’t even answer questions about whether their own programs had expanded. Their perspective: “Measuring impact by the number of additional children served was akin to America’s Promise Alliance trying to take credit for the work of their partners and was seen as a source of frustration.”

The researchers didn’t quantify the number of negative comments, but sprinkled them throughout their report, indicating the dissatisfaction was a continuing theme among those with whom they spoke.

America’s Promise declined to answer questions from Youth Today about what tangible results they can claim, measured by serving more youth through mentoring, after-school, internship or other programs. Its public relations personnel said no reliable numbers were available.

But, in reports filed last year with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency, America’s Promise took credit for serving 700,000 middle school-age children by recruiting 50 businesses to offer job shadowing, career fairs and community service opportunities. The results, reported in quarterly progress reports obtained by Youth Today under the Freedom of Information Act, were required for their $2.05 million grant. America’s Promise also pledged to serve even more middle schoolers – 10 million of them – with similar programs by September of next year, the end of the three-year grant period.

That would be almost 10 out of every 11, or more than 90 percent of all public school sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the country.

While reporting these results and intentions, America’s Promise also commented on its difficulty getting cooperation from school districts, and said that by the second year, “business engagement was lacking overall.”

America’s Promise is using part of a new $2 million federal grant from CNCS to make “business engagement grants” of up to $10,000 to local communities.

For example, in Detroit, the grant covers the cost of hosting a “Career Day at Cody High School” where business leaders and students can meet one another. And in Louisville, Ky., organizers use grant money to recruit corporate executives to “adopt” a high school, serve as mentors and offer internships to students.

Pablo Eisenberg, an expert on nonprofit accountability and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, is critical of the use of federal funds.

 “It’s a waste of money. Let America’s Promise give their own $10,000,” Eisenberg said. (Disclosure: Eisenberg serves on the Youth Today board of directors.)

Taking Credit

America’s Promise provided Youth Today another progress report – made to private foundations, including the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, which donated $2.2 million for the dropout summits.

Reports like this one are critical to a nonprofit’s ability to attract future funding. They are equally important for philanthropists to judge whether their donations have any impact.

“Funders want to know if they’re giving a lot of money to an organization, does it make a difference?” said Laurie E. Paarlberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, who studies nonprofit management.

In the May 2010 report submitted to the Gates Foundation, America’s Promise acknowledged the fiscal straits of local and state governments and other nonprofits. Expressing disappointment with many of the action plans submitted by local summit organizers, the report writer states: “Many of the states and communities submitted limited plans that reflect staff and program budget. … Once the economy improves, they would like to update and then implement.”

The report is revealing in other ways.

In a section headed “Key Accomplishments and Success Stories,” America’s Promise takes credit for educational reforms that had nothing to do with America’s Promise, or the summits.

In Indiana, the report to the Gates Foundation proudly announces the passage of a state law: “The state of Indiana introduced legislation supported by their Department of Education to retain third-graders that are not reading on grade level in order to prevent school failure and future dropouts.” The report also cites implementation of dropout prevention grants.

Both were legislative developments that occurred after the September 2009 summit. Neither had anything to do with the summit, according to a spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education.

The America’s Promise report also lays claim to the implementation of the “Indiana Growth Model” of student testing.

Wes Bruce of the state education department developed the testing model for Indiana, which he said “expects growth out of every student,” unlike the No Child Left Behind standard that ignores high- and low-achieving students. The Indiana model looks at whether children have made one year’s progress within one academic year. The growth model was implemented after the summit, but it took years of planning. It was not an outgrowth of the summit.

“It was separate work that had been going on,” said Bruce.

A new type of dropout

In a similar fashion, the progress report to the Gates Foundation takes credit for work in Cincinnati that predated the summit there. One achievement relates to work under way under a federal grant that was awarded the year before the June 2009 summit.

In Cincinnati, the lead organizer was Bari Ewing, director of College Access Programs at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

In her 40-year career helping high school dropouts, Ewing has seen dramatic changes. When she started, teenagers could drop out of school and still find jobs. Then, students returning for GED testing were older, often parents, earning the credential to move up to better jobs.

Now students are more desperate, their reasons for dropping out more troubling. Ewing rattles off examples of dropouts she knows personally, young people who have struggled to turn their lives around. They had dropped out because they’d been arrested, gotten pregnant, or shouldered the responsibility for a sick parent.

“The bottom line is, there is no magic bullet. It’s sitting with them day after day, going over their math. … It’s hard work to teach a child math. It’s hard to teach somebody to read.” There are no shortcuts. “It takes time, takes energy, takes commitment.”

Ewing’s experience planning the conference was mixed, and, based on interviews both on and off the record with other summit conveners and participants, it may be typical.

In a comment echoed by many summit conveners, Ewing said few Cincinnati business leaders attended.

“We know social service leaders are going to come and sit all day. Business people are not going to,” said Ewing. It was her major disappointment. “We didn’t reach as many business leaders as we were hoping.” She wanted their attention because they have the jobs and the money.

Vainly seeking Powell’s help

After the Cincinnati summit, looking for something special to entice the private sector to get involved, the planning committee made a written plea to America’s Promise for Colin Powell to send a “personal letter” to local business executives. “That would be wonderful,” said Ewing. The committee received no reply. Asked why, America’s Promise communications director David Park said, “I would doubt that that’s something we would provide.” Park said Powell limits his involvement with the cause to a few select speaking engagements.

On the plus side, getting together to plan the conference strengthened relationships among Ohio social service agencies. One important new contact was a representative from the Dayton AT&T office – a direct consequence of America’s Promise’s private-sector connections. With a donation from AT&T, Ewing was able to add a youth dropout summit to the Cincinnati State summer program.

“For me, that was the best part, because the youths themselves were talking about their peers,” said Ewing. “But there’s much more that needs to be done.”

In the committee’s follow-up report to America’s Promise, she wrote: “Here is what I think is the bottom line. It is easy to come up with solutions if you don’t have to carry them out. We know what works. We need individual people who will sit down with a youth and help.”

Much of the energy from the June 2009 summit has dissipated.

“Not having a dedicated person to follow up on this, it made it kind of difficult because everybody already has seven, eight, nine, 10 other jobs,” Ewing said.

She has heard from Duke University evaluators with questions about the content of the summit, but nothing from America’s Promise about following through to reduce the dropout rate.

America’s Promise concedes it has no mechanism to enforce post-summit action plans. “We can’t enforce anything. We can just support it,” said communications director Park. The support isn’t financial.  It’s more akin to cheerleading: highlighting the work of the summits at press events and promoting them  as best practices during their many forums, meetings and training programs.

Neither the Indiana nor the Cincinnati summit committee has continued to work with America’s Promise. That doesn’t mean the summits had no impact. At the very least, the connection made to AT&T by America’s Promise enriched a Cincinnati summer youth program, and in Indiana, regional dropout summits are in the works.

As to claiming credit it didn’t earn in a report to funders, Kondracke said there was no intent to mislead America’s Promise’s funders.. “That would not be our hope. That would not be our purpose,” she said. She said the progress report had a broader purpose. “It’s a national progress report. Hopefully, it tells the story of a national movement.”

 “Hopefully, Gates is holding them accountable,” commented Paarlberg, of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

As for the Gates Foundation, having closed out the summits grant, it recently awarded another, for information-gathering on college readiness standards. “We think it’s very important because it’s one of our key strategies,” said Bibb Hubbard, Gates Foundation senior program officer.

Gates Foundation officials are admirers of Colin Powell and the role he plays.

“He’s an impressive leader and figure in our country, and I think he has incredible credibility in this space … of youth service and civic engagement,” said Hubbard.

More credit problems

The specious report to Gates isn’t an isolated incident.

In its 2008 annual report posted online, America’s Promise takes credit for progress in Mississippi after its Feb. 28, 2008 summit: “Every school district was mandated to create a local action plan.” But that was nothing new. It was one of the last steps in a nine-step plan written in 2006 by a Mississippi task force of state education staff members, business executives, community organization representatives and religious leaders.

“You’re touching on a very delicate topic,” commented Ram Cnann, professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, in a phone interview. “I’m smiling.”

Cnaan said nonprofits often take “maximum credit” for results for which they are only partially responsible. In his view, it crosses an ethical line only if they had no role whatsoever.

Attribution of credit among nonprofits is not just about bragging rights. It’s about impressing donors. It’s about money.

“A lot of nonprofits, good local organizations, are desperate for money and barely hanging on, while this fat cat nonprofit gets so much money, every year, and gets money even from the federal government. It doesn’t seem right,” said Georgetown’s Eisenberg.

Igniting a turnaround?

In Detroit, America’s Promise rightly takes credit for a summit gathering that sparked a philanthropic fundraising campaign to create nine small academies in place of two very low-performing high schools.

But it is premature to judge whether their efforts will ultimately reverse the failure of the schools to educate children.

Michael Tenbusch of the United Way in Detroit credits America’s Promise with provoking a collective gasp there, just a few weeks before the summit, with the release of a study ranking Detroit at the bottom of the nation’s largest 50 cities in percentage of students earning diplomas. The city’s high school graduation rate was an abysmal 25 percent.

“It was a very galvanizing moment for us,” said Tenbusch.

After the summit, the United Way raised $3.2 million from foundations and corporations to hire a turnaround contractor to help local officials reconfigure the two large schools into the nine small academies. The state of Michigan put up another $5.3 million.

Before the summit, both Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and then-Detroit school Superintendent Connie Calloway had announced small schools initiatives. Turnaround planning was a focus of the summit, which the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation and United Way co-sponsored with America’s Promise.

In an opinion column published by the Detroit Free Press this summer, Colin and Alma Powell optimistically anticipate a 95 percent graduation rate for the class of 2013 at the new Cody and Osborn academies. But the schools have been open just one year. Test scores, available for social studies, but not for math or reading, remain far below state and district averages in the new, smaller schools.

“I did not have an expectation of America’s Promise fixing our dropout rates in the city,” said Tenbusch. “It’s our responsibility in Detroit to continue the work.”

As the summits tapered off, America’s Promise rebranded its anti-dropout campaign: “Grad Nation.” The phrase heard most often from America’s Promise staff to describe this campaign is “boots on the ground,” meaning turning talk into action. With no authority to enforce local action plans, how will America’s Promise make this happen?

“Enforce is not a word I would use. Catalyst is the word that we like to use,” said Kondracke.

Though America’s Promise said it has no reliable numbers to measure its impact, it has no trouble auditing its media coverage. The number of times the dropout issue made the news increased five-fold, compared with the period before the summits. Nine of every 10 such stories specifically mentioned America’s Promise or its campaign.

Kondracke said greater visibility for the dropout issue is a good first step. “You have to start with awareness. You can’t fix the problem until you recognize it,” she said.

“You want there to be increased accountability and investment, and you never get to increased accountability and investment unless you have a visible issue,” said Adria Steinberg, vice president of Jobs for the Future. “There’s no question it went up over the last five to six years, with the work [dropout expert Robert] Balfanz has done, the work we have done, the work America’s Promise has done, and the work the Alliance for Excellent Education has done.”


Beyond communications, America’s Promise may do its best work when it takes advantage of Colin Powell’s celebrity to have a direct impact on children.

One of Powell’s paid speaking engagements led to the development of an innovative program at a Washington, D.C., charter school.

Powell and his wife were the matchmakers who took the Simon Foundation and its college prep mentoring program to Cesar Chavez Parkside High School. America’s Promise helped develop and publicize the expanded program, though it does not operate or fund it.

At Chavez, the “Simon Scholars” program enrolls disadvantaged students during their freshmen and sophomore years, and provides tutoring and a Saturday academy to teach writing and speaking skills. It’s a thoughtful, resource-intensive, hands-on approach to help striving teens from a poor environment achieve the same educational benefits as children born to middle class and wealthy parents. Students must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average through their junior year. If they stick with it, they get a coach to guide them through the college application process, including college tours and preparation for SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Once admitted to college, students are eligible for a four-year, $16,000 scholarship.

Thirty other high schools have Simon Scholars, a program that began in 2003 and has awarded 425 students $14 million in scholarships. To help the Simon Foundation connect with influential people in a position to underwrite programs at additional schools, America’s Promise invited Simon Foundation founder Ronald Simon and foundation CEO David Dukes to join its board.

“We are looking for other philanthropists, corporations, foundations, etc., benefactors that want to embrace it,” said Dukes.

Another philanthropist, through America’s Promise, financed direct service programs with definable results. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, James Barksdale, chairman of Barksdale Management Corp. and a native of Mississippi, donated millions of dollars for a series of programs called “Katrina’s Kids” in New Orleans, Houston and other Gulf Coast communities. In New Orleans, for example, $500,000 paid for after-school, tutoring and library programs for hundreds of children, using staff from the Louisiana Children’s Museum, Communities in Schools, Hands On New Orleans and others.

With donations from Barksdale, America’s Promise has also made significant grants to organizations working on dropout prevention programs in Houston, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss. Houston and New Orleans nonprofits each received $1 million five-year grants. In Jackson, a 42-year-old organization called Operation Shoestring won a $500,000 five-year grant, which doubled its budget for working directly with students at risk of dropping out.

Robert Langford, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that, among other projects, Operation Shoestring was able to hire a teacher to prepare students for hard-to-get paid summer jobs at law firms, a medical center, a car dealer and the local newspaper. His deputy, Martha Alexander, praised America’s Promise for pushing Operation Shoestring to collaborate with other nonprofits rather than having “conversations in isolation.” There had been “too many seams in service delivery,” she said.

What has America’s Promise accomplished?

So how to evaluate how America’s Promise spends its time or money?

Since its impact is inherently dependent on other service providers, Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania calls evaluating the organization’s work “an impossible task.” Regardless, he applauds the choice of dropouts as an issue. “To their credit, they make noise about it.”

But he’d like to see more work offering solutions. “They should do more. They should do much more. With all the publicity power that the Powells have, [let’s] revamp public education and show that it can work. But I don’t see other public officials out there. I say, wonderful, I’m glad the Powells are out there.”

For Paarlberg at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, accountability is key. “With their model, it is hard to track their performance,” she said. “But, as they mature, though it’s going to be hard, they’ve got to do it.”

Youth Today reporters Jamaal Abdul-Alim and Benjamin Penn contributed to this story.

Sandy Bergo is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter who often writes about accountability issues.


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