Government & Politics
 

NOLA for Life grants paying for CD production, field trips and concerts

In late 2012, when the city first offered grants of up to $50,000 through the NOLA for Life Fund, its request for grant proposals sought groups with an established track record of working with people at greatest risk of being involved in a violent crime. It identified several risk factors for committing or being a victim of violent crime — among them: being a male between the ages of 16 and 25, past involvement in a gang, or a history of being implicated in a shooting or violent crime, either as perpetrator or victim.

Sixty-four groups applied; in February 23 were awarded a total of $500,000.

Many of the successful applicants were established nonprofit groups with backgrounds in mentoring and crime-prevention work. But recipients of $140,000 in smaller grants, in the $5,000 to $15,000 range, have little obvious connection to the stated goals of the program: to reduce violent crime. One of the grantees is best known for putting on a jazz concert series. And some had no track record to speak of. Two were not incorporated until after the request for proposals was issued.

Those are in addition to Family Center of Hope, which was granted $40,000 from the program even though it has already received millions to build a community center, a project that’s been stalled and tied up in numerous lawsuits for more than a year.

In an interview with The Lens, City Councilmember-at-large Stacy Head praised awards to the Youth Empowerment Project, to support its literacy, GED and anti-recidivism programs; and Liberty’s Kitchen, for its culinary vocational training program. Both groups received $40,000 Community of Practice grants.

“According to the announcements and press releases I’ve seen, we’re trying to target primarily African-American males between the ages of 16 and 25,” she said. “If that is the population we are trying to reach, I’m not sure that all the agencies being funded really fit within the plan to reach the goal. I’m not saying they’re not fabulous programs.”

Asked about specific grant winners, mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni defended the fund, which was administered privately by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

“GNOF researches each organization through Guidestar, a national database that verifies an organization’s tax-exempt status, a determination given by the federal government via IRS. Guidestar reviews and presents an organization’s 990 reports which are required to be updated annually by the IRS. Guidestar updates its data on a monthly basis,” Berni wrote in an email. In a subsequent email, he wrote, “These philanthropic grants are helping fund organizations that deliver outstanding programs and services to at risk youth.”

Setting up concerts

People United for Armstrong Park, which puts on the weekly Jazz in the Park series, was awarded $10,000 from the NOLA for Life fund. At last month’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Ken Foster, co-founder of Silence is Violence, a nonprofit that applied unsuccessfully for a NOLA for Life grant, said he saw mention of the concert promoter’s award in an email newsletter.

“My first response was kind of like, ‘that’s what the money’s doing?’ That’s kind of not what I would have expected,” he said.

People United for Armstrong Park co-founder Ben Harwood said the $10,000 grant will support the group’s vocational training program — a service category included in the city’s request for proposals. He added that the program predates the NOLA for Life grant. It targets “at-risk and unemployed local residents and public housing residents” who have been referred by service providers. Participants learn event management, audio and video, staging and business management.

Harwood said people in the program “basically shadow our production team. They do event setup and breakdown. They help us with our communications and our marketing.” The trainees, generally five per concert season, are paid $10 per hour, he said. “One of the people we had in the program, which we had before NOLA for Life, is now in charge of the setup and takedown crew,” he said.

Two other organizations that received grants were not legally incorporated entities when the request for proposals went out, The Lens found. One, beyondNOLA, applied to use the grant to help pay for “Beyond Our City” overnight trips and a “Beyond Our State” excursion to Washington, D.C.

According to its application, the group planned to engage 10 to 15 children “who have been identified as high-risk and referred to beyondNOLA by NOLA for Life” and who would be unlikely to venture beyond the “10-block radius” immediately surrounding their homes. Ultimately the group hopes to fund trips overseas, the application said.

Track records sometimes brief

The NOLA for Life request for proposals especially sought groups with a track record of success working with the targeted client base. Applicants were expected to be “providing quality programs and services with demonstrated impact.” The request for proposals  added, parenthetically: “For newer organizations, we understand that this track record might not be especially long.”

BeyondNOLA did not incorporate until Feb. 15 of this year, four months after the request for proposals was issued and just weeks before the grant winners were announced. It described itself as a “low profit” limited liability company. In order to qualify as a recipient of tax-deductible contributions, the group turned to the Neighborhood Partnership Network, an incorporated nonprofit which agreed to serve as its fiscal agent. The request for proposals does permit newer or for-profit groups to team up with a nonprofit fiscal agent.

Dominique Harris, beyondNOLA’s executive director, referred The Lens to the city for comment.

“In several instances, organizations that may have been newly-formed or technically incorporated at the State level had established organizations providing financial support as a fiscal agent,” which actually receives the grant, Berni told The Lens in an email. ”To our knowledge, this is a standard practice with nonprofits by which a fiduciary/fiscal agent is part of the application and vetting process.”

No Time 4 Crime also had not been accorded legal standing as a nonprofit when it applied for the grant. Nor was it when in March $5,000 was awarded to its fiscal agent. It did not incorporate until June 3, several days after its director Jerome Cosey, aka rapper 5th Ward Weebie, was asked by The Lens about his program. The group’s application identifies the New Orleans South African Connection as the fiscal agent.

“My organization plans to use the grant to help at-risk kids get into the music, the entertainment business, and teach them about the entertainment business, and the opportunities the entertainment business offers,” Cosey said. His application says the program will “target a selective group that’s mostly involved in criminal activity between 16-25 years of age in the urban community.”

Ultimately the participants will help Cosey produce a NOLA for Life CD, which he said he plans to give away to promote the program.

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  • Jennifer Williams

    I think that this article’s title is extremely misleading. It makes it seem that the minimal amount of grant funds given to some of the programs, between $5,000-$10,000 is somehow not being utilized to assist in improving the lives of the people who participate in the programs by “grants paying for CD production, field trips and concerts”. There is a comparison between Silence is Violence not receiving funds and the People of Armstrong Park, however Silence is Violence is a national program with a chapter in New Orleans and the POAP is a local organization. Often national programs have budgets allotted for various chapters and these two organizations can have very different budget realities because of that.

    “Sixty-four groups applied; in February 23 were awarded a total of $500,000.” That is about $8,000 for each, with various amounts given to each. The real question is with the need to address issues in our community, we are haggling over in essence what is a small amount of money compared to how much is spent to incarcerate youth and adults that the programs are working with. Why is that not more funds to support violence prevention and job training programs in this city?

  • Bro. Keith “X” Hudson

    None of the groups awarded the money have proven track records. They are in fact FRIENDS of the administration and the Lens, so who’s questioning their productivity? NO ONE! The Greater N.O. Foundation is the entity that’s issuing the “hush-money” to these groups who somehow always be included with surveys pertinent to the city. We see you. LOL

  • Nierue

    Let me get this straight: You’re upset that an organization was given a grant to provide opportunities to kids who are at risk of becoming criminals. And you’re upset because those activities seem like they would be fun and interesting. (Does that not make perfect sense as a strategy for preventing people from turning to crime?) And some people who didn’t get the same grant are upset about it, thinking that they were more worthy.

    On another point raised – that the group got a grant through a fiscal agent: That’s a well respected and longstanding practice in the nonprofit world. There is nothing fishy about that arrangement.

    And on another point raised: The request for proposals specifically stated, as you quote, “For newer organizations, we understand that this track record might not be especially long.” Are you suggesting that only groups that are already long-established should be eligible for funding? Wouldn’t that just prop up the old boys’ network? And if that were true, how would innovative groups have a chance at getting started and bringing new competition to the field?

    What is the scandal here? Why are the author of this piece and the Lens trying to stir up controversy over what seems to be a worthy effort (even given this article’s negative slant) when there is so much that is truly broken about our society?

    If you want to sensationalize half-truths and manipulate people in order to get them riled up, get into party politics or tabloid news. I expect more from the Lens.

  • Josephine Everly

    What disturbs me most about this article is the hypocrisy of suggesting that newly formed nonprofits are unworthy of funding because they have not yet received their 501(c)3 status. Does Mr. Maldonado not realize that his employer, the Lens, received grants from national funders including the Open Society, Knight, and Surdna Foundations and local funders including the Greater New Orleans Foundation during a 26-month period while it lacked its own 501(c)3 status? (http://thelensnola.org/2012/12/12/the-lens-receives-nonprofit-designation-after-26-month-wait/
    http://thelensnola.org/2013/02/15/now-in-our-fourth-year-the-lens-has-new-website-other-things-to-tell-you-about/)

    During this time, the Lens’ track record was beyond a doubt “brief;” however, funders and donors were willing to take a risk by investing in the nascent Lens. By inference, Mr. Maldonado implies that these investments in the Lens should not have been made.

    As a supporter of the Lens, I am deeply disappointed.

    Josephine Everly

  • Charles Maldonado

    We’re not upset that these groups received grants, and we’re not criticizing their work generally. However, it did appear at least questionable that the NOLA for Life program — a public policy program focused on violent crime prevention — awarded money — after being reviewed by a selection committee that included city officials — to brand new groups that, in some cases, had little obvious connection to anti-crime work.

  • Nierue

    Perhaps your reporting was not strong enough to discover or explain those connections, or the promise of those new groups to help combat the epidemic of crime in our community.

  • Josephine,

    The point of this story was to show that some grantees either had short track records or their projects appear to have tenuous connections to violent-crime reduction.

    You’re correct that the IRS didn’t approve The Lens’ nonprofit status for 26 months, and we used a fiscal agent during that time. However, The Lens was registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State as a nonprofit. The two organizations cited here were not registered with the Secretary of State until months after the RFP — and in one case, not until after The Lens asked about it.

    The Lens is grateful to the organizations that have funded our work, particularly those who did so early on, when we didn’t have much of a track record. Here we are talking about a city of New Orleans RFP and public dollars. If, early in The Lens’ history, we had responded to an RFP like this one — one disbursing public funds and stating that it was seeking organizations with established track records — then sure, our lack of a 501(c)3 could’ve been as a strike against us.

    Steve Myers,

    Managing Editor

  • E.J.

    It seems reasonable to me to fund trips out of town for recreational and/or educational purposes. Youths trapped in violent communities need a break just like we do when we take vacation from work, and they need to experience and see that a world of opportunity exists beyond their communities. In fact, many people forced from NOLA after Katrina chose to remain elsewhere after stumbling upon better opportunities and quality of life. Last, early childhood programs certainly have value, but our youths and young adults are obviously in need of intervention too.