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.

”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.” — Stacy Head

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.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...