In a sharp and unexpected departure from last year, the financial arm of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s anti-violence program, the NOLA for Life Fund, is not doling out money as it enters its second phase.
Instead, the city is forming a NOLA for Life Services Collaborative, bringing together 20 organizations to brainstorm ways to make a difference in the community. Last year, the fund disbursed $500,000 in grants to 23 nonprofit groups “to deliver high-quality social services to young men most at risk of killing or being killed.”
The shift in strategies is surprising. Landrieu administration officials repeatedly said last year that the NOLA for Life Fund would not change. The Mayor’s Office has not said why it shifted tactics.
And questions remain about the first phase of the NOLA for Life Fund, such as whether the grant recipients met their promises. Although some of the grantees from the first round were required to submit reports detailing how the fund’s money was spent, those reports are not available to the public because of the way the city set up the fund.
Nor is it clear how much money is left in the fund. It appears that there should be a significant sum even after the first phase of the NOLA for Life Fund, but Landrieu’s office did not provide a balance or say how it is being used.
NEW NOLA FOR LIFE
Landrieu’s office announced last month that the city has chosen 20 local nonprofits to participate in the NOLA for Life Services Collaborative.
Beginning this month, the city will facilitate a series of meetings with the 20 groups with a goal of developing strategies to best coordinate their service and expertise in violence prevention, behavioral intervention and workforce re-entry for people incarcerated or on probation. The monthly meetings will be conducted over the next six months.
This collaborative program is being funded by a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. According to the grant agreement, the money will ultimately be used after Services Collaborative meetings end to fund a two-year pilot program serving “approximately 100 high risk African American males and will follow them as they navigate the continuum of services built by the coalition” of public and private service providers working under the NOLA for Life umbrella.
Unlike last year’s NOLA for Life Fund effort, where a $1 million foundation grant was routed through the private Greater New Orleans Foundation, this year’s grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation went directly to the city. Applications for the Services Collaborative were likewise sent to a city employee, not a private foundation employee, as was the case last year.
The first phase of the NOLA for Life Fund was housed and administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, but the initiative appeared to be city-led. Not only was the fund part of Landrieu’s NOLA for Life brand, the the granting opportunity was announced through a city press release. And six of the 10 panel members who selected grantees were city employees. Still, the panel met in closed, unannounced meetings to deliberate on grant applicants. And the final grant reports were sent back to the foundation, not the city, meaning they aren’t public records.
Though the new Services Collaborative doesn’t appear to involve any grant funding, the selection process was similar.
In May, the city solicited applications. Early in July, before the participating organizations were announced, The Lens asked Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble how the process worked. A review panel made up of “community, educational, and philanthropic institutions,” would recommend applicants to the city, he wrote in an email.
“There will not be a formal announcement of the review committee meeting,” Gamble wrote in the July 11 email. After the winners were announced, Gamble said the committee met on July 14 and named the participants.
None of the Robert Wood Johnson money is being funneled to the groups, Gamble added. But the call for applications released in June mentions the possibility of “future funding opportunities.” Gamble said that refers to the pilot program.
“Participants in the Services Collaborative will not be first in line for funding opportunities through the pilot project,” Gamble wrote.
Among the 20 groups, three — Partnership for Youth Development, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and Total Community Action — were pre-selected to coordinate the Services Collaborative.
In response to a public-records request from The Lens, the city provided applications for all 20 groups that responded. Three were not selected: The Silverback Society, which received a $5,000 NOLA for Life grant last year; the Guardians Institute; and the Childhood and Family Learning Foundation, a group run by Phyllis Landrieu, aunt of the mayor and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Many of the winning applicants this year were familiar, too. Eight organizations that received NOLA for Life Fund grants last year will be part of the new program, including the Family Center of Hope, which has been the beneficiary of millions in public dollars intended to pay for a community center. The project is languishing and the subject of a number of lawsuits.
WHY CHANGE THE PROCESS?
Following a series of reports by The Lens on the fund’s choices of grant recipients and its closed grant selection process, Landrieu administration officials, responding to questions from the City Council, insisted that the fund would continue to hand out grants in the same way.
Later, the city allocated $250,000 in public money to the fund, possibly making it subject to state sunshine laws. Still, the administration argued that because the money was being held by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the fund was not required to hold public selection meetings for future grants, and nothing would change.
The Lens asked communications employees with the Mayor’s Office for interviews with administration officials directly involved with the program to explain the change, but they did not respond.
It is possible that the terms of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant agreement — which requires the city to directly administer a program with the money — preclude using that money for grant allocations through a third party like the Greater New Orleans Foundation. But that doesn’t account for money still left over in the initial NOLA for Life Fund.
LINGERING QUESTIONS ABOUT PHASE ONE
As of September, the NOLA for Life Fund — created with a $1 million grant from Chevron – had nearly $500,000 remaining. Add another $250,000 from the city, and it should have nearly $750,000. City officials did not respond to inquiries about what is being done with the remaining money.
It is not even clear that the city ever gave it the $250,000 it promised.
“This money will be distributed to GNOF, a non-profit organization, through a CEA [cooperative endeavor agreement], which is how the City routinely distributes grant money,” Gamble wrote late last year in an email responding to questions about the allocation.
The city generally posts its contracts and cooperative endeavor agreements online. The Lens could not find any written agreement with the foundation regarding its use of the $250,000, and Gamble did not respond to questions about the agreement.
Nor did he respond to a question about the source of matching funds that the city raised in order to secure the Robert Wood Johnson grant, according to the grant agreement.
Even as the second phase of the NOLA for Life Fund is set to begin, little information is available on the success of the first phase.
Of more than 20 groups that received the grants last year, only the subset that received what the officials called Community of Practice grants were required to file reports documenting their activities after the yearlong grant period ended in March.
The reports were never provided to the city, officials from the City Attorney’s Office and the Mayor’s Office told The Lens in response to a public-records request. And the Greater New Orleans Foundation declined The Lens’ request to view them.
The Lens also asked all of the groups, but only three of them — Reconcile New Orleans, Apex Community Advancement and the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights — provided the reports.
In June, the Rev. Pat Watson, executive director of The Family Center of Hope, spoke to The Lens in a brief phone interview about the program and offered to ask the organization’s board of directors for permission to share its report. Watson did not follow-up and has not responded to subsequent phone calls and emails.
In the June interview, Watson asked why The Lens didn’t simply ask the city for the report.
“Why won’t they give you that information? It’s public information,” she said. “It’s the mayor’s program.”