A “historic initiative designed to expand opportunity for a population that is often undervalued and under-utilized.” Those were the words of Diane Bell-McKoy, president and CEO of Associated Black Charities, delivered June 2018, when the city opened the first Request for Proposal (RFP) process for applicants seeking a portion of the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund (BCYF).(1)
More than two years since the first round of grant funding, and more than four years since the BCYF was approved by voters, how 84 organizations (2) and a host of fiscal agents, technical assistance contractors, and program evaluators spent $12 million in city funds, and what impact it had on youth, remains largely unknown.
Promises for Change
Approved by city voters in 2016, the BCYF collects $0.03 for every $100 of assessable property value in the city “to be used exclusively for purposes of establishing new and augmenting existing programs for and services to the children and youth of this city.”
In 2017, planning for the BCYF got underway: a 34 person Task Force, co-chaired by Adam Jackson, of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and Dr. John Brothers, of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, began meeting in February. The Task Force developed six values to guide the work:(3)
· Our work is informed, driven and led by youth voices
· Our work both advances equity and is welcoming and supporting of all races, classes and gender identities
· Our work is accountable and has impact to local communities, neighborhoods and places where young people connect
· Our work is not politically-driven and promotes confidence from the caring networks of Baltimore’s Young people
· Our work inspires new partnerships and new approaches to philanthropy to advance Baltimore’s young people, and
· Our work is focused, expedient, and conducted with urgency.
These values would lead the grant-making work of the BCYF, and guide its organizational structure.
Although the BCYF had passed as a ballot initiative, little had been said about how the Fund would operate: Who would run day-to-day operations? Who would be the custodian of any records to ensure the promised accountability? How would the organization monitor grantees to promote confidence? How would the Fund inspire new partnerships, and with whom?
The Task Force recommended to the City Council that a temporary intermediary administer the BCYF until a permanent structure could be established. Such an intermediary would be required to demonstrate experience working in “disenfranchised communities in Baltimore, experience in racial equity, and experience with building the capacity of organization serving disenfranchised communities in Baltimore.”(4)
The BCYF Task Force recommended Associated Black Charities (ABC) be selected as the temporary fiscal intermediary, or fiscal agent, with the expectation that the permanent structure with an independent governing body would be established by the summer of 2018. The Task Force allowed that ABC might not meet the deadline and recommended they serve in “other capacities” to ensure grant-making would begin during the summer of 2018.
Then months of silence.
Finally, in November 2017 — nearly six months after the Task Force’s recommendations — then City Council President Young introduced legislation to formalize the intermediary. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and ABC was signed on January 25, 2018 (5). ABC was awarded 10% of the BCYF as an “administrative disbursement” for conducting at least one site review per grantee, allocating funds, established a permanent structure, and supporting capacity building for grantees.
Another six months would pass before the RFP was released on June 6, 2018. A 24 person panel reviewed the grant applications and 84 grantees were selected in late August 2018, nearly two years after the BCYF was approved by voters.
Urgency was enshrined in the BCYF’s values, but policy and value without practice means little. Expediency for Baltimore’s children was the watchword, until it wasn’t.
ABC Takes the Helm
Capacity building was an early theme for the BCYF. In November 2017, just months before the MOU with ABC was executed, Task Force Co-Chair Jackson told the Baltimore Sun, “We can build capacity in the community instead of relying on other people to do that for us.”(6)
ABC certainly had experience as a fiscal agent. For years, it has served in that role, distributing the city’s share of the federal Ryan White grant to other organizations including Chase Brexton, Johns Hopkins, and Moveable Feast (7). The majority of ABC’s funding is from HIV/AIDS work ($14m of its total $21m in revenue in 2018) (8).
But did ABC have significant experience with working directly with disenfranchised community and capacity building? It appears not, or was unprepared for the challenges ahead, or both. In truth it is impossible to tell if ABC was the best qualified entity. The Mayor, the City Council, and the Task Force — none recommended a Request for Information (RFI) from potential fiscal agents to determine the kinds of skills and experience necessary to simultaneously build and oversee a new, complex fund. None recommended an RFP to invite proposals from potentially qualified vendors. Instead, ABC was given the responsibility — and $1.2m in funds — behind closed doors, without the benefit of any open bid process.
The January 2018 MOU set out ABC’s duties. Among other tasks, it required ABC to report monthly to the Mayor and City Council on progress:
· The first report, covering September 2018, notes that the “Candidates under consideration for the 1:1 Responsive Technical Assistance Team were invited to interview with BCYF in October” (9). In other words, the technical assistance strategy to support grantees was not in place prior to making grant awards, even as ABC entered into the MOU nine months before.
Given that the BCYF was explicitly directed at small, informal, grassroots entities, it is shocking that technical assistance would take a back seat. Technical assistance (TA) typically involves 1:1 support to grantees on implementing their programs, how to complete and submit narrative and financial reports, building community support, improving engagement and enrollment, and crucially sustainability — that is, how will the organization continue to deliver services after the grant ends? Will they fundraise, charge dues or a membership fee, seek other funding via 501c3 status, rely on volunteers, or incorporate and seek contracts as a vendor? Excellent technical assistance providers want to avoid dependency where grantees rely on only a single or very few funding sources to operate.
- Not until November — three months after award — did the report note that any grantees were receiving disbursement. Only 33 of the 84 (less than 40%) received their first tranche of money. Meanwhile, the 1:1 Responsive Technical Assistance Team “held their first planning retreat to discuss and plan the year ahead. The retreat focused on onboarding/getting to know each other, reviewing the preliminary T/A strategy and detailed work plan, and refining the proposed tools and protocols for the Grantee Capacity Assessment process.” The tools were not attached to the report and have never been made public, nor have grantee capacity assessments (10). Why the TA team was just in the planning stages, months after award, has never been explained.
- By December, only 60 of the 84 grantees (71%) had received their first payment. The “responsive” TA providers only began communicating with grantees in late November and early December, months after the award. Rather than conduct a baseline needs assessment, the consultants “often found it beneficial to spend the first meeting(s) building rapport…TA consultants have also assisted grantees with some compliance requirements, reducing the workload of the administrative team.” Except the administrative team was larger than ever, as this report mentions that “[t]he Fund for Educational Excellence (FFEE) began providing administrative support for the technical assistance component of the Fund however ABC structured the agreement so ABC maintained the liability and oversight.”(11)
And then the reports stopped. No reason given, and none requested by the Mayor or City Council. At least not publicly.
A Year Goes By… And Another
In January 2019, BCYF held two community information sessions,(12) ostensibly to update current grantees as well as those who wanted apply for next round of funding. That presentation, for the first time, mentions Strong City as a fiscal sponsor (in addition to Fusion Partners). It also lists 11 staff or consultants as the BCYF team, plus eight other organizations acting in various capacities to support the Fund, and nine “initiative advisors.”
The same slide set lists activities to be completed in 2019, including the transition to a permanent entity, “more opportunities for support and advanced preparation…expanded partnerships and use of technology to complement direct engagement strategies for data collection/needs assessment.”
Of all the items listed, zero were completed. Zero.
What was the 10% administrative disbursement spent on? I don’t know. Other than a single slide, the BCYF has never released any documentation — no publicly available financial records, no budgets, no cost allocation reports, and no publicly available subcontracts. The fiscal workings of BCYF remain off limits to the taxpayers who approved the Fund.
By the end of 2019, there was still no permanent entity, no letters of intent had been posted, no earlier start made, and no second RFP released. Politicians who eagerly delivered remarks on the unmet needs of Baltimore’s youth and seemed ready to bathe in the reflected glory of the Fund’s anticipated successes were curiously silent about the slow progress.
Finally, in February 2020, the City Council convened a hearing on the Youth Fund. ABC told the Council two factors hindered ABC’s management — lack of administrative support and inexperience by grantees in accounting (13). Except the Fund included significant and substantial support: $800,000 for technical assistance and $100,000 in “aligned contributions” for process evaluation and strategic communications.
The complaint about lack of administrative support is all the more curious because a July 2019 audit (14) of the BCYF found “Site visits of grantees were not conducted as of April 30, 2019; there was no established time frame for grantees to complete award agreements. As a result, funds were not yet used for program objectives as intended; [and] some grantees received second payments before the previous payment advance was completely spent.”
Lessons Learned. And Not.
“Government doesn’t have any tolerance for mistakes. Innovation means there will be mistakes” (15) That was what Bell-McKoy told the City Council in February 2020.
That’s the wrong focus. It isn’t the mistakes, it is the omissions.
Several other jurisdictions have dedicated youth funds, some for over a decade (16). Not all are analogous to Baltimore’s, which created an entirely new entity rather than seating the Fund under an existing city agency. There’s another important difference: transparency. Other funds release far more information on the programs they fund, their leadership, governance, and fiscal practices.
- In the 1980s, Florida passed legislation (Fla. Stat. 125.901) enabling counties to create a special taxing district to fund children’s services. Hillsborough County is an example of one such district. Apart from who the county funds, a website includes detailed information on its policies and bylaws, a wealth of forms and technical assistance, (17) and detailed budget breakdowns and audits of revenue and expenses. Contrary to ABC’s assertion that it needed more to run the Youth Fund and that 15–20% was more in line with usual administrative costs, Hillsborough spent 11% on total operating expenses, including employee salaries and benefits, capital expenses, and fees (18).
- In the 1990s, Seattle passed a levy to support children and youth (19). While the levy fund is more limited in scope than the BCYF (it is education-focused), it publishes an annual report with details on the locations of programs — something that would be of interest in Baltimore, with our Black Butterfly/White L division — the racial demographics of children served, school partnerships, and more (20).
- The Oakland Fund for Children and Youth’s website includes a strategic plan, evaluation reports (21), contractual documents (22), and a map — by council district — of funded programs.
In stark contrast, the BCYF offers only a 41 page summary document (23) released just this past June, nearly two years after the initial grant award. We don’t know the total number of children served. Councilman Cohen said a bit over 11,000 in Year 1, and other sources have reported 22,000 for Years 1 & 2, but that seems improbable given that the first round of funds went out in 2018 and the second round of money (“continuation grants”) went to organizations in early 2020, just before COVID-19 upended all our lives. Especially as some grantees ran out of money and had to truncate service provision.
In any case, the summary is a cut-and-paste job from the grantee reports. It offers no analysis, no accounting for the Fund’s impact on young people and their families, no ideas for process improvement. There are no process or outcome evaluations. There is no data to share beyond simple counts of program participants; it is not known if these are unduplicated counts. The report neither highlights successes nor acknowledges common challenges. Instead, it merely compresses information I obtained via MPIA (24) — information that raises significant questions about the consistency of information reported by grantees.
Lions, Tigers, and the Nonprofit Industrial Complex
The BCYF was created to funnel money away from the usual suspects to small, grassroots organizations and individuals. There was an intense focus — at least on paper — on building capacity in the community rather than directing funds to white-led foundations and non-profits. Paul Kivel, a writer and activist, writes about the power such institutions have over community leaders, “the ruling class coopts leaders from communities by providing them with jobs in non-profits and government agencies, consequently realigning their interests with maintaining the system” (25).
In creating the BCYF, Baltimore’s voters approved not just money but an idea: that, properly supported, the community could confront the root causes of social inequities without lending (more) power to organizations that sacrifice mission for money, adopting a mindset rooted not in social justice but rather keeping their doors open, by any means necessary.
ABC, we were told, would deliver robust technical assistance to groups traditionally shut-out: the too small, the unincorporated, the nascent, and/or the youth-led. The technical assistance could have incubated programs and helped them collect data necessary to apply for larger grants, or complete processes needed to formalize themselves and grow into WBE/MBEs, ready to bid on contracts traditionally held by outsiders.
Instead, when the technical assistance was too little and too late, organizations floundered. And they said so, in grant reports with strongly worded complaints and plaintive requests for additional help and additional dollars, neither of which were forthcoming.
Rather than do that, ABC and the BCYF created a power vacuum into which all the traditional players gladly stepped. In late April 2020, as legislation to establish a permanent fiscal agent was being considered, it was now-embattled Strong City that offered testimony (26). By then, Strong City was managing $1 million in grantee funds on top fiscally sponsoring over 100 other community-based initiatives. What happened between 2017’s value statement about inspiring new partnerships and approaches to philanthropy and 2020’s hearing in which no agency reports were presented?
Instead of defeating the non-profit industrial complex, the BCYF created new dependencies. Organizations that were promised help, promised respect for their hard labor, promised sustainability got the same-old: empty words. There is no needs assessment, no evaluation, no accounting of successes and failures.
Rather than a paradigm shift, BCYF created a client state: a group of organizations subordinate to the political and economic interests of the political class who vociferously claimed the Fund as their own in the early days, and then were conspicuously silent as problems surfaced.
Evaluation Isn’t a Dirty Word
Evaluation and data are oft-criticized by small and Black-led organizations in Baltimore, and rightfully so. Traditionally, what constitutes success has been defined by external funders rather than the community being served. This serves neither the organization nor the community well as the grantee contorts itself trying to please those holding the purse strings.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The BCYF could have focused on using a racial and social justice evaluation framework. A public framework, developed with community input — most especially youth voices — that isn’t constrained by traditional measures of success or failure and instead values the lived experiences and strengths of communities. How organizations collect data is fundamental — it tells the public who funders deem valuable and seen, and who is unworthy and erased.
Although there are some early indications of TA providers determining outcome measures with funders, there was no formal evaluation or public accounting of what grantees determined was important to the children and youth they serve. Somewhere along the way, the BCYF and ABC decided that it wasn’t important.
Evaluation could’ve been an agent for (more) change. Instead, we seem to be replicating exactly what we didn’t want: an environment where we pressure small, grassroots organizations to professionalize via 501c3 status or fiscal sponsorship, then force them to compete for a small earmark that distracts from the false narrative of scarcity that would have you believe that this is the best Baltimore can do. That the BCYF should be lauded as innovative rather than a continuation of a neoliberal narrative that refuses to recognize budgets as moral documents.
Make no mistake, with the passage of 20–0519(27), the BCYF continues to drift further away from its values and vision of youth-led, equity-advancing, accountable work.
Rather than a “People’s Assembly” approach (28) or participatory budgeting (29) we now have a BCYF Board of at least 9 but no more than 20, prescribed by legislation. Permanent designees from the Mayor’s Office of Child and Family Success and City Council President are named, for two seats. One-third of seats are designated for youth between 14 and 25. Unless of course the Board of Estimates finds that the Fund took reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and failed. Baltimore’s Children and Youth Fund sans youth, courtesy of a legislatively enshrined escape hatch.
The Fund’s Bylaws also much be approved by the BoE, a body of five, of which three are elected and two are appointed by the Mayor. So much for the value that “Our work is not politically-driven.”
So much too for dollars for youth-led organizing. Now 20% of the fund — one in every five dollars — can be spent on public engagement, staff, and “other costs to administer the funds.” The much lauded transparency and urgency? Apparently that translates to one hearing before March 31 each year; a needs assessment every three years, beginning FY2022; and an annual financial plan posted to the BCYF website at least three weeks before it is heard by the BoE. Goodbye, much discussed but little seen “paradigm shifting approach,” we hardly knew you.
 https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5728e34fd51cd4809e7aefe0/t/5e9f5c0ee5917b0e0320ffaa/1587502095887/ABC_Audit_+FS+-+YE12-31-18_Final%28signed%29.pdf According to a recent audit, “[ABC] also earned $4,794,261 from the City of Baltimore for the year ended December 31, 2018, to administer the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, of which $4,625,807 was distributed to third parties and $169,000 was retained by [ABC] as management fee revenue.”
 Social Service or Social Change, 2000, in https://libcom.org/files/incite-the-revolution-will-not-be-funded-beyond-the-nonprofit-industrial-complex-2.pdf p 129