On and Off the Wagon: America’s Promise at Two

Bill Alexander
July 1, 1999


Here at the site of the Liberty Bell a little more than two years ago, America’s Promise — The Alliance for Youth was born amid high-powered pledges and optimism.

Today, a nationwide random survey by Youth Today of youth worker delegates who attended those kick-off ceremonies reveals a crack in support for the organization that, like the one in the bell, zig-zags down the middle.

“I would have been better off if Jimmy Carter had shown up with a bunch of plywood and said, ‘Here, take this home with you,’” complained Tony Perez, a member of the Wisconsin delegation at the Presidents’ Summit.

The glitzy invitation-only Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future ceremonies that launched America’s Promise (AP) featured President Bill Clinton, three ex-presidents, all the living first ladies, AP Chairman Gen. Colin Powell (ret.), and hundreds of delegates from every state (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). The event was touted as a maximum effort to persuade corporations, nonprofits and an army of volunteers to collaboratively donate $1 billion in cash and in-kind services to help 2 million at-risk youth.

“They are an important ally for youth development,” said Thomas McKenna, the just-retired national executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.
Operating with a 43-person staff and a $6 million budget, AP now boasts that 10 million children have directly benefited from $295 million in commitments made by 441 national corporations to some 458 state and local Communities of Promise efforts nationwide. Last month AP launched a $60 million (in free radio-TV time) public service campaign seeking “platoon leaders” for AP Chairman Powell’s “crusade” of volunteers, mentoring partnerships and corporate commitment-makers.

Crowed an AP official: ”We’ve got a momentum of support.”

But reality has prompted AP to lower its goals, extend itself beyond its original “sunset” date of 2000, and consider shifting Powell’s task to include lobbying for legislation.

‘Long on Hoopla’

Perez, executive director of the Milwaukee Community Service Corps, works with at-risk urban youth on building and conservation projects. Saying AP is “long on talk and hoopla, and short on doing,” Perez said he has no knowledge of Milwaukee having youth development initiatives inspired by AP corporate commitment makers or its call for community volunteerism.

The AP “Report to the Nation 1999” lists as an “alliance” the Volunteer Center of Greater Milwaukee, Inc. Dionne Shaw, program director of the center’s youth efforts, said that although the programs “fall under the five goals” of AP [see box, below], they are not AP-inspired.

David Liederman regards AP as “irrelevant window dressing.” Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America until last month, professes “enormous respect” for Powell, but feels AP’s goals “do nothing to address the needs of the millions of children who’ve fallen below the poverty line.”

The skepticism of youth workers about the “value-added” benefits of AP dovetail with the observations of a “preliminary” non-evaluative three-city study conducted by two of the nation’s most respected youth research and development organizations: the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and the Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures. Among the findings of the Youth Today survey and the study:

  • Local AP initiative planning committees have been slow to build staffed organizations;
  • A lock-out of activist or policy-driven organizations from AP initiatives (as in San Francisco and San Diego);
  • Inadequate pre-planning and mapping strategies that ignored well-functioning but cash-strapped Safe-Place and Mentor programs in impoverished neighborhoods, which could have been identified and overlayed with AP programs;
  • Highly publicized, overblown and unrealistic corporate commitment promises have been quietly killed (such as United Way of New York City’s withdrawal of a $50 million “promise”);
  • No uniform evaluation or tracking mechanism to monitor a program’s effectiveness;
  • Competes with local agencies for corporate funding and foundation grants (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. declined forming a “Community of Promise” because it didn’t want to compete with local youth providers);
  • Not enough tracking done to insure that pledges by national corporations filter down to local affiliates (with local corporate affiliates often unaware of the national corporation’s commitment); and
  • Lack of coordination between AP’s national office and its state and national initiatives.
‘Enthusiasm and Momentum’

Col. F. William Smullen III (ret.), chief of staff for both AP’s 43-person staff and Powell’s personal four-person staff housed in the same Alexandria, Va. building, responds to brickbats with, “We are not another bureaucracy. There is no other organization like us, no model. We have generated enthusiasm and momentum, and created new programs. It takes time. We’re not perplexed or bothered.”

Smullen acknowledges that AP is “competing to a degree” with local and national nonprofits, but he chalks this up to the newness of the effort. AP makes calls every day around the country, he said, to monitor its progress. He urges all with concerns to call AP’s Alexandria office. “We’re growing and learning and refining.”

He wants it understood that AP is not a direct-service provider, but serves as a catalyst or “awareness-raiser.”

The Northbrook,Ill.-based Allstate Corporation was singled out by AP’s vice president of corporate commitments, K. Dane Snowden, as a prime example of a monitored top-down corporate commitment. Allstate’s commitment to AP is valued at more than $26 million in cash and in-kind contributions for 1997-2000. It has provided financial and volunteer resources to support state and local summits in 12 states (among them: Florida, Michigan and Texas).

In 1998 the Allstate Foundation distributed $2.7 million to local youth organizations and programs through the company’s 17 regional offices. The company has committed to increasing employee volunteerism from 54 percent to 75 percent, providing 1 million hours of volunteer service, and reaching more than 50,000 young people. An Allstate spokeswoman added the company may exceed its goals.

An original AP board member, William E. Milliken, backed up Smullen and Snowden. “We got off to a bumpy, slow start but we got our sea legs,” said Milliken, president of Communities in Schools, Inc.

McKenna of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which has pledged to double the number of youngsters (to 200,000) who are matched with adult mentors by next year, railed against AP critics: “Their [AP’s] $6 million [operating budget] is peanuts. Why are people knocking it? I find criticizing them pretty parochial.”

Public/Private Ventures’ Gary Walker noted that AP has “fervent” critics and advocates. “But we need to be concerned with long-term questions such as, ‘Is it stimulating local collaborations regarding youth development programs? Is it existing at the expense of other youth groups or is it value added?’ At this point, we don’t know. At a year old, it was unfair to pose these questions. Now these issues must be dealt with.”

Sliced Goals

Critical observations aside, in May AP launched an all-out publicity campaign glorifying its accomplishments, highlighted by Powell’s unveiling of the “America’s Promise Report to the Nation 1999” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he exclaimed, “I think we’ve caught the wind with this crusade.”

Powell is to America’s Promise what Lucille Ball was to “I Love Lucy”: he makes you tune in. Mary Strasser of Philadelphia’s Promise said he has the “fund-raiser pulling power of a rock star.”

And Isabel Stewart, national executive director of Girl’s Inc., who attended the Press Club speech, pronounced him “accessible” after approaching him afterward to request a meeting regarding her organization’s involvement in AP initiatives. “He was very receptive and couldn’t have been more gracious,” she said.

Hot on the heels of Powell’s bravura performance (he is now reputedly the country’s highest-paid lecture speaker at $80,000 per engagement), the management consultant firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released the results of a study (the study itself was not released for “confidentiality reasons”) that concluded AP had impacted the lives of “more than 10 million children.” The firm measured the number of children reached and the total dollar value of all commitments solely on the basis of what was reported by the corporate commitment-makers.

Under questioning, Brian Murrow, a co-manager of the pro-bono performance measurement study (originally proposed to AP by the other co-manager, Todd Wincup, a former member of Powell’s personal staff), reeled in some of the study’s claims.
He admitted, for example, that after discussions with AP President and CEO Peter Gallagher, it was decided that the study’s yardstick for success would “slice up” the five original goals, or promises, to help at-risk youth. The original goal was to affect all five areas. Now, said Murrow, “If a corporation commitment affected one of the five areas, it would be considered successful.”

Indeed, the majority of corporations counted as AP pledgers were deemed successful in only one area — providing mentors or tutors to work with children.

“That’s fine with us,” declared Smullen. “We’ve said all along the mentoring goal was the most important. With that achieved, the other four will follow.”

But John Johnson, president and CEO of the San Diego Urban League, disagrees. “America’s Promise is fatally flawed,” he said. “It is not dealing with isolated at-risk youth, such as latch-key kids who have nothing to do after school. It does not bring together business people and community activists who could reach these youngsters.”

No Sunset, New Powell

Originally set to come to an end, or “sunset,” next year, AP has extended itself to “beyond 2000.” Even if a Republican presidential administration comes in next year, Smullen said, AP “will continue to operate.”

At a series of recent private meetings involving high-level AP officials and representatives of the Corporation for National Service (co-organizer along with the Points of Light Foundation of the Presidents’ Summit), foundations and nonprofits, discussions revolved around how to recast AP’s image and the role of its megawatt star — Powell (who, says AP’s 990 tax form, spends 30 hours per week on AP business).
A person who attended one of the meetings said the retired general was beginning to “think through” what role he should play regarding influencing legislation and public policy.

Liederman was ecstatic about the idea. “He could do wonders with youth development legislation targeted at kids in desperate need of them,” he said.

“We welcome the expansion of his role into the public arena,” McKenna said.
The person from the meeting also said that three radio and TV spots produced by the Advertising Council of America were shown. They didn’t demonize youth, said the source, but were “positive and well done.”

Communities of Promise

Some 500 AmeriCorps volunteers participating in its America’s Promise Fellowship Program are sprinkled throughout the network of statewide or community-wide collaborations known as Communities of Promise (CPs). Serving as facilitators, clerical staff and organizers, they are generally placed through a local government entity set up to assist volunteer efforts such as AP. The AP Fellows, as they are called, are assigned for one year and paid a $7,500 yearly stipend by AmeriCorps (the largest component of the Corporation for National Service). They are often a necessary addition to understaffed and underfinanced local AP-affiliated efforts.

In addition to committing to deliver AP’s five goals to specific numbers of children, CPs are encouraged by the national office to incorporate three components for successful operation: supporting or developing schools or other sites of promise for communal collaboration, encouraging local alliances among youth service providers and directing a portion of their local commitments to support schools, sites, and local alliances.
Although hale and hearty with $12 million in corporate donations and an 88 percent increase in mentors since its startup in October 1997, Massachusetts Promise will shut down on Jan. 1, 2000 by order of Gov. A. Paul Cellucci (R).

“We will have fulfilled our purpose as a convener and capacity builder,” said MP Director Martha Morkan, noting that her agency was not out to compete with service providers for funds. Funded by $1 million voted by the state Legislature, which matched a like amount contributed by private sources, MP, said Morkan, will leave its mark. “Communities will have been given a framework, an enduring structure to build on,” she commented. Among MP’s achievements:

  • More than 32,000 employees will have contributed some 350,000 hours of service to youth efforts;
  • Engaged 200,000 youth in community service in 120 communities;
  • Created 79 new after-school programs in the state’s 11 highest-risk communities;
  • Enrolled 77,388 low-income children in public health insurance programs
One-Woman Operation

In the City of Brotherly Love, Mary Strasser lost her staff at the end of last month (two AP Fellows) but gained a website (donated by IBM). Philadelphia’s Promise is now a one-woman operation.

“There are 250,000 children at risk in Philadelphia and all of our mentoring programs need more mentors,” Strasser sighed.

Philadelphia’s Promise is a partnership between United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. Seated at her desk in the United Way Building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Strasser said Philadelphia’s Promise wouldn’t have been possible “without Powell and Rendell.” She described Powell as the consummate fund-raiser and outgoing Mayor Ed Rendell (D) as an effective cheerleader and nuts-and-bolts man.

The three-year operating budget of $270,000 for Philadelphia’s Promise is what was left over from the $420,000 in corporate donations Rendell corralled to help host the Presidents’ Summit. The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts gave $400,000 to the summit, but bypassed Philadelphia’s Promise and gave $1 million directly to AP.
“Where do we go after 2000? It’s not clear yet,” Strasser said. “We have done many good things, like children’s street fairs inaugurating Schools of Promise, and holding six mini-summits throughout the city to develop strategies to impact on at-risk youth.”
But random calls to youth-serving nonprofits included on a list distributed by Philadelphia’s Promise — called, “One To One/The Greater Philadelphia Mentoring Partnership (Mentoring Program Coordinators and Providers Network)” — elicited quizzical responses.

“I didn’t know I was on the list,” replied Peta Ikambana, director of the Congreso De Latinos Unidos, Inc., which deals with truants and teen substance abusers. “I attended one meeting at Philadelphia’s Promise and wanted to become formally involved, but no one said anything to me.” Unlisted, needy, and far removed from Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Checkmate tutorial and recreational after-school program. Located in a hub-bub of drive-by shootings, street corner drug dealing and crack houses, it needed volunteers at the time of the 1997 Presidents’ Summit, and it still does.

“We could use volunteers, definitely,” declared Checkmate Program Director Paul Delker. No, he didn’t know about the efforts of Philadelphia’s Promise.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “we haven’t heard from them.”


F. William Smullen III

Chief of Staff

America’s Promise

909 N. Washington St., Ste. 400

Alexandria, VA


(703) 684-4500

Mary Strasser


Philadelphia’s Promise

7 Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Philadelphia, PA


(215) 665-2467

Antonio Perez

Executive Director

Milwaukee Community Service Corps

1150 E. Brady St.

Milwaukee, WI 53202

(414) 276-6272

Paul Delker

Program Director


174 W. Allegheny Ave.

Philadelphia, PA 19133

(215) 425-4511

Martha Morkan


Massachusetts Promise

120 Boylston St.

Boston, MA 02116

(617) 542-2544


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Alexander, Bill. "On and Off the Wagon: America’s Promise at Two." Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.