Discord at Kansas City’s YouthNet Strikes Sour Note for Kids

Bill Alexander
November 1, 1998

The noise was coming from Michael McAfee, a man whom salty World War II Tank Commander Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. would take an instant liking to.

“No more consultants! No more research papers! No more bull****! Do you have the guts to pay for what you want to bring about?” the president of YouthNet asked his board of directors earlier this year, when he called for a county-wide youth tax and increased private donations.

The answer was no. For McAfee and his campaign to boost Kansas City’s chronically underfunded youth service, there will be no victory parade through the Arc de Triumphe.

For the second time in 18 months, YouthNet of Greater Kansas City — a nonprofit umbrella organization that trains youth workers and underwrites services performed by a network of youth-serving agencies — has lost its leader. McAfee was forced to resign because of disagreements with his 19-member board.

Some insiders say the board was “conservative.” But was McAfee — with his call for a youth tax and his criticism of donors — too radical?

“Quality costs,” McAfee said at one board session. “The days of nickel-and-diming a youth program with $25,000 here and $50,000 there to make a funder feel good, while the underfunded program collapses and dies, are gone.” He thrashed the city’s business and philanthropic communities, pointing out that many of its luminaries, along with state politicians, touted YouthNet as a model program at last year’s gala Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia “at the same time it was carrying a $750,000 deficit.”

Founded 10 years ago by civic leaders such as Dave Smith (now executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City) with the backing of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, YouthNet’s original goal was to counteract the influence of out-of-town gangs on the area’s 166,000- youth. As the years passed, YouthNet strove to meet the needs of an underemployed inner-city youth population with a platoon of outreach workers, and after-school programs that featured computer training, money management and career-planning. It also began a youth-worker training program that offered job opportunities and college scholarships.

But it was never able to develop ongoing, sustainable funding sources to support all the programs it hoped to underwrite at its network agencies such as the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Hispanic-serving Guadalupe Community Center.

YouthNet had already come under fire in 1996 and 1997 for expanding too quickly and failing to meet its $2.7 million payroll under Executive Director Karen Haren. McAfee (who preferred the title “president”) replaced her last year for an originally agreed-upon 120-day period, but he warmed to his task and later vowed to make the job his “career” in Kansas City. That career careened to a halt on October 24th.

Ballot Measure Sought?

The 30-year-old McAfee garnered the board’s displeasure when he began aggressively pushing two ideas: an expensive long-term strategic plan for youth developmental programs that depended on vastly increased sums from more of the city’s businesses and philanthropic organizations, and a designated public funding stream similar to the youth services levy in St. Petersburg, Fla., or the youth service set-asides in Oakland and San Francisco, Calif.

Why this push? With statistics showing that YouthNet was able to serve only 2.7 percent of the eligible young people in the Kansas City area with its summer programs, McAfee argued that the “market need far surpasses [the area’s] youth-development delivery system’s capacity to deliver market-driven, fully funded and completely accountable youth-development programs.” With YouthNet currently operating on a $1.3 million budget, and stripped down to funding only its youth-worker training component, McAfee and his consultants estimated it would take $77 million annually to meet the need in Jackson County.

Kansas City is located in Jackson County, a sprawling urban, suburban, and rural area of one million-plus residents.

McAfee originally pressed for a half-cent city sales tax to help finance this effort, but Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II, a former mentor, shot it down. “He’s one of our brightest stars,” said Cleaver of McAfee, “but I don’t have the gall to drop another tax on a weary voting public.”

YouthNet board member Gene Wilson called McAfee’s plan “a wonderful fantasy.” Wilson is president and chief operating officer of the Youth Development Division of the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, YouthNet’s major funder. “Michael is a passionate young man, but he’s never worked in the youth field before,” Wilson said. He added that “YouthNet has only been able to raise $1 million annually through private contributions and 40 percent of that came from the Kauffman Foundation.”

As for a strategy regarding public monies, confusion reigns. McAfee and Interim President Deborah Craig told Youth Today that several YouthNet board members have scheduled a December meeting with state legislators to discuss the possibility of the inclusion of a youth tax initiative on the fall ‘99 ballot in Jackson County.
But Board Co-chairman Bill Nelson, president of NationsBank Midwest, said he is unaware of any upcoming meeting. “That may be a long-term goal,” he said.

It Works

Dedicated youth taxes have worked in a few places. James Mills, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) of Pinellas County, Fla., pronounces his 51-year-old property-tax-funded agency a huge success and “a great community-builder.” Through legislation devised in 1947 by Lincoln Bogue, a juvenile court judge, this central Florida county — which includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Largo — set up a special taxing district for children and youth services. The levy, the first of its kind in the country (“Pinellas County Has Special Tax for Children and Youth Services,”Youth Today, May/June 1994), established an independent board free from the political and competitive constraints of local government. The JWB currently allocates $26 million of its $31 million budget to 80 public and private youth-serving agencies for 165 programs.

“We’re a local resource,” Mills boasted. “Local control contributes to community ownership of problems and solutions. If people don’t receive responsibility for the problem, they have no feeling for a solution.”

Mills said the levy translates to a homeowner living in a $50,000 house paying $20.30 a year, and someone in a $150,000 home paying $101.49. In a county of 875, 000 residents, more than 100,000 youth in the area’s poorest neighborhoods are beneficiaries. This perpetual source of funding for comprehensive youth services “provides stability and preserves energy,” said Mills, “You no longer have to spend so much time chasing dollars.”

Michele Cahill, director of New York’s Youth Development Institute, a capacity-builder for community-based youth organizations, cites the successful techniques used
in Oakland and San Francisco to place dedicated youth-service spending on the ballot. “They launched a strong advocacy campaign directed toward the community, public agencies, and public officials,” she said.

Voters approved Oakland’s 1996 Measure K — spearheaded by the city’s Kids First! Coalition of youth-serving agencies, parents, teachers and community organizers (known as the Kids First! ballot initiative) — to guarantee money for kids programs by protecting funds from budget fluctuations and changing political climates (“Putting Kids First: A Lesson in Political Power,” Youth Today, May 1998). A key provision calls for the development of a 12-year strategic plan that looks at the big picture of poverty, poorly functioning schools, and lack of neighborhood infrastructures, with “a vision of measurably improving the lives of children and youth.”

While McAfee was on-point with his own strategic plan, an insider faulted him for not emulating the Oakland scenario all the way, especially in terms of community involvement. “It should have been a priority of his to make the community his constituency,” said the source. “If he had done this, [the board] couldn’t have gotten rid of him.”

To this charge, McAfee responded: “This is a quiet Midwestern city. It’s a different culture. I had gone as far as I could go with the community without provoking actions that might be construed as confrontational.”

High Marks

But McAfee gets high marks for his attempt. “He wanted to move beyond photo-op demonstration projects,” said Richard Murphy, director of the D.C.-based Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, who assisted McAfee in developing the YouthNet business plan.

“Too often,” said Murphy,” I’ve seen plans announced where so-and-so is going to cure this-or-that problem. Everyone sitting at the table knows it’s not enough money, and yet we wonder why in two or three years we’re back at the same table with a new plan to handle the same problem.”

“He’s stepping out on a limb by asking for a lot of money, and by showing his willingness to change the way funders and agencies do business,” Elaine Johnson, Murphy’s colleague and director of the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work, said soon before McAfee’s resignation. “He’s moving beyond nurturing programs to developmental outcomes. It’s funder as capacity builder, and this takes a strategic plan, along with a youth tax — something that has worked elsewhere.”

As the home of Hallmark Cards, the Chiefs NFL football team and the Royals major league baseball franchise, Kansas City is a big-money, big-player town. “With all of its resources,” said Murphy, “K.C. could be the Kid’s Capital.”

Murphy observed that government agencies can break down the finances of construction plans for juvenile prisons “through the year 2020, but not many seem concerned about how many youth centers are needed.”

McAfee’s scorned-and-praised plan details how, by 2004, there could be in place 88 year-round “YouthNet University” campuses at selected Jackson County public schools, community centers, YMCAs, and Boys & Girls Clubs. They would offer some 17,000 youth access to a network of after-school academic, career-building, and recreation activities, with YouthNet on the top of the bureaucratic pile doling out money from a “high yield” fund to the campus location administrators who, in turn, would subcontract services.

“We’ve raised the bar for youth development in Kansas City,” said a departing McAfee last month. “Kansas City will have the most effective and sustainable network of after-school programming in the nation that will ensure safe places, caring adults and positive activities for every Kansas City Youth within walking distance.”

But for now, Tank Commander McAfee and YouthNet are out of gas.



104 W. 9th St., Ste. 104

Kansas City, MO 64105

(816) 221-6900

Fax: (816) 221-8008


Elaine Johnson

Vice President and Director

National Training Institute for Community Youth Work

Academy for Educational Development

1875 Connecticut Ave., NW

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 884-8000

Fax: (202) 884-8411


Barbara Haar

Program Officer

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

4900 Oak St.

Kansas City, MO 64112

(816) 932-1156

Fax: (816) 932-1100


Building Local Infrastructure for Youth Development: The Added Value of Capacity-building Intermediary Organizations

Center for Youth Development and Policy Research

Academy for Educational Development

1875 Connecticut Ave., NW

Washington, DC 20009

(202) 884-8267

Fax: (202) 884-8404


Discord at Kansas City’s YouthNet Strikes Sour Note for Kids: YouthNet: The Danger of Doing too Much?

Alexander, Bill. "Discord at Kansas City’s YouthNet Strikes Sour Note for Kids." Youth Today, November 1998, p. 1.

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