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

Bill Alexander
November 1, 1998

For the past decade, YouthNet has unwittingly demonstrated the drawbacks of being ambitious.

YouthNet was created in 1988 as an initiative of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to deal with gang and drug problems, and within eight years was working through 21 nonprofit agencies. It trained 100 youth workers in counseling, tutoring, and outreach work, using a $240,000 three-year grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.

By 1996 its budget had ballooned to $2.7 million as it also took on sports, field trips and special events programs. In addition, it operated the Schools as Community Centers program out of eight public schools to introduce youngsters to computer literacy, money management, career-planning, and community service. YouthNet’s DeWitt Wallace-funded Building Exemplary Systems for Training Youth Workers (BEST) project seeks to professionalize and upgrade youth workers through ongoing in-service training.
But YouthNet was going in too many directions. At an emergency board meeting held at the end of 1996, YouthNet staffer Deborah Craig (now interim president) sounded the alarm by saying, “If we don’t get a focus, we’ll go broke.”

The Unforgiven

The ax fell within days of her warning as, for the second year in a row, YouthNet had to close out programs in January that were contracted through May because it ran out of cash. Michael McAfee soon came over from the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. “They didn’t know what they were getting,” he said recently.

McAfee virtually shut YouthNet down when he arrived, except for the BEST program. He further closed the agency’s deficit by cutting 12 outreach youth workers, five counselors and dozens of neighborhood block leaders from the payroll. “From this point on,” he announced to his shaken seven-member staff, “we don’t do anything until money is in the bank.”

Earlier this year a local evaluation firm, Research & Assessments, Inc. — hired by McAfee — mailed to the agency’s financial supporters a stinging 38-page report blasting YouthNet’s administration of school-based youth programs in the summer of 1997. Its cover page asked the damning question: “Would you put your child in this program?” The report was sent out without the board’s knowledge.

“They never forgave him for that,” said one insider.

The report charged that eight sites receiving YouthNet funds that promised to serve 150 children per day were actually serving barely one-third that number. They “failed to teach useful skills to those who did attend,” said the report.

The report fixed blame on the community at large:

  • “Too many parents don’t demand the best for their children.”
  • “Financial supporters accept excuses and don’t demand change.”
  • “Social service agencies go along with the status quo to keep the money coming in.”
  • “The civic community ignores the problems.”
The Boot

McAfee had big plans. In his bid to restructure funding so that “projects are not programmed to fail,” he had planned to give money to agencies “free of strings,” plus an additional 10 percent over the agency’s operating cost or “on top of the grant,” as he put it, so the agency wouldn’t be squeezed by unforeseen economic changes.

In addition, he said, “We must replace youth workers who are not technically proficient, and pay them a decent wage of $10 to $12 an hour. We need youth workers as managers, people who give a damn.”

“He’s tackling the infrastructure question head-on,” said Karen Pittman, senior vice president of the Maryland-based International Youth Foundation. “His plan is fairly unprecedented in its costing out what it will take to scale-up youth developmental services to the level of sustainability. He should get a lot of credit for trying.”

Instead, he got the boot last month. The insider talk is that McAfee displeased Jan Kramer, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and that she forced his resignation. Kramer did not return phone calls for this article.

“He was both an in-your-face advocate and a planner. He should have chosen one of those roles,” said another insider who claimed that McAfee irked board members who “just didn’t want to hear what he was saying.”

Alexander, Bill. "Discord at Kansas City’s YouthNet Strikes Sour Note for Kids: YouthNet: The Danger of Doing too Much?" Youth Today, November 1998, p. 11.

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