The Promise Neighborhoods Planning Process

This article was updated Nov. 12, 2010, 10:48 a.m. EST.

Promise Neighborhoods program winners are counting their planning funds and hoping that there will be implementation funds to carry out their plans.  Also-rans are staying geared up so that they will be able to compete for implementation funds despite having been bypassed for planning money.  Successful and unsuccessful applicants alike are signaling foundations that they would love to tap philanthropic dollars for matching grants, non-federal leverage, and money to jump start programs that didn’t make it through the federal scrum.


Some Promise Neighborhoods winners are beginning to work on their planning grants from the Department of Education with the hope that Congress will appropriate implementation funds to make these plans more than products on shelves.

In St. Paul, Minn., the Wilder Foundation is leading the planning process for the Promise Neighborhoods project focusing on a 250-block area.  Planning elements include a community needs assessment and the creation of Solution Action Groups focused on different dimensions of youth needs in the neighborhood, leading to establishing “a network of cradle-to-career services [that] will be developed between January and June of 2011.” It won’t be self-actualizing, as planning in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood requires reaching across racial and ethnic differences.  An initial planning meeting had scant attendance from the neighborhood’s sizeable Hmong community, a population that should benefit from the wrap-around services intended in the Promise Neighborhoods concept.  

The half-million dollar grants pay for staff-intensive planning efforts, involving research, surveys, and meetings.  Half of the Promise Neighborhoods grant to the Whatever It Takes collaboration in Athens, Ga. is going to the salaries (not including fringe benefits) of six new program administrators, while the other quarter of a million dollars of the grant includes money to hire consultants such as an evaluator, a data systems expert, and community outreach interns. 

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If there is implementation money, it won’t be restricted to the twenty-one winners of the planning grants.  Some of them might wash out, and other applicants might get private money to vault them into competition.  For example, the George Kaiser Foundation just awarded $250,000 to the unsuccessful Promise Neighborhoods applicant from Tulsa, Okla.  The Kendall-Whittier neighborhood application was only a couple of points below the winners.  The hope is that the foundation grant will help Tulsa access the hoped-for federal appropriation.  In New Orleans, the lead nonprofit in the application for Central City New Orleans issued a press release announcing its intent to move ahead with the program and implicitly to tell potential funders that they need private money to replace the federal planning funds.  

Surprisingly, we haven’t seen much press coverage—except from national groups positioning themselves as Promise Neighborhoods technical assistance providers and consultants—about how the Promise Neighborhoods grantees are planning to convert their half-million dollar planning awards into programs capable of implementation.  We are particularly interested to see how groups generate programs that make sense in local contexts as opposed to the incredibly well financed Harlem Children’s Zone model that all the Promise Neighborhood grantees together probably couldn’t replicate on financial or programmatic terms (unless they have miraculously found local versions of Stanley Druckenmiller, George Soros, and other financiers in their communities willing to donate over $100 million like the individual donations HCZ was able to cop over its history).

Sure, the Promise Neighborhoods planning grants were only just announced.  But neighborhoods interested in designing comprehensive cradle-to-college services for children and their families in poor neighborhoods will want to watch and learn from the community process of generating these programs, not just the glossy published plans that the grants will without a doubt yield.  Is the Promise Neighborhoods planning process going to be new and different (how?) or will it be simply a new version of the comprehensive planning processes of Promise Neighborhoods predecessors such as Empowerment Zones and Comprehensive Community Initiatives? And what does the likelihood that the election might bring in a Congress that is even less likely to appropriate Promise Neighborhood implementation dollars than the current Capitol Hill occupants mean for this Obama Administration flagship program?