Promise, Potential, and Pitfalls in Promise Neighborhoods

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This afternoon at 4:30, the first heat in the Promise Neighborhoods Olympics will be over. Applications for the Promise Neighborhood planning grants—dividing $10 million among 20 cities—are due.

Meant to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone program in 20 cities, Promise Neighborhoods is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, but so far armed with only $10 million in planning funds. The problems of federal budget deficits have made the prospects of implementation money for Promise Neighborhoods a little dicey.

So why go through the extensive mobilization necessary for the slim odds of getting a grant to plan for a program with perhaps even slimmer chances of scoring a sizable federal appropriation?

Nonprofits and municipalities assume there will be more money to come if they are lucky enough to land a half million dollar PN planning grant—and they’re lining up, engaging in the process of signaling to agency decision-makers and Congressional representatives that they’re ready, willing, and able. It’s like federal funding mating season, with nonprofits and their backers showing their plumage.


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The Obama Administration has pledged to sidestep the usual political process in making these grants (as he has said it will do with the Social Innovation Fund decisions), but tell that to some of the applicants who will likely seek every politician within their grasp to pitch their proposals. As discretionary grant dollars disappear like Cheshire Cats in the deficit-strained federal budget, even the precious dollars of a planning grant with no promise of federal implementation money look enticing for communities and for their political and civic promoters.

In the past few weeks, prospective PN grantees have sought press coverage with the intended or unintended side benefit of signaling boosters to gear up their grantsmanship lobbying efforts. Clarke County (Athens), Georgia, has a submission going in, initially focusing on a specific elementary school zone but intended to expand by ripples until finally covering the entire county. The local newspaper, the Athens Banner Herald, editorialized in favor of the application, but noted that the effort will require commitments of local resources, for which “there’s a limited local appetite for funding the kinds of programs the Promise Neighborhoods grant would make possible”. Athens, Georgia faces more than 940 potential other applicants that will find the same challenge of generating the resources necessary to make the Education Department’s ephemeral implementation funds work.

In some localities, even getting in line for the Promise Neighborhoods planning grants has sparked something of a scrum. In Austin, Texas, the school board endorsed the application of the Austin Achievement Zone focusing on Northeast Austin and rejected the proposal of a local charter school operator pitching the East Austin Children’s Promise. The rejected group told the Austin American-Statesman that it still intends to submit a Promise Neighborhoods application to the federal government.

Who is likely to get the Promise Neighborhoods designations? Potential applicants are sorting through their competitive advantages and disadvantages. Those with histories of foundation support and backing have something of a leg up in generating matching dollars, such as the Highline School District in and around Seattle, which boasts a decade of involvement from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections project. An impending Los Angeles County application boasts the involvement of a funders consortium including the California Endowment and the Annenberg Foundation. For the Dwight neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, long the focus of planning efforts over the years, the presence of Yale as a neighbor constitutes a level of institutional and technical credibility.

If federal implementation dollars don’t flow to Promise Neighborhoods, perhaps successful planning groups might find themselves in line for Promise Neighborhoods-lite funding from the Department of Education or from some other agencies (for example, HUD with its Choice Neighborhoods program). Perhaps large flush Casey-type foundations will view the successful Promise Neighborhoods planners as candidates for their comprehensive community initiatives program funds.

Most of the promoters of Promise Neighborhoods hint—or hope—that the actual planning processes will be beneficial to the groups that will get the $500,000 grants. Renee Berger wrote that the planning processes of the Clinton-era empowerment zones were demonstrably valuable, “provid(ing) clear directions, [and] minimizing post designation debates over program initiatives and priorities” for the participating agencies. Will the Promise Neighborhood planning processes, if ultimately cut out of federal appropriations, prove valuable for the nonprofits and public agencies that will come to the table as some people suggest happened with Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities?

Maybe, but planning is not a foreign term to most nonprofits. Most nonprofits do strategic planning, neighborhood and community planning, and more. What’s needed is real strategic planning—planning processes that help potential applicants figure out how to mobilize their communities and how to craft targeted interventions that leverage change. Let’s hope that the Promise Neighborhoods plans don’t turn into the consultant-full employment program, with the unfortunate result of glossing sophisticated planning products that may not relate to the specific economic, social, and political needs of the participating cities and nonprofits.