A Closer Look at the Promise Neighborhoods Process

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October 18, 2010; Source: Building Neighborhoods | At United Neighborhood Centers of America, Patrick Lester and his team have been laser-focused on the Promise Neighborhoods program at the U.S. Department of Education, much like NPQ’s attention this past year on the Social Innovation Fund. By keeping an analytical lens on the Promise Neighborhoods program, the UNCA team has not just informed the nonprofit sector about this flagship Obama Administration initiative, but held DOE’s feet to the fire, so to speak, providing an accountability mechanism for the Administration’s nonprofit programs. Like NPQ’s (and the New York Times) efforts to seek out SIF proposal reviewers, Lester and his colleagues interviewed 10 of the 102 reviewers who evaluated the Promise Neighborhood applications and came up with some fascinating findings and judgments. We highlight two here:

  • While DOE, as one might have anticipated, was strong and specific about what it wanted in the education portion of the Promise Neighborhoods program, it was weakest, according to the interviewees, in the family and community parts of the application. They suggested that other agencies, which were supposed to be involved in this multi-dimensional program, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services, should be more actively brought into the program development process.
  • On the good side, there seems to have been little political influence in the grantmaking. The authors noted, for example, that Chicago received no PN awards, despite DOE’s head being the former Superintendent of the Chicago school system—and President Obama (also a former Illinois senator) and the First Lady having been Chicagoans.

UNCA’s advice to applicants was logical for these kinds of programs—hire a top notch grantwriter, focus on demonstrated local collaboration and accountability (beyond simply a signed MOU), etc. But one finding jumped out: “It helped to have already done much of the work” in terms of “whole-school reform efforts” and other components that the Department was looking for. We suspected as much with the proliferation of Harlem Children Zone sound-alikes in the wake of the President’s commitment to a Promise Neighborhoods program. Now the question is whether the Administration will learn from the past during the implementation phase—if the funds are appropriated.—Rick Cohen