June 25, 2014; Chicago Sun-Times

It seems like there was a little due diligence shortcoming in Illinois with the $15,770 grant from the state gave to address prisoner re-entry issues in Thornton Township.

  • Project Hope isn’t in Thornton Township, but in suburban Dixmoor.
  • The nonprofit operates out of a day care center, which one might say isn’t typical for prisoner re-entry programs.
  • Apparently, Project Hope doesn’t have a re-entry program and hadn’t delivered any re-entry services for the state grant.

Project Hope, a subcontractor of the Healthcare Consortium of Illinois, stumbled along for some time until HCI came down on it for having done little or nothing in the state’s anti-violence initiative. HCI might have been deficient in its selection and monitoring of Project Hope, but the Sun-Times reports that the state’s Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA), designed by the state government to administer the program, played an active role in vetting and signing off on subcontractors. The administrator of the Healthcare Consortium in charge of the program in the Township happened to be the spouse of a state legislator, which may be a factor in the insufficient due diligence. The Sun-Times implies that the qualifications of Project Hope for the work may be difficult to discern from the outset.

While there were clearly problems with the Project Hope initiative, if the Sun-Times reporting is accurate, the problems were embedded into the state’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative under which these grants were made. The state auditor’s report on this program is devastating, excoriating “pervasive deficiencies in IVPA’s planning, implementation, and management of the NRI program”:

  • Overly hasty implementation of the NRI which adversely affecting the IVPA’s ability for planning and deployment of NRI resources
  • No documentation on IVPA’s selection of NRI communities
  • Failure to select and appropriate resources to all of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, odd given that the program was an anti-violence program
  • As in the case of HCI, deficiencies in IVPA’s due diligence in selecting lead agencies
  • Failure to approve contracts with community partners in a timely manner.
  • Substantial modifications of lead agencies’ budgets and late and frequently modified quarterly reports from lead agencies and community partners
  • “Contractually required staffing levels were not met by community partners,”
  • “IVPA did not adequately monitor the expenses incurred by lead agencies and community partners”

The details behind these findings are actually worse than the items sound. IVPA’s implementation of the program started out of control and seemed to get worse over time. Here are two lessons from this sad story for nonprofits:

  1. The nonprofit sector has a stake in programs like the IVPA’s implementation of the NRI, not simply in seeing that they exist and provide dollars to contractors. Programs that are constructed and run like a shambles do damage to the nonprofit sector because they create the conditions for incidents like the Project Hope story in the Sun-Times. When state or federal programs rely on nonprofits, the nonprofit grant or contract recipients have an obligation to make sure that they advocate that they work. When entities like IVPA or HCI muck up the works, the reverberations extend far and wide and often negatively on nonprofit service deliverers.
  2. Much of the intended content of the IVPA/NRI program reads like a description of some of the program thinking behind the My Brother’s Keeper collaborative initiative of the White House and private foundations. The auditors summarized the four major touchpoints of the program: “1) Mentoring Plus Jobs – provide youth with part-time jobs, mentoring, and social/emotional skills and support; 2) Parent Leadership – provide parents with skills that would enable them to be community leaders, educators, and mentors for other parents; 3) School-Based Counseling – provide funding for community providers to provide school-based early intervention and trauma-informed counseling services for students; and 4) Reentry – provide Reentry services for youth and young adults returning to the community from youth and adult correctional facilities.” In a way, the muck-up in Illinois undermines the serious thinking going on in this country on what to do to help reverse the negative trends for black men and black boys. The Illinois state government should be condemned for its pathetic implementation of an important resource, and other state governments and their nonprofit partners should be strenuously distinguishing their serious efforts in this realm of work from the embarrassing program design and implementation in Illinois.

Project Hope, HCI, IVPA, and the NRA all seem to have been terribly troubled. But their problems in this case emanated from the top, from the highest levels of Illinois state government that did a lousy job with an important program initiative. When state governments get concerned with making nonprofits work better, sometimes part of the solution is making state governments work better.—Rick Cohen