June 26, 2016, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

New Futures For Youth in Little Rock, Arkansas, is closing in July after 28 years of service. As excruciating as this decision must be for the youth development agency’s stakeholders, what can NPQ readers learn from its downfall?

How might this scenario in Arkansas compare to the threatened closing of Sweet Briar College in Virginia? Should social service agencies like New Futures stay in touch with and organize beneficiary alumni over time so that they too can serve as advocates?

“I’m just really sorry and really sad about this work ending. My hope was to—at some point when I was 65, or sooner—to have someone who would take my place and the work would continue,” Executive Director Mark Perry said. “So it hurts me, because I do think that the city of Little Rock has greatly benefited from having New Futures do the work it has done.”

For all that New Futures accomplished, there’s no website and apparently no other online presence; even its GuideStar page is untouched by the agency. New Futures’ annual revenue was based almost entirely on private foundation and local, state, and federal government grants to operate or support youth programs in the city. Lacking a constituency other than contractors, who will care that the agency is closing? Could New Futures (and other grant- and contract-dependent community-based human service organizations) do more to create a sense of ownership on the part of the agency’s beneficiaries, city residents, and political leaders?

Arkansas is recognized for its “social progress in an age of polarization.” New Futures was a part of the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood (CLRPN), one of only 21 Promise Neighborhood Program planning grants awarded by the United States Department of Education in 2010. This collaborative effort included the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Central Arkansas Library System, City of Little Rock, Little Rock Preparatory School, and the Little Rock School District. What went wrong?

New Futures maintained a contract through the years with the city of Little Rock to monitor and train other providers of youth and neighborhood programs funded by the city’s Community Programs Department. New Futures was also vetted by some of the most exacting foundations in the country.

New Futures reported total assets of $202,713 in 2014. Last year, those assets dropped to $94,343. Total grants to the agency dropped from more than $1 million in 2008 to about $434,000 in 2015. Revenue has dropped lower in other years, hitting just less than $400,000 in 2012. Perry said the agency has lost two substantial grants this year—one from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation that totaled $100,000 over two years, and another from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that totaled $180,000 over that time frame.

Today, New Futures has three full-time employees, including Perry, and a part-time employee. Perry has been the executive director of New Futures for 15 years and has worked for the agency since 1996. For all its accomplishments, there are no comments to or sharing of the article for which this newswire is based, and no other media are covering this story. An essential question every nonprofit should often ask itself is, “If we were to close, who will care?”

NPQ has written in the past about the need for foundations to fund nonprofit infrastructure. NPQ concluded an article about whether nonprofits should diversify funding sources with this observation that relates to New Futures:

For small organizations, foundation dollars may pay for a great deal of the actual program work. If the foundation is committed over a long time frame, this can be quite a stable situation. But what about the growth of such small organizations? If growth is an objective, can foundations play a critical role in helping these nonprofits grow by providing capacity dollars to identify and build their funding models around other sources (e.g., government, individual, etc.)?

A lengthy NPQ look at the subject of organizational capacity building concludes with this assessment that the stakeholders of New Futures would have done well to heed years ago, long before a few lifeline grants ran out.

In sum, capacity building among nonprofits is not a mechanistic exercise and should be even less so now than ever. It requires vigilance and constant retooling on the part of capacity builders. It is a profession in which the “Capacity building for what?” and the “To what end?” questions should be asked often and in which constant scanning of an organization’s internal and external environment becomes part and parcel of the work. “The job is not always about changing organizations so they are built to last,” one capacity builder says. “It is, however, always about creating organizations that are built to change.”

In a press release issued by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation announcing a 2009 grant to New Futures, Mark Perry is quoted as saying, “Reconnecting young people with education and opportunities to prepare for the workforce not only pays dividends to the individual in terms of enhanced earning power but also to the community in terms of public safety.” The same could be said for Little Rock’s nonprofits preparing for the future, that consistent engagement with the community and making investments in capacity building and infrastructure today will pay dividends of community wellbeing for years to come.—James Schaffer