After 3 Years, "America’s Promise" Continues

By Jeff Archer — April 26, 2000 10 min read

Radio, television, and print journalists are packed into the library here at Jackson Middle School, putting a new twist on the words “media center.”

But this is a big day for the local community, so the frenzy doesn’t bother them. Retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin L. Powell—the overwhelmingly popular former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—has come to review the soldiers in his latest campaign. For the past three years, Mr. Powell has chaired America’s Promise—The Alliance for Youth, which promotes volunteerism in the name of children.

Around wooden tables normally occupied by students hunched over their homework, community leaders tick off their successes: for example, the jump from 24 to 60 volunteer centers in North Carolina over the past two years and the annual addition of 20,000 youngsters participating in the state’s Boys and Girls Clubs.

“What I’ve seen here in the past few minutes says it’s working,” the four-star general tells them. North Carolina “is getting itself together to expand all of these good works and making it part of a singular goal.”

This rallying of the troops comes at a critical time for America’s Promise. As it turns 3 this month, the actual contribution made by the organization remains hard to measure. Though the venture often is credited as a catalyst, its leaders doubt the initiative will be able to show clearly that it’s achieved what organizers first vowed: giving 2 million youngsters, by the end of 2000, the tools to succeed in life.

But Mr. Powell is convinced that the project remains a worthy one, and he points to events like the one at Greensboro’s Jackson Middle School this month as proof. As he said later in an interview: “I can’t tell you—in a way that you could take to your accountant and have verified—if it was 2 million by 2000 or 5 million by 2000. But I am confident that we have made a significant difference.”

Ambitious Beginnings

The 1997 event in Philadelphia that launched America’s Promise—the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future—was a star-studded spectacle, bringing together President Clinton, and former Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald R. Ford, along with Hollywood celebrities and executives from many of the country’s largest corporations. The three-day gathering also drew thousands of delegates representing local community organizations. (“Summit To Issue Call for Service in Name of Youths,” April 23, 1997.)

The hope was to focus the nation’s philanthropic energies on providing at-risk children with five ingredients for success: a relationship with a caring adult, a safe place to take part in constructive activities after school, health care, a marketable skill, and a chance to perform community service. Fortune 500 companies and national organizations such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters pledged to increase the number of young people served through their volunteer efforts.

America’s Promise—chaired on an unpaid basis by Mr. Powell—was formed to keep track of commitments made at the event and to solicit new ones. Based in Alexandria, Va., the group has a $7.6 million annual budget—subsidized primarily by private donations—and a staff of about 50.

To date, some 500 institutions have signed on as “commitment makers,” their pledges listed in an annual Report to the Nation—the latest of which America’s Promise plans to release next month.

As just one example, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank First Union Corp. pledged in 1997 that over three years it would encourage its employees to devote 1.2 million total volunteer hours to working with children. At the Jackson Middle School event, First Union officials announced they had already surpassed that amount and set a new goal of 2.4 million hours by the end of this year.

At the local level in many areas, delegates who attended the Philadelphia event also have held their own state and regional gatherings to try to align better the work of community agencies toward achieving the five goals.

“It’s given us a forum, a focus, and a reason to pull people together around a joint effort,” said Molly Keeney, the executive director of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro. “Everybody has been trying to do good things for kids. We all want them to succeed, but this is an opportunity to pull people together so we’re not going in different directions.”

Ms. Keeney credits the enthusiasm from a local summit with the formation of a countywide Mentoring Alliance through which 30 agencies are now coordinating their work. Under a program of the federally financed Corporation for National Service, the group also has hired an AmeriCorps volunteer to work full time at recruiting more mentors for area children.

Changed Plans

But not everything about America’s Promise has gone as planned. As originally conceived, the organization was to stay in business for only about three years—long enough, its leaders hoped, to see that 2 million disadvantaged children gained access to all five of the resources it had outlined. (Another 5 million youths were to have been given access to at least one of them.)

Today, America’s Promise has no plans to shut down anytime soon. Pulling the plug on the operation wouldn’t make sense, its officials explain, when additional communities and organizations continue to make new commitments. Says Gen. Powell: “It’s kind of like saying we’ll be out of Bosnia in a year.”

In fact, the group may soon be getting a substantial portion of its funding from the federal government. The White House recently requested that it receive $7.5 million through the Corporation for National Service. The nonprofit group already has received about $2.1 million through U.S. Department of Defense allocations. Officials with America’s Promise say the additional federal money would not completely supplant the private dollars it now raises, but would support special projects.

Some nonprofit leaders, including the former chief executive of America’s Promise, caution against allowing public money to subsidize too much of its budget.

“Personally, I think it would be a mistake for America’s Promise to become a federally funded initiative, or to have a meaningful portion of its operational costs be publicly supported,” said Rick Little, the president of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation, who ran America’s Promise for its first few months. “The nature of this program, which calls on private, voluntary action, is best demonstrated by the organization itself and how it’s funded.”

Meanwhile, the enterprise has expanded its universe of intended beneficiaries from poor and otherwise disadvantaged youngsters to all children who could benefit from one of the group’s ingredients for success. If the killings by two students at Columbine High School in suburban Jefferson County, Colo., last year taught Americans anything, America’s Promise officials often say, it’s that even middle-class youths in stable communities are in need of additional adult support.

As for the numerical goals the organization set for itself three years ago, America’s Promise officials say there’s no way for them to know for sure if or when they were achieved.

Many of the individual commitment-makers have built their own systems to monitor the time their volunteers give, but Mr. Powell says his organization doesn’t have a uniform mechanism for compiling and verifying all the work done by its hundreds of partners.

“The initial thought was there would be a way to figure out discretely how to track a kid through five different ways,” he said. “And on reflection, that was not a smart thing to tell people.”

The closest the group has come to providing such an evaluation was a “performance measurement” released last spring by the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But the report, which suggested that the commitment-makers had “reached more than 10 million children,” acknowledged that figure could have been partially based on inaccurate, missing, or duplicate data.

Even at the start of the initiative, some experts in philanthropy and community nonprofit groups voiced concern that the effort would do more to raise the public image of its corporate sponsors than it would to change the lives of children. And, in fact, the little red wagon America’s Promise adopted as its logo is becoming ubiquitous as companies advertise their philanthropic projects.

“They claimed to everybody that the reason they were there was to monitor, and make sure, and to use their influence, so that the commitments were honored,” said Susan J. Ellis, the founder of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm serving organizations involved in volunteer work. “Now, they tell us there’s no way to monitor it, and I say, ‘So what are you doing?’ ”

Credit Where Due

Concerns have also been raised that America’s Promise may be getting credit for good works it did not spur.

For example, Southwest Airlines is listed in the group’s Report to the Nation for its Adopt-a-Pilot program. The initiative lets students track a Southwest pilot over a four-week period while studying such subjects as geography and aerodynamics. Company officials say the airline would have started the program as planned in 1997 regardless of America’s Promise. They do, however, say the relationship has heightened the program’s visibility, leading other companies thinking of starting similar projects to approach Southwest for advice.

“In all honesty, it doesn’t alter what we’re doing,” said Beth Hebin, a company spokeswoman. “But I am glad people are learning about our program.”

Other companies claim there has been a more direct effect. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter rewrote its guidelines for corporate philanthropy to put the five goals of America’s Promise at their core. The investment company also started a program that recognizes employees for donating their time toward achieving one of them. For each hour given, the company has agreed to give $1 to Communities in Schools, a national organization that consults with schools to help them better tap into community resources.

“America’s Promise has been unfairly criticized for not delivering the services itself,” said Joan E. Steinberg, Morgan Stanley’s director of community affairs. “Their role is as a catalyst to try to bring together the haves and the have-nots—the companies and nonprofits together with the children who need their services.”

Even if the role of America’s Promise is more that of a booster and convener, some argue that its impact could be more clearly evaluated.

“If they want to say they’re a catalyst, that’s an outcome,” said Rick Cohen, the president of the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “But tell us what are you doing to measure how you’ve catalyzed things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Mr. Little of the International Youth Foundation agrees that America’s Promise should try harder to measure its impact on children’s lives, but even without such an evaluation, he sees ample evidence that it has made a substantial contribution.

“At the end of the day, the story line for me,” he says, “is that AP has engendered significant new interest from quarters of this country that never had been engaged in this set of issues before, or they had never before taken such a holistic approach to their work.”

Motivating Force

Here at Jackson Middle School in Greensboro, Assistant Principal Rebecca Stevens says she doesn’t need an audit to tell her that America’s Promise has made a difference.

Three years ago, she started Project Potential, which pairs children with adult volunteers for weekly mentoring and tutoring sessions.

Ms. Stevens credits the awareness generated by America’s Promise with the program’s rapid growth from six volunteers to 65 this year. Other adults are now volunteering to visit children during lunch time, and a local agricultural company has sent researchers to demonstrate experiments in the school’s science classes.

“It does prompt people to do things,” Ms. Stevens says. “It gives them a feeling of, ‘I need to do this for my community.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as After 3 Years, “America’s Promise” Continues


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