Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Three years ago, Brian came to Dance Place as part of a District-sponsored summer youth employment program. Brian grew up without his father, and when he was 17, his mother died. Dance Place staff watched as his grief turned to anger. He became prone to outbursts, blowing up at everyone around him. His instructor struggled to get him to rehearse. But Brian kept coming to Dance Place, and it became a home to him.

“He got matched with us and never left,” says Founding Director Carla Perlo.

Like other D.C. youth, Brian was attracted by the organization’s efforts to welcome neighborhood teens. Seeing the many gaps in these disadvantaged students’ educations, organizations like Dance Place have gone beyond arts instruction, providing academic enrichment and lessons in practical skills. Since 1999, the city has supported these kinds of programs through the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a public-private partnership created to award grants to nonprofits serving at-risk children, youth, and families. Two and a half miles away at the Dance Institute of Washington, another Trust grantee, students receive instruction in life skills, SAT prep, and employability training.

Now a high school graduate, Brian continues to come to Dance Place. He dances with an inter-generational company and worked as an usher at performances every Sunday during the past school year.

“I can truthfully say that this organization has saved that young man’s life,” says Perlo.

 But in April, Dance Place and other arts nonprofits that depend on grants distributed by the D.C. Trust found out (via a Washington Post article) that it’s slated to shut down later this year, fueling anxiety about future funding. 

The Trust has struggled with scandal and accusations of mismanagement in its 17-year history. It has been under a haze of suspicion since former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty in 2012 to stealing more than $350,000 intended for a youth baseball organization. The Trust has raised “little to no” private funds over the past three years, says its Interim Director Angela Jones-Hackley.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Brenda Donald, who serves on the Trust’s board, says that after the January departure of Director Ed Davies, “we started uncovering a lot of financial mismanagement,” which Davies denies. When an outside accounting firm looked at the revenue streams, Donald says it became clear that the Trust was “structurally unsound” and lacked the funds to support core operations. With that information, the majority of the board voted to dissolve.

But the deputy mayor also agrees that the Trust was a victim of hard times, with an administrative structure built in years in which funding was more plentiful. While the Thomas scandal caused a crisis of confidence in the early 2010s, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two of the largest funders, had also dissolved, creating what she called a “perfect storm.” In its aftermath, the only funding for the Trust came from the city and a few smaller programmatic grants.

The last of the Trust grants will be administered by Sept. 30, at the close of the District’s fiscal year. Donald and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles have assured nonprofit beneficiaries that grants will be distributed and that a temporary system will be put in place while a long-term solution is developed, says Dance Place Grants Director Judy Estey.

“However, there’s been no follow-up and, quite frankly, there’s definitely skepticism on the part of nonprofits since the government isn’t exactly known to move quickly and [seems] really under-informed about how to carry out grantmaking like this,” she says. Donald disputes that communication has been poor, but there’s nevertheless a fear that, as the District reassesses its current support for these arts programs—which one councilmember characterizes as a “bonus”—amid a steady downward trend in allocated resources, a loss of funding could be permanent. 

***

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Dance Place was full of students and families. A dozen 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds pranced happily about a mirrored studio in the youngest “creative movement” class. Across the hall, older kids clustered in the Creative Education Center, a place for students from neighboring charter schools to come for homework help and life-skills instruction in addition to dance classes.  

 As a theater and performance space, Dance Place has an advantage: Its doors are open seven days a week, on afternoons, evenings, and weekends. “Literally when there’s nowhere else to be, particularly school, our doors are open,” says Estey. While its building has a recently renovated sheen, the organization has been at its Brookland address for 30 years. Location has been the heart of its community outreach effort. As students wandered past, Perlo invited them in, gave them jobs, and convinced them to join creative movement dance classes that young men might otherwise have been unwilling to take. 

 Estey, a former dancer, calls herself a “bunhead.” Beyond her work hunting grants, she teaches ballet, tap, and modern dance. Demand is high—in recent years, she has gone from teaching a single class to juggling seven.

Dance Place currently receives a pair of grants—one worth $40,000, the other $44,000—from the Trust that targets low-income black children and teens from Northeast neighborhoods. The first helps run the summer camp, providing full scholarships for students, and the second supports a junior staff program. Every year, several dozen teenagers join the junior staff, a program that intersperses life-skills seminars and arts electives with job shifts in the studio and in the office. For  years, the program was relatively small, accommodating 15 students. Winning a grant from the Trust—worth $65,000 in the first year—allowed Dance Place to double the program’s size and expand its format. While its grants have shrunk in recent years, Dance Place counts itself lucky, as many other nonprofits, including D.C. Scores, testified this spring to far greater decreases in Trust funding.

 Estey says Dance Place has lost funding before, but typically organizations give notice, allowing nonprofits to search for other grants and turn to their other funders for support. “I don’t have six months to raise additional money.”

Donald says the District has selected United Way of the Capital Region to administer grants in fiscal year 2017. As of this week, Estey says that information has not been officially communicated to grantees.

Now, nonprofits have just a few weeks to learn the eligibility requirements and funding levels of a whole new grantmaking organization. Then there’s the question of timing: The city’s new fiscal year begins in October, while schools start again in August. For fall programs, “I’m still facing September with none of those questions asked and no cash in place,” says Estey. Casting about for private funding, many of the Trust grantees will be aiming for the same foundations, putting them in competition for a pool of funding that has already shrunk in the post-recession years. 

*** 

In April, as representatives from D.C. nonprofits sat before her in a Council chamber, Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander suggested the District government sees arts programs that the  Trust supports as a “plus” for children, an “added bonus.”

“I want to look at the services you provide as additional services for children’s enrichment,” Alexander, chair of the Committee on Health and Human Services, told nonprofit representatives. 

Those representatives were quick to protest that their programs are not just nice to have, but crucial. “To us, that was so wrong,” Estey says. “Our programs are not a bonus” to the low-income families they serve. 

Alexander did not return multiple requests for comment.

Estey found Alexander’s remarks telling; nonprofits are being pushed to find private funding sources or to undertake their own fundraising activities like bake sales. The members of the Council have good intentions and may be quick to condemn the problems with the Trust, but Estey says few seem to understand its strengths. She points to a three-year out-of-school-time grant it awarded in late summer or early fall, which allowed Dance Place to plan years in advance.

In an op-ed, Alexander said there had been lax monitoring of grantees by the Trust between 2007 and 2012. But after the embezzlement scandal, fears of corruption blossomed, and regulation tightened. The Trust’s lingering bad reputation doesn’t square with the list of high-performing organizations currently on its roster. 

“You have the cream of the crop sitting at that table,” says Estey, the result of an incredibly competitive grant application process and a tremendous degree of oversight of the grantees. 

Current grantees describe the Trust’s rigorous reporting demands, noting that they’re required to provide photocopies of every penny spent and multiple forms of documentation. This makes for a burdensome pile of paperwork far beyond what most foundations require. 

That level of oversight reflects an ongoing suspicion of the Trust. “It’s this distrust that in fact only affects the grantees,” says Estey. 

While the latest round of mismanagement allegations were leveled against the Trust and its practices, not the grantees, Estey worries the nonprofits may be tarred with the same brush. Even though Donald is quick to say that the Trust’s dissolution is “not a sign that money is being squandered by the grantees,” suspicion of mismanagement  tends to scare investors. 

In this environment, Estey finds it hard to imagine how an organization formed to take the Trust’s place would avoid grappling with yet more red tape, more stipulations, and more suspicion, affecting its ability to administer grants. 

Donald is open to the possibility that the new organization might not be a public-private partnership. It might be a newly created entity, or a chance for the District to partner with other credible entities that can use the city’s funds to leverage matching dollars. According to Donald, this is where everyone wants to go—a scenario in which there is more money to go around but also a shared responsibility for supporting the programs. “Everyone’s at the table to help us think that through, including the grantees,” she says. 

Mapping the way forward is a group of more than 20 stakeholders, including Trust board members, District councilmembers, and nonprofit representatives. Donald says they want to make use of the people who know the history of the Trust and can speak to the lessons learned, but she imagines the new organization will be headed by a different leadership team. “At this point, no decisions have been made about the long-term future, and they won’t be made in isolation,” says Donald.

Brian Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Perlo catches Brian on his way back from wrapping hula-hoops. When asked why he’s stayed at Dance Place these past three years, he replies, “Because I love this place, and they treat us like family. And that’s what I love. And dance programs.” To the staff at Dance Place, dancing is an integral part of their mission, but the first thing they aim to do is make youth feel welcome and safe. Without that, they stand no chance of winning them over.

Brian is wistful. It’s May, and with the years he’s already spent with Dance Place, he’ll soon age out of the junior staff program. “I’m about to be 19 soon,” he says, knowing this is the upper limit. “You have to start teaching,” Estey tells him. He hesitates, but says he’ll look into it.

“I love Dance Place,” Brian adds, unprompted. “I’m going to miss it.”