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Can General Colin Powell’s philanthropic crusade deliver more than good PR?

Like most Americans, Darlene Allen likes “the general.” She hasn’t met Colin Powell, but she’s heard enough to believe that the Gulf War hero and GOP darling is as genuine as he is popular. That’s reassuring to Allen, who is a longtime Anacostia resident, a single mother, and the president of the Anacostia Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). She looks up to Powell, not because he’s been nominated to be the next secretary of state, but because he leads an organization that, she believes, will improve the lives of kids growing up in her neighborhood.

For the past four years, Powell has chaired America’s Promise: The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization based in Alexandria. The group’s mission is to support underprivileged kids by providing them with five “promises,” or basic resources it cites as crucial for strong character: an adult mentor, structured after-school activities, adequate health care, job skills, and community-service experience. Unlike many philanthropic organizations that raise and donate resources themselves, America’s Promise functions primarily as a matchmaker for corporate money and community programs.

The organization has inspired Allen, a self-described education activist who’s leading a local effort to extend the five promises to kids in Anacostia. For months, she and other local leaders have been drumming up financial support from local businesses and commitments from volunteers and groups such as the YMCA. In the meantime, America’s Promise has recruited a high-tech firm to build a new computer center in Anacostia and has helped steer a $25,000 donation from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (the philanthropic arm of the Dell computer empire) to the community.

That money, in turn, will help support what Allen describes as a burgeoning network of volunteers. Their initial goal is to provide at least 150 Anacostia-area high school students with regular mentors and a greater number of supervised after-school activities.

“Building a volunteer infrastructure is tough, but America’s Promise made the process much easier,” says Allen. “Because General Powell’s group has so much clout, it can connect us to people and resources that we could never reach on our own. If [local] organizers had worked independently, it would have taken a lot more time and meant a lot more red tape.”

Allen’s praise for America’s Promise is not unique. But it’s also not the unanimous response to the group. Although the organization has won many fans in the District, it’s difficult to measure the group’s achievements here—or anywhere else, for that matter. Nationally, there is a dearth of reliable data to support many of the group’s claims. In the District, the name “America’s Promise” is familiar to most people in the youth-services field, but many on the grass-roots level can’t say for sure how—or if—the organization has actually helped the city. Despite the group’s resoundingly successful public relations effort, some local critics contend that America’s Promise has done more to generate publicity for its corporate sponsors and a handful of established youth organizations than it has for neighborhoods in need.

“The general has raised the awareness of the country, and there’s value in that,” says Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute and vice chair of the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “But America’s Promise has failed to establish anything resembling a broad-based coalition. The true activists and service providers haven’t benefited. Beyond the talk shows and the PR, what else is there?”

For the past decade, Powell’s been a virtually untouchable public figure. But now that he’s expected to assume a prominent post in the new Bush administration, the general—along with his endeavors—is subject to a higher level of public scrutiny. The press, which has traditionally given Powell a free pass, has started to poke holes in his mystique. A December cover story in the New Republic, for example, gave Powell a thorough dressing-down for his “out-of-date foreign policy” and “lousy ideas” about America’s military role in foreign conflicts.

If critics can blast Powell for his views on the military, to which he’s devoted a long career, surely they can and will continue to question the impact of his fledgling philanthropic organization. Officials at America’s Promise seem to grasp that having an increasingly high-profile leader raises the stakes for his nonprofit group.

“Wherever Colin Powell goes, there are going to be very high expectations,” says Gregg Petersmeyer, a founding board member and senior vice president of America’s Promise. “Whenever there are very high expectations, there’s going to be some backlash. From Day One, we’ve tried to prove to critics that we’re a process with real value, not just a media event.”

America’s Promise did, in fact, form during a made-for-media event, in 1997. That spring, President Bill Clinton led the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, a three-day conference in Philadelphia that attracted former presidents, Hollywood celebrities, corporate executives, and thousands of representatives from local community groups. Their goal was to focus the nation’s philanthropic energies on children, especially those in low-income urban areas. As numerous Fortune 500 companies pledged their support, Powell unveiled America’s Promise as the organization that would keep tabs on their commitments—and act as a catalyst for new ones.

As first conceived, the organization was to stay in business for about three years, long enough to ensure that 2 million disadvantaged children gained access to all five resources.

Although those three years have since passed, America’s Promise has no plans to fade away anytime soon. Powell, who chairs the organization on an unpaid basis, has said publicly that there’s no point in dissolving the group when so many communities and organizations are continuing to make new commitments to its goals.

Still, some have questioned whether America’s Promise is making good on its own pledges. Critics in the philanthropy field suggest that America’s Promise often takes credit for prompting good deeds that would have taken place anyway, regardless of the group’s existence.

Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that works with volunteer groups, charges that America’s Promise has no way of reliably measuring its performance. She likens the organization to the “emperor who has no clothes in a place where everybody’s afraid to tell him.” In 1999, Youth Today, a D.C.-based nonprofit newspaper that covers philanthropic issues, reported that America’s Promise had been slow to build the broad-based volunteer networks that it had promised and that Powell’s organization had not yet reached out to many community-level groups. Meanwhile, Rick Little, president of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation and the former chief executive of America’s Promise, is critical of the fact that a sizable chunk of federal money is now helping to subsidize an organization that calls for voluntary action.

The closest America’s Promise has come to releasing a serious self-evaluation was a “performance measurement” study conducted by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The report claimed that America’s Promise had raised $285 million and had reached more than 10 million young people. However, the report also acknowledged that PricewaterhouseCoopers had not verified any of the data. The report was, in fact, based on unsubstantiated information provided by fewer than 100 of the 441 organizations that had made a commitment to America’s Promise.

Petersmeyer concedes that it might take years before the organization’s impact on youth can be fully measured. In the meantime, he says, there’s no lack of accountability among America’s Promise’s partners.

To become an America’s Promise “commitment maker,” a company or organization must meet certain criteria. For instance, it must pledge to engage in new volunteer activities in addition to what it has done in the past. It must then commit to a specific goal, such as providing a certain number of volunteer hours and a certain dollar amount to a particular group in a given year. America’s Promise then makes that commitment public on its Web site and in its monthly newsletter.

Promises publicized, Petersmeyer says, are more likely to become promises fulfilled.

“Our role is to help organizations understand a certain set of needs and invite them to craft a program they’re proud of,” says Petersmeyer. “But if commitment makers fail to keep their pledges, the market will respond. Still, we have never thought of ourselves as a policing agency or an accounting firm.”

Although the ability of America’s Promise to monitor its commitment makers seems limited, the organization’s fundraising prowess is anything but. According to financial records, in 1999, America’s Promise raised a total of $9 million, which included private donations and nearly $3 million from a Department of Defense fund.

And the group’s financial intake is about to grow considerably. In fiscal 2001, a federal fund Congress earmarked for national service programs will give America’s Promise $7.5 million. Still, America’s Promise officials offer only vague descriptions of what the organization will do with this windfall, saying that they plan to bolster their existing community-outreach programs.

That could mean an increased presence for America’s Promise in D.C. Last fall, Anacostia became the first D.C. community to sign on as an official “Community of Promise.” That’s America’s Promise lingo for a city, county, town, or district that commits to fulfilling the five promises for its youth. D.C. itself has not joined the dozens of other major cities that have hopped on the little red wagon (the group’s ubiquitous logo) in the last few years. But sources close to the group say that an official citywide partnership with America’s Promise is in the works.

Nationally, America’s Promise has relied heavily on large, established groups such as the YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters to help with its projects. But nearly a dozen in-the-trenches youth workers who spoke recently with the Washington City Paper say that America’s Promise can’t make a lasting difference unless it also reaches out to smaller, more diverse organizations—something that America’s Promise officials have also recently acknowledged.

Count Ayize Sabater as one of many activists who hopes to see such a broad-based coalition soon.

“Grass-roots groups are always trying to squeeze rocks for drops of water, but many smaller groups have no idea how to find the larger streams that are out there,” says Sabater, who works for Community Impact, a D.C. youth-oriented nonprofit that provides college scholarships and sponsors vocational-training events.

Although Sabater says he hasn’t seen evidence of America’s Promise in any of the neighborhoods where he works, he has seen the group’s newsletter, which the

organization mails, free of charge, to his office each week.

“At this point,” says Sabater, “the only thing I do know about America’s Promise is that they’re good at running through reams of paper.” CP