Youth program leaders say funders have to stop playing the numbers game
In mid-June, four of our guest editors—all of whom have extensive experience with inner-city youth programs—came together to discuss funding of such programs, the problems with the existing system, and what could be done to improve the system.
Throughout the discussion, the theme of “quality vs. quantity” came up again and again. Our guest editors argued that, in many cases, funders’ focus on programs reaching large numbers of youth often inhibits quality programming —programs our editors believe, through their own experiences, are more effective.
Our panel consisted of Jason Aviles, Larry Morris, and Cora and Fred Reed.
Jason Aviles is the CEO of FLYOGI, a yoga-based program that offers lessons in meditation, discipline and personal growth. He is also project director for Wilmington Green Box, which helps provide employment to teens from Wilmington’s at-risk communities.
Before creating these programs, Aviles devoted seven years to professionally counseling and teaching youth in New York and Delaware. He says these early experiences inspired him to develop his own solutions to the challenge of reaching at-risk youth.
“I felt that like no matter where I went, no matter what the condition was, no matter where the facility was located, we were providing the same solutions to the same problems and not seeing any results,” Aviles says.
Larry M. Morris has served the Wilmington community in a variety of ways, including as past president of the Wilmington NAACP and as former director of Community Affairs for former Congressman and now Gov. John Carney.
In the late ‘70s, as an NAACP youth advisor, Morris created a local program called the NAACP Basketball League. In the following decade, without funding, he created and developed the Morris Youth Center, from which he operated various youth leagues and programs.
From his experiences, Morris gleaned what he considers a valuable truth: “You had to provide something that the children wanted. And when you get children to the point where they want what you have, you can provide structure because they’re not going anywhere.”
Cora and Fred Reed own and operate Reeds’ Refuge, a Jefferson Award-winning program in Wilmington’s East Side that since 2012 has been utilizing the arts as a means to reach children from the surrounding at-risk communities. At age 18, Cora Reed began her quest to create a five-star-rated daycare center in her community, where there were none.
At that time, her husband, Fred, was working with kids as a paraprofessional at Douglas Elementary School. Some of those students were already in the judicial system, he recalls. Together, the Reeds saw the need for a youth center that could focus attention on aspects of life that were not being addressed with at-risk youth at home or at school. The Reeds felt that existing programs were desperately lacking.
“If [these other youth programs] have been around 100 years, and no changes are being made, then it’s time to re-evaluate,” says Cora Reed. “We shouldn’t be losing these children left and right. If programs for the children are effective, we shouldn’t be losing them.
“I think that the main thing is for all of us to come together, reevaluate, and ask: ‘What are we doing in this area?’ Because whatever was done in the past, it’s not working anymore.”
The four youth-program leaders considered several questions. Here’s is a summary of their discussion:
O&A: What should be the goal of an effective youth program in the black community?
Larry Morris: I think you have to provide a consistent structure that children can look forward to. A lot of times inconsistency is the reason why children don’t achieve or don’t do the right thing. There has to be a loving environment where they know you’re not just there because that’s your job.
Jason Aviles: I think it’s two things. The first thing is that it has to be comprehensive and holistic. We can’t just look at youth development as something that’s purely logical and academic. It has to be geared towards emotional, mental and spiritual development, as well as academic development. It has to be holistic.
I think the second part is that the education has to be appropriate to the culture. A lot of times, the education that they get in schools isn’t appropriate for developing the awareness of their own culture. There’s a lack of self-identity
Education has to empower them so that the culture in which the education is rooted is relatable. They need to understand education through the lens of African-centric knowledge and information.
Cora Reed: Most of all, I think we need to build organization with love. To me, that’s the key—showing love—because, in many cases, they’re not getting love. They may come in hungry from the night before. It’s our job to assess what the needs are [and] understand what this child is going through. I believe that if we can provide love, we definitely can bring forth change in that child.
Fred Reed: Like Mr. Morris said: Structure has to be in place. For me, being hands-on with Reeds’ Refuge children, I know each and every one of them. It’s about being aware of the type of child that we’re dealing with and their background, where they come from. A lot of times these children are acting out exactly what they see on a daily basis. You may have them for eight or nine hours, but they go home to a whole lot of mess.
O&A: What’s the number one challenge facing your organization right now?
Fred Reed: Reeds’ is a new non-profit on the block. Yes, we’re making a great impact in a positive way with our youth. But our struggle is, because we’re that new nonprofit on the block, a lot of times we get overlooked. We don’t get the support.
Larry Morris: What Fred just said is crucial in making an impact on children today. What he said was, “You’ve got to know your children.” And that plays into this quality versus quantity issue. A lot of times a funder wants you to say that you’re going to reach 300 kids—or a large quantity— and, to really know your children, that’s not good. That’s a numbers game.
Funders need to understand that [in order] to make an impact on these children. The fact that a child comes through the door of Reeds’ Refuge and they’re smiling—where, two weeks ago, they were frowning and wanting to cuss you out—that’s progress. You’re making an impact.
O&A: Larry, would you agree then that the funding is the number one challenge from your experience as well?
Larry Morris: Yes, I would say that because a lot of the people who sit on these boards and pass judgment about who gets the money, they have no idea what [it takes] to do a good program with children—particularly with today’s children.
When I went to places when I was growing up, I wasn’t disrespectful because I was worried about that getting back to my mom [laughs]. Today’s children aren’t raised like that. We need people in these funding sources to be aware that there’s a lot that goes into reaching some of these children—not keep saying to you, “In order to get our money, you need to tell us you’re dealing with 150 or 200 kids.”
Jason Aviles: Yeah, I definitely think that the funding approach and the way in which funding is distributed needs to change if we’re really concerned about the real impact that we’re making in our children’s lives. Because we know on a first-hand basis that there’s a certain amount of energy and attention required to truly see progress, growth and development. There’s no way around that.
Fred Reed: To go a little more in depth with it, I also think that the funders have their “picks” in their choices. Things are already pre-determined. I’ve been to different grant meetings with people, and I’ve heard them say, “Well, we handpick certain people.” And it automatically let me know who was going to get the grant. And sure enough, that person mentioned got the grant.
O&A: So there’s a political aspect to the funding system as well?
Fred Reed: Sure.
Larry Morris: For sure. Funders see it very specifically: Where are they going to put their money and what are they going get back for it? We just have to adjust how they determine what they get back for it. Stop them thinking about quantity. Funders need to be open to new programs. There are programs that have been getting funding for several years that I wouldn’t put my children in [chuckles from the group].
Larry Morris: Because they’re not structured. They’re simply there to get the staff paid. They’re playing a numbers game. Yeah, they can produce 200 kids, but they’re not reaching anybody. But the funders are now able to put on their annual report that they gave money to a program that serves 200 children.
It’s a numbers game. We just have to get funders to adjust by asking: “Do you want to have an impact?” The programs that Jason, Fred and Cora are talking about —they’re raising those children.
In order to raise those children and prepare them to be productive in the world—and not be a menace to society—they got to be able to reach those children. And lenders have to understand: Do you want to reach children? Or do you just want to give money to justify whatever your target number is?
Cora Reed: One of the things that I’ve noticed also is there are a lot of fake numbers. There’s a lot of exaggerating the truth. I guess because they can put it in writing and, automatically, they’ll get the funding.
With us, it’s been a struggle. We applied for a major grant, and I got so frustrated that I actually went to the funder and said, “Listen, we’re doing the work. You can come to the facility and see all the children. They’re there. These are not false numbers. Everything is real.”
But the way he looked at me was like, “Hey, you know, if you put it in writing, the outcome is what they want to see.”
O&A: What would be a better way to evaluate these programs? It sounds like the funders have to have some other criteria other than just numbers, or it’s just going to be like a vicious cycle. Any suggestions?
Cora Reed: I think that’s what has happened. It’s a vicious cycle. So many organizations are lying, saying that they are taking care of 200 or 300 students, and they’re really not. But they are getting that funding as if they are. That’s what bothers me.
Jason Aviles: I think from the top down, it has to be changed [nods of agreement from everyone]. Because the reality is that the funding comes with stipulations from the top down.
Let’s say that the government issues a fund—whether it’s fed dollars or from the state—and gives that funding to a lender. That funding goes to the lender with stipulations. And that lender needs to understand those stipulations and follow them because they are using part of that money [from the fund] to support their own staff and infrastructure.
So if you follow the food chain, for [the lender], the only way they can distribute those funds is to qualify grantees who meet certain numbers and metrics. And if [the lender] doesn’t give those funds to organizations that qualify in terms of data and metrics, they can’t continue to get that fund money to keep their own organization alive. They’re being forced to hand-pick organizations that follow this certain standard.
That’s why, as soon as we come into that game, we’re pushed out because as a new organization we don’t have those numbers. So it may go to [other organizations] just because the lenders can say that they gave the money to somebody that’s going to produce these numbers, whether they’re real or not—so that they can continue getting the money. That [lender] is going to do whatever it needs to do, whether it be on paper or not, to continue to get that money because they need to support their staff.
No one is willing to give up that entire system because everyone’s existence is depending upon it working to their benefit. So the only way to truly penetrate this entire ordeal is to change the way the funding is distributed from the top down. And that’s a systematic change that’s required.
The originator distributing the funds needs to change the intentions of what those funds are responsible for creating .
Larry Morris: Jason used the word “systematic.” There has been a way of dealing with race in this country, and it’s usually been the easiest way. It’s like, “We’re not really going to put a lot of time into this. We’re just going to do what’s acceptable.”
And so now, because of the mass demonstrations and public attention, there are [organizations] that are willing to rethink the way they’ve been doing things. Funders have been doing things the easiest way [agreement from everyone]. There has to be enough attention put on them to say, “No, you need to rethink this systematic way you’ve been funding these huge programs.”
There has to be a cry from the public or visionary political people to say, “Are we reaching these children?”
O&A: In order to make this better—if I’m hearing you correctly, Larry—you’re suggesting that there needs to be political public pressure put on some of these lenders in terms of the way they evaluate children’s programs. Is that correct?
Larry Morris: Yes.
O&A: How does everyone else feel about that?
Fred Reed: I feel exactly like Mr. Morris—what he just said.
Cora Reed: That’s correct.
Jason Aviles: I would agree. I think the intentions have to be for the betterment of our children. That has to be the No. 1 priority. It’s a No. 1 priority for us, but if it isn’t the No. 1 priority for them, there’s going to be a disconnect. I feel like changing that narrative is going to be such a process because it is systematic and it is political.
I feel like the only way that we can [is] with numbers—to somehow band together programs under a much more solid and sturdy umbrella. With numbers, we can go to the table and say we have X amount of influence over the capacity to reach kids and raise impact. I feel like that’s the real approach to it.