Independence Day

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It’s almost lunchtime and the kitchen at the Andrew Freedman Family Building Center, a crumbling limestone mansion on the South Bronx’s Grand Concourse, is bustling. Employees talk and laugh over rap music as they prepare the day’s fare.

Five years ago, this kitchen served only 90 elderly residents. Now some two dozen employees work here, staffing Healthy Living Systems, a catering business that prepares 4,000 meals per day for local food service organizations like Meals on Wheels.

Healthy Living Systems was opened by Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, a nearby community development corporation, to help create jobs in the neighborhood and pay for popular agency services like Head Start, after-school programs and computer-training classes.

For Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, it’s a big change from a decade ago, when the organization simply provided housing to seniors and homeless families.

But in 1992, the council joined three other local nonprofits in a six-year, $53 million foundation program designed to move the housing developers into social services. The program, a foundation-led initiative dubbed the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP), has transformed the council and its three mid-Bronx sister organizations. Today, the council, the mid-Bronx Desperadoes Community Housing, Mount Hope Housing and Phipps Community Development Corporation/ West Farms work together to assist the 250,000 people who live in the low- and middle-income area.

Sharing planning and fundraising–and heavy amounts of financial support and technical assistance from CCRP–the groups now provide family health care services, adult education, job training, youth services, even new parks.

The project is an initiative of the Surdna Foundation, which led a funding consortium of 21 foundations, corporations and government agencies to see if better coordinated community development work would improve neighborhood conditions in the mid-Bronx. Surdna originally launched CCRP as a three-year demonstration project, then gave it another three-year extension. “Around the second year,” recalls Surdna Executive Director Edward Skloot, “we kind of nodded our heads and knew that you couldn’t do this in three years.”

But last July, the reprieve was up, the demonstration officially over. “By the sixth year the funders were saying, ‘Well, isn’t this swell. We’re moving on to something else,'” admits Anita Miller, who set up CCRP as its program director at the foundation and then joined the organization as its executive director when it became an independent nonprofit in 1996. Miller and the others were left to face life after Surdna.”We didn’t want to see this great strength evaporate. We wanted to sustain the relationship we built.”

Now CCRP, the foundation project, is “CCRP, Inc.,” just one among hundreds of nonprofits competing for funding. While the five-organization partnership remains tight, there are questions about the future. Miller, the program’s chief rainmaker, has left, serving now as consultant and board member. The four Bronx CDCs now have multi-million-dollar social programs to support and manage. They have all been left to wonder, can the coalition maintain the program’s success without the guaranteed stream of donated cash?

It all began in 1991, when the Surdna Foundation was looking to fund a signature program with its modest $7 million annual grant budget. Its board members settled on a plan to bring social services to housing development efforts already underway in four contiguous mid-Bronx neighborhoods stretching from West Farms to University Heights.

The foundation hired Miller, a woman with a reputation of fabled intensity whose resume includes stints at well-connected organizations like the Ford Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). She invited six local community development corporations to form CCRP. Two of the groups, Promesa Housing Development Fund and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, have since parted ways. “The way CCRP was conceived did not match our structure,” explains Kim Swan, vice president of economic development at Promesa. Miller designed CCRP to be a social services intermediary–a small-staffed, well-funded gofer ferreting out funding, technical assistance and other services to make it easier for member organizations to develop new programs.

Much of Miller’s time at CCRP’s Surdna Foundation office was spent beating the bushes for money. Over the last six years, she raised some $9 million from 20 banks and private foundations for CCRP operations and another $44 million from federal, state and private sources for the CDC’s social service programs.Her pitch to the trend-conscious foundation world worked because it was simple: They would be funding intelligent programs that were growing quickly. “If we didn’t prove ourselves and prove our ability to produce what the neighborhood needed and wanted, [the funders] would not stick with us,” she says. CCRP’s war chest underwrote program start-up costs, computers and consultants who helped the CDCs win grants and manage their new projects.

Some programs, like a job resource and training center that has helped 700 mid-Bronx residents find work, were joint ventures. But most were individual programs done with CCRP’s help. When Phipps, Mid Bronx Desperadoes and Mount Hope developed four new community family health practices in collaboration with local hospitals, for example, CCRP provided $300,000 for renovations. CCRP put up another $150,000 in pre-development money for a Mid Bronx Desperadoes shopping center anchored by a Pathmark supermarket. CCRP-funded consultants helped Mount Hope open a credit union, and another grant helped Phipps/West Farms plan six new neighborhood parks.

Miller acknowledges that this explosive growth wasn’t always easy to handle. Staff at the CDCs ballooned–Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council went from about 160 staff members to 230 and Phipps/West Farms increased from less than 20 to 150. And even with the new staff, the groups were overwhelmed at times.

The project’s evaluator, Gerri Spilka from the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning, wrote that inexperience in some program areas and the lack of management caused certain programs to be “hit and miss, trial and error.” She says, “They were taking on new programs and needing more senior management [skills]. The directors are visionaries and leaders, but not necessarily adept in management.”

“A lot of [training] was done, but no one would disagree that more could have been done,” responds Miller. “We knew if we didn’t move, we wouldn’t be able to raise the money for the programs.”

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Late last year, Miller left the long hours and frenetic pace that CCRP was demanding. She now works as a consultant for CCRP and other groups looking to set up CCRP-like organizations nationwide. Her successor, Joe Turner, co-founded Harlem Directors Group, a collection of AIDS services organizations, and worked at ARRIVE, which teaches ex-cons community organizing. Now at CCRP he has his work cut out for him, making do with a sharply reduced budget.

Surdna and several other original funders–including the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Booth Ferris and the Open Society Institute–have stuck by the new nonprofit. They’re providing a total of $1.2 million for administration and overhead for the next two years.

The funding reductions have already been passed along to the four CDCs which, among other things, will no longer receive $130,000 per year in operational support from CCRP. The groups have also been forced to undergo a considerable amount of reorganization, although to date all of the programs remain in place.

“Most CDCs have a history with solo flights…not sharing staff, sharing information, never giving up their grants,” he says. But in this case, he insists, the four groups remain committed to each other. “It’s not like one person showing up with a bag of money [anymore]. It’s an adjustment, but the groundwork was really laid well.”

Turner and his board of directors–for now, it consists of representatives of the four organizations and Miller, but local residents will soon be added–are now looking for ways to pump the funding back up. They are considering cash-generating ventures, akin to the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council’s catering business, such as opening thrift shops or a building maintenance company. Turner is also hoping that the CCRP coalition’s next round of plans, which may include neighborhood safety programs and small business development projects, will attract new funders.

Miller, who pioneered CCRP’s aggressive fundraising strategy, stresses that the coalition must not lose its momentum. “They have enough money to see them through the next couple of years,” Miller says. “Whether it survives depends on what programs CCRP, Inc., produces.”

Myra Alperson is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Kemba Johnson.