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VOL. 9 | NO. 1 | Saturday, January 2, 2016

Under Pressure

Facing criticism, Urban Child Institute poised for change

By Don Wade

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The Urban Child Institute’s research produces data. That data provides guidance for making decisions about how to best help Memphis children age 3 and younger. And The Urban Child Institute’s assets, around $150 million in 2013, offer a means to that end.

Put into a mission statement it might read like this: “… we have dedicated our work to improving the lives of children and increasing the social capital of Memphis by taking this knowledge and research and turning it into meaningful action …”

Those words are taken directly from the Urban Child Institute’s own website.

But in recent years many in the Memphis community have questioned what happened to the “meaningful action,” noting that in 2002 The Urban Child Institute (UCI) handed out about $4 million in grants to local nonprofits; in 2013, UCI issued only about $2 million in grants.

And, of that $2 million in 2013, about $1 million went to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center – where then-UCI board chairman Dr. Hershel Wall was a physician and a former chancellor.

To many in the local nonprofit community, large grants issued by The Urban Child Institute are now mostly just stories from yesteryear. Urban legend, if you will.

“When we funded our Wellness Center in 2000, they were actually a great deal of help to us creating our children’s programs,” recalled Church Health Center founder Dr. Scott Morris. “That’s the only time Church Health Center received a direct grant from them. It was close to a million dollars.

“It’s wrong to say that they haven’t funded things they don’t have director control over,” Morris said, adding, “Now, that was 15 years ago.”

Mike Warr, vice president of Development at Porter-Leath, says about 10 years ago they received a grant for “between $600,000 and $700,000” from UCI to fund Porter-Leath’s Early Childhood Home Visitation Program, now called Parents as Teachers to align with the curriculum being used.

“That was when they were still making grants,” Warr said. “Then word came out they’re not going to make any more grants. Since then, we’ve gotten not one penny from them.”

But recent events have Morris, Warr and others hopeful that change might be possible going forward.

Urban Child Institute president and CEO Eugene Cashman announced his retirement on Thursday, Dec. 10, ending a career with the organization that dated back to 1977 when it was still part of Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center. Cashman has spent more than 40 years focused on the well-being of children and developing best practices to ensure a better quality of life for children. However, he and UCI have come under fire recently for what some community leaders say is a lack of support for local nonprofits.

(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

In early December Eugene Cashman, UCI’s long-time and well-paid president and CEO (a $633,000 salary in 2013), announced he was retiring. On Dec. 24, The Daily News reported that Wall had resigned as chairman of the board.

Board members and UCI’s acting president and CEO Dr. Henry Herrod either have declined comment or not returned telephone calls seeking comment. John Malmo, who is acting as spokesman for UCI, confirmed that UCI has a Jan. 7 board meeting and said that Herrod could be named permanent president and CEO.

“I presume at that meeting they’ll act on Hank Herrod’s situation and attempt to appoint new board members and select a new chairman,” Malmo said. “It would be premature for Hank to talk about a vision, especially with a new chairman.”

But others in the community are ready to talk about a changed vision for UCI.

“Ultimately, you have gallons of water in the desert and a lot of people dying of thirst,” Andy Cates, president of RVC Outdoor Destinations, said in drawing an analogy between the needs facing young Memphis children and UCI’s vast resources. “Get them the water.”

Logical partners?

Twenty years ago Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital was bought and absorbed into the Methodist Healthcare system.

In the mid-1990s, Le Bonheur Health Systems – part of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital – sold its health care businesses and the sale was reported to be north of $80 million.

Cashman, who first came to Memphis to run the children’s hospital, also presided over Le Bonheur Health Systems. As it shifted its emphasis to children’s health issues, it eventually became known as The Urban Child Institute and remained a nonprofit.

In 2005, UCI gave Le Bonheur $25 million to build a new facility. Fast forward to 2013 when half of the $2 million in grants from UCI went to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and the other $1 million was divided among the Neighborhood Christian Center, the University of Memphis, the New Memphis Institute, Victorian Village and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.

Many of those organizations have little to no focus on early childhood development. Conspicuous by their absence: organizations such as the YMCA, Youth Villages and Porter-Leath, among others.

The YMCA, for example, has an after-school program serving about 2,000 children. Keith Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South, believes UCI and the YMCA are logical partners in early childhood development. Yet there is no active working relationship.

“We all know if children are not ready when they get to kindergarten, then they fall behind,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get them ready for that third grade reading proficiency test.”

UCI does have a working relationship with Books from Birth. According to executive director Peter Abell, Books from Birth has a contract with UCI that in 2015 paid Books from Birth $40,000 for its email list, which at any given time has from 25,000 to 28,000 households on it.

“They provide us a monthly tailored message to our parents regarding early childhood,” Abell explained. “It’s a data-sharing agreement. I have nothing but support for our relationship (with UCI). Hank Herrod sat on our board since we started and is now on our advisory board.”

Porter-Leath oversees Shelby County’s Early Head Start Program, which is why Warr finds it astonishing that UCI has not provided any grant money in a decade.

“We get federal funding,” Warr said, “but keep in mind there’s always a match (required). One of my jobs is to keep this program from losing money.”

The Daily News contacted Youth Villages for this story but a spokesperson there declined comment, saying there was no close association with UCI and that Youth Villages had received no funding from UCI “for a while.”

Meantime, a staff person with a well-known charitable Memphis foundation initially agreed to an interview about UCI and spoke openly about their concerns over how the organization has been operating, but 30 minutes later recanted all comments.

It’s symptomatic of a level of fear some in the community have when it comes to speaking out about UCI, said Warr, who added: “I’m not afraid because it can’t get any worse for our relationship.”

Opportunity for change

David Williams is president and CEO of Leadership Memphis and sits on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South. He has only praise for Gene Cashman and UCI.

“(Gene Cashman) built an amazing team with Hank Herrod, Scott Wilson, Katy Spurlock … everybody over there is super strong. ”

–David Williams, President/CEO, Leadership Memphis

“An amazing man,” Williams said. “He built an amazing team with Hank Herrod, Scott Wilson, Katy Spurlock … everybody over there is super strong. I’m not sure what they’ll do differently (going forward), but whatever it is, it’ll be done very well.

“I can tell you I’ve always found Urban Child Institute to be very open and transparent in my conversations with them about what they were looking to accomplish. Perhaps there are those who don’t agree with that.”

There are. Many, in fact, don’t agree with that.

Morris, while expressing gratitude for the whole of Cashman’s career contributions in Memphis, specifically mentions a lack of transparency at UCI as one of the things that must change.

“The Urban Child Institute has been very much a closed shop, if you will,” Morris said. “I’m just arguing for a more open process that allows more community input.”

Nancy McGee, CEO for the Memphis-based Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence, agrees: “Every organization at some time in their lifecycle, needs to step back and look at what they’re doing and say, ‘Are we having the most impact we can have?’”

The hope is that the step back will come at the Jan. 7 board meeting when decisions could be made about new leadership and new directions.

UCI’s research is a big part of this equation, too. On the one hand, Cashman increasingly and publicly positioned UCI as being all about the research. Even now, UCI’s spokesman, John Malmo, echoes that message.

“Over the years, it’s changed to (emphasize) research,” Malmo said. “Like this CANDLE study that’s coming out. Granting money is not a primary activity of the institute. It’s not a foundation. It wasn’t founded to donate money.”

CANDLE stands for Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood and the study is a joint project of UCI and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Department of Preventive Medicine.

The CANDLE study started in 2006 and has involved some 1,500 pregnant women to “identify what factors during pregnancy and early childhood impact a child’s development and ability to learn,” according to UCI’s own description of the work.

Also, on UCI’s Web site is this comment about the CANDLE study from acting CEO Hank Herrod, a former dean at UTHSC’s College of Medicine: “Our whole focus is Memphis and Shelby County. What we wanted to do is find out what are the things that are actually working and use that to figure out which interventions we should put our support behind.”

“Ultimately, you have gallons of water in the desert and you have a lot people dying of thirst. Get them the water.”

–Andy Cates, President, RVC Outdoor Destinations

Those words sound like an echo to UCI’s pledge to turn “knowledge and “research” into “meaningful action.”

“We’ve got some kick-butt, nationally recognized best-in-class nonprofits here serving one of the poorest cities in the United States,” Cates said. “Porter-Leath, Youth Villages, Church Health Center, Le Bonheur … these groups are run extraordinarily well. So to have a pool of capital, whether they say they are structured for this or not, but acknowledge they are focused on helping economically at-risk children, and not get the money to the people who are in the trenches doing the work, is disturbing.”

Morris, the Church Health Center Founder, says progress has been made in the arena of assisting with early childhood development but it’s only a beginning.

“There are very big mountains for us to climb,” he said. “We don’t have many funds like (what UCI has) with the potential resources available to solve problems.”

Morris says he doesn’t question that UCI has done solid research, but says there too often has been a “veil” over the research.

“How much research do you need to understand the problem, the social issues and early childhood development issues we have in Memphis?” Warr asked. “The research, to Porter-Leath, is not very helpful. How much confirmation do you need?

“The big question: Why did they get out of the grant-making business? How else are they going to help with that 140 million bucks?”

Johnson, of the YMCA, added: “A lot of organizations here have some dependence on the United Way and they have a whole lot more money than United Way does.”

Told that many in the Memphis nonprofit/business community are unhappy that the Urban Child Institute continues to sit on a huge stockpile of potential grant money, even UCI’s own spokesman seemed to understand the shared frustration.

Said Malmo: “If I were a nonprofit and I were involved in specifically what the primary objective of the institute is, I’d love to get some money.”

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