Wanted: Aid programs in U.S. that succeed Foundation for youth seeks to expand work overseas to America

August 12, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Rick R. Little, the president of an international foundation just settled in Baltimore, is looking for social programs to support in the United States. Nothing new there.

But he sees as a main challenge for his International Youth Foundation (IYF) -- a nonprofit foundation that funnels grants from corporations and foundations to local social programs overseas -- identifying successful ones, or ones likely to succeed, for a significant number of children. Nothing easy there.

"Ninety percent of social programs funded by foundations go out of business after five years," said Little. "That's unacceptable. Foundations often lack self-sustaining plans for themselves and for social help programs. They're always on the lookout for something new."

Little, 40, grew up in a Midwestern family that made him ripe for failure, but he turned his life into a sustained self-help message. His story is one of those told in the best-selling inspirational book, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" (compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen), 9 million of which have been sold.

In the small town of McComb, Ohio -- "one stoplight, 48 in my graduating class" -- Little grew up with a cocaine-addicted father and an alcoholic, drug-using, manic-depressive, suicidal mother who occasionally walked around the house with a gun.

But also in his past was Paul Miserlian, who befriended the high schooler and became his mentor. "He showed me there was a more reasonable path than the one I knew at home." The two have remained friends.

In his late teens, Little broke his back in a car accident. During his six months in the hospital, he started thinking about his formal education: Had it helped him cope with his accident, with his painful recovery, with his tragic family situation? No, he thought.

A motivated Little set out on a two-month cross-country tour, sleeping in his car. He interviewed 2,000 fellow teen-agers to learn what they wanted but weren't getting from high school. Their answers: a practical program that taught such things as how to control feelings, fill out a tax form and figure the cost of having a baby.

At 19, after 155 of his grant proposals were rejected, Little persuaded the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, built on mountains of corn flakes, to give him a grant.

With that $133,000, he began a new kind of educational program that incorporated what he learned on his U.S. tour, and called it Quest. The Quest program is taught to 4 million students at 30,000 high schools in 29 countries.

After a decade, his travels here and abroad convinced Little that good programs to help young people existed, but only 50 or so children at a time could take advantage -- and often not for long. "I envisioned a new foundation to choose effective projects, sustain them and broaden their scope," he said.

Kellogg gave him $1 million in 1989, and he left Quest. Hence, IYF.

He began by finding and supporting productive programs that helped poor children in Ecuador and Poland, and soon expanded to other countries.

HTC Since 1990, IYF has sought to promote measureable standards of excellence it has developed, increase philanthropy and expand awareness of children's problems.

With more than $100 million pledged by Kellogg and other donors since then, he and his staff of 30 moved in June from Kellogg's headquarters city of Battle Creek, Mich., to Baltimore, and in effect moved into the United States: For the first time in six years, they will also back programs at home.

IYF's total net assets at the end of 1995 were $26.57 million. Expenses totaled $13.73 million -- $10.4 million of it in grants awarded, $765,637 in fund-raising costs, $1.07 million in general and administrative costs and $1.5 million in program costs. Mr. Little's annual salary is $190,000.

Little sets up a tough task at the outset. "Our first job is to do a qualitative analysis, or road map, to find what programs overlap and where the holes are. There are lists and lists of programs, but no map, say, of all programs confronting teen-age pregnancy, what works, what doesn't.

"So our first priority is this mapping strategy of choosing selected cities, counties, states."

Timothy D. Armbruster, executive director of the Baltimore Community and Morris Goldseker foundations, said evaluating programs is "very difficult." Funders look at social programs in different ways, emphasize different aspects.

"It's a very inexact exercise," he said. "The threshold question is 'What we want to know about a program, is it knowable?' Sometimes it isn't, sometimes it is, sometimes what's knowable isn't useful, sometimes what's useful isn't knowable.

"But one of the great things about IYF's reputation," Armbruster said, "is that they know a lot about 'best practices' in the world. It will be valuable in the effort by Baltimore nonprofit groups to win one of the $5 million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grants." Five of those grants, for programs that work to make children safer and healthier, will be announced late next year.

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