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Make Change, Not Money
Part 6: Get-Tough Nonprofit
By American RadioWorks
September 3, 1998

America's huge nonprofit economy is poised to grow even larger. The reasons: two decades of a soaring stock market and a generation of aging baby boomers with hefty personal estates to leave to charity. America has never had so many billionaires and multi-millionaires.

AT THE OTHER END OF THE INCOME SPECTRUM from today's billionaire's club are millions of unskilled workers struggling to find jobs. For decades, the government and its contractors did most of the job training for unemployed Americans. But a 14-year-old nonprofit called Strive gained attention for its hard-nosed approach to job training. Strive uses methods strikingly different from those of most government programs. It also claims a much higher success rate, because it's a nonprofit. John Biewen reports from Chicago.

Strive's distinctive approach is clear in the first minutes of a day-long job training session. It's a Thursday morning. About 35 people assemble in a Strive classroom on the South Side of Chicago. When a woman named Valerie walks in a few minutes after nine, the trainer stops her at the door and gets her signature on a piece of paper marked "late." Trainer Carson Smith doesn't chastise Valerie. He doesn't need to. She knows she's in trouble. It's the fourth day of a month-long workshop and by now Smith has made the rules clear.

Smith: The number one issue is that you have to be on time. We start class at 9:00 here, if you're at nine and one second late, you're considered late, and there's no way of getting around that. Three times that you're late, you're considered automatically a drop. Two unexcused absences, you're considered a drop.
Many Strive clients don't last the four weeks. In fact, Smith says almost half of the 83 people who started his course on Monday are already gone four days later. But Strive says those who stick out its workshop are truly ready to work. Eighty percent get jobs, and of those, 80 percent are still working two years later. In government employment programs, about half who graduate get jobs and the programs typically follow their graduates for only a few months. Strive's clients are among the least employable people in the nation's poor, big-city neighborhoods. They often have little on their résumés besides suffering, bad choices, or both.

Curtis: My name is Deirdre Curtis. I been on my own since I was 17.
The trainees, or "clients" as Strive calls them, give short speeches to one another about their lives. The idea is to practice public speaking and to get acquainted.

Woman: Dropped out of high school because I got pregnant, of course. Didn't go back after I had the baby. I just partied, kicked it, or whatever you wanna call it.

Man: I was the youngest person, far as a street gang, they was calling chief. 15, 16 years old, I had people 30, 40-year-old under me.

Second Man: So, the man started beatin' me up. (laughter) I mean, everyday, this man jumpin' on me, right?

Second Woman: I went to Lucy Flower my fresh year, got kicked out of there; went to Alston, got kicked out of there; went to Westinghouse, got kicked out of there.

The clients tell their stories matter-of-factly with no discernible self-pity. Self-pity is forbidden at Strive. So are combativeness, sullenness, eye-rolling, or any other sign of a bad attitude. Some of Strive's methods are similar to those of conventional employment programs; clients practice filling out applications and doing mock interviews. But at every turn, trainers demand that clients stand up, take responsibility, and do their best.
Woman: As I said before ...

Smith: We don't know, "as you said before."

Woman: I said earlier I wanna be an RN, and ummmm, I'm gonna go to school.

Smith: "And ummmm, I'm gonna go to school."

Woman: (laughs) And I'm gonna go to school.

Smith: OK.

Rob Carmona: The philosophy is basically one that tries to remove a sense of victimization from the individuals we serve.
Rob Carmona helped start the first Strive program in East Harlem, New York. Strive began there in the 1980s as a quiet experiment. But welfare reform in the 1990s created a clamor for innovative job-readiness programs. Strive has opened offices or been replicated in eight other cities, and a half-dozen more are in the works. The federal government took notice too; Carmona says the Labor Department gave Strive a $600,000 demonstration grant to explore whether the government could adopt some of Strive's methods.
Carmona: Thinking out of the box, doing things new, doing things entrepreneurially. All of those things that's part of the current government rhetoric is exactly what Strive does.
In the case of this nonprofit, though, "doing things new" means doing them like a for-profit business. Strive leaders state clearly that their uncompromising standards reflect the working world, and that only a fraction of their clients are ready to meet such demands. The rest must simply go elsewhere — back to the streets or traditional employment programs. Or, says Steve Redfield of the Chicago office, they can start over with Strive.
Redfield: Now since welfare reform we see a lot of people who don't complete come back the next month, and that didn't used to be true. If you didn't make it, you didn't make it. But now, with the pressure on that you're gonna lose your benefits if you don't make it this month, people come back the next month.
But critics wish Strive would behave less like business and more like a government program. Some say Strive's tone and strict rules are too hard on its down-and-out clients. That's how 20-year-old Kineesha Gaston sees it. She's taking the course in Chicago. She showed up late this morning for the second time in four days; she says her baby sitter fell through at the last minute.
Gaston: The tardiness thing, I don't really think they're bein' reasonable with that, because I'm already on my second strike, and if I woulda came here a minute late from my lunch break, I woulda been out the door. I think they should kinda be a little more lenient. Man!
Strive is not for everybody, but then it doesn't have to be. Leslie Lenkowsky, an expert on nonprofits at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, says that's the trade-off that comes with an innovative nonprofit: the more narrowly-tailored approach of a group like Strive is a strength, he says, in that it will push some unemployed people further toward success.
Lenkowsky: On the other hand, it's a minus because some of the most difficult people to deal with, who need the most help in other words, may be the sort who are gonna get kicked out.
But Lenkowsky says nonprofits are a powerful source of new ideas in social services, and their flexibility should be encouraged, not hindered. He cautions that clients and funders must hold nonprofits accountable; the programs should either demonstrate success or go away, and they must not be abusive or unfair.

Lenkowsky: Where you draw the line, however, is a pretty gray area, and sometimes not-for-profit organizations can be a little more forceful, a little more zealous, a little more energetic in what they do, while still avoiding anything that we would regard as abusive, than government can. And that might be more effective.
It might be. Lenkowsky says it's too early to say for sure whether nonprofits like Strive can do better than government over the long haul. But he says such experiments are worth trying.