News and analysis
August 05, 2015

Presidential Spotlight Boosts My Brother's Keeper Alliance

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Although President Obama has not announced any formal plans post-presidency, his comments suggest that his main focus will be improving the lives of minority boys.

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the nonprofit launched in the White House, hopes its business pedigree and presidential seal of approval are the keys to longevity.

Though various efforts to improve the lives of minority boys and young men have fizzled in the past, nonprofit experts are confident that President Obama’s personal connection to the issue can help turn the newly minted group into a fundraising juggernaut, along the lines of another post-presidential philanthropic giant: the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Mr. Obama has not announced any formal plans, but his comments have suggested that improving the lives of minority boys might be a major focus of his attention after he leaves the White House.

For now, it’s up to the nonprofit’s leader, Joe Echevarria, the former chief executive of Deloitte Consulting, to build the organization. He won’t be starting from scratch. When President Obama announced the formation of the nonprofit in May, the program had attracted commitments of at least $80 million from corporate donors. In addition to Mr. Obama’s star power, Mr. Echevarria says his three decades in business and his experience as Deloitte’s chief should help him raise more cash. He has the connections, he says, to personally pitch the big bosses of corporate America who used to be his clients.

The timing should help. The national "conversation" on race relations over the last year, prompted by the highly publicized killing of black men by police and the shooting of nine black church members by a white man in Charleston, has made corporate bosses more sensitive to the challenges faced by young black men, according to Mr. Echevarria.

"It makes it easier," he says. "You don’t have to do a lot of explaining."

Shared Principles

There is no formal connection between the alliance and the Obama administration, but the nonprofit inherited a set of principles from its predecessor, the My Brothers Keeper initiative, a White House effort coordinated by administration officials that received commitments of more than $300 million in support from corporations and foundations. Both efforts help minority boys and young men have better access to proper health care, improve their reading skills, succeed in college or job training, enter the work force, and steer clear of violence.

Unlike the earlier effort, however, the alliance is set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operating outside the White House. The alliance will offer up to $7 million to organizations that have implemented programs with proven results, and will offer up to $25 million in competitive grants, according to its website.

Mr. Echevarria has not finalized the terms of the grants and the time period in which they will be awarded, but he says a more formal plan will be announced later this year. He hopes to support programs that help about 250,000 Asian, black, and Latino boys and young men during the alliance’s first three years.

A "playbook" the alliance recently distributed to business leaders makes the case that minority males, with the right training, can help solve corporate America’s staffing problems. It’s essential, Mr. Echevarria says, for corporate philanthropy to also make business sense.

"Businesses are mercenaries for outcomes," he says. "We have little tolerance for doing good things if the result isn’t what we expected."

Concerns Raised

Some nonprofit leaders have expressed concern that a large, high-profile newcomer organization like the alliance could crowd out the voices of other organizations that have been in the field for years.

"If My Brother’s Keeper comes in understanding it has to be a good partner, it has a good chance of success," says Damon Hewitt, director of the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, a group of foundation leaders who have combined efforts. "If it comes in a different way, as if it’s trying to organize the entire field, it’s going to encounter problems. There’s great potential for synergy as long as My Brother’s Keeper understands its place" as part of broader efforts.

Marisa Renee Lee, managing director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, says the organization will look to support programs that have demonstrated results. She is sensitive to concerns that the organization could siphon revenue from other groups.

"We don’t want other organizations to think we’re taking resources from their pockets," she says.

Such fears are like competing for business "crumbs," rather than enlarging the total amount of support given, says Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP.

Mr. Brooks says President Obama has a "visceral" understanding of the issue and expects him to dedicate much of his post-presidency to the work of the nonprofit.

"We have a social-justice challenge, the scope and size of which is such that it cannot be relegated to social workers, faith leaders, or civil-rights workers," Mr. Brooks says. "It is so important that it needs to be taken up by the whole of society, and that means the business community."

During the past decade, efforts to focus on the challenges facing minority boys and men have had a thin record of success, says Marcus Littles, founder of Frontline Solutions, a nonprofit consulting firm. However, some of the most recent efforts, like the Executives’ Alliance, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and the BMe Community, have revitalized the field, moving it from "ideals and alliances to institution building," he says.

Moving Mainstream

The creation of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, with its corporate relationships, is the latest and most significant part of the process of moving "from the margins into the mainstream," Mr. Littles says.

However, all the attention can create challenges. For example, he says, getting into a spat under the glare of the presidential spotlight "is like the difference between getting in an argument with your husband or wife at home and having a blow-up in the restaurant."

Another worry, he says, is that the depth of the corporate sector’s commitment. Rather than focusing on how a social program can help a business’s bottom line, he says he’d like to see more attention to the "squishier" work of cultivating personal growth and opportunities among young black men.

"I want to know the soul of their work," he says.

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.