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Annenberg Foundation's Efforts to Bring Federal Dollars to LA Region Profiled in Chronicle of Philanthropy

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In early 2010, some 30 Los Angeles-area organizations were preparing to battle it out for one of the $500,000 Promise Neighborhoods planning grants under the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The competition was classic L.A., known for some of the country’s hairiest, dog-eat-dog fights for federal funding. 

"We would circle the wagons and shoot each other," says Dianne Harrison, president of California State University at Northridge. 

This time, however, the city’s nonprofits holstered their guns and worked together. They ultimately submitted a half dozen applications representing numerous partners. Two were among the 21 grant winners. A third fell short by half a point. 

The change agent was LA n Sync, a then-inchoate effort conceived by Annenberg Foundation’s executive director, Leonard Aube. His goal: bring together civic, business, and nonprofits leaders to strategically pursue — and secure — federal funding. Mr. Aube likes the term "mercenary." 

"It only exists to win," he says. 

Win it does. So far, LA n Sync has had a hand in bringing nine grants totaling $63-million to Los Angeles. It also played a key role in landing two federal designations with $1.5-billion in potential funding, including the much-coveted Promise Zone, announced at a 2014 White House event that Mr. Aube attended. 

"I’ve often said that going to Washington with an empty hat in hand is a risky proposition," Eric Garcetti , the mayor of Los Angeles, said in an email. With LA n Sync, "we’ve been consistently able to come to Washington with the glass half full."

Anywhere but L.A. 

The Annenberg Foundation, established in 1989 by the publishing magnate Walter Annenberg, was initially based in Philadelphia, home of the Annenberg media empire. The surname was also well known in Los Angeles: The family helped found the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California in 1971. And in 2003, Mr. Annenberg’s daughter Wallis hired Mr. Aube, then a star fundraiser at the California Science Center, to formally establish a West Coast presence. 

Mr. Aube soon discovered an aversion to his hometown in meetings with government officials in Washington. More than once, he heard a pair of abbreviations: ABC, or "anywhere but California," and ABLA, "anywhere but Los Angeles." 

"The first time it happened, I thought, ‘Well, yeah, L.A. seems a little mysterious, and everybody thinks we take off early and go surfing,’ " Mr. Aube says.

But the subtext soon became clear: Washington officialdom was reluctant to plant signature programs in Los Angeles because of its sprawling, ill-defined geography and diffused political and economic power. 

"We are known as a community that has so many different voices, but those voices are not always singing from the same hymn book," says Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

By the time the Annenberg Foundation moved its headquarters to Los Angeles in 2009, following the death of Walter Annenberg’s wife, Leonore, Mr. Aube had decided the narrative needed to change. He started by writing a mission statement: Position Los Angeles as the most compelling destination for federal investment in the nation. He presented this idea to other foundation chiefs, city-hall officials, and business leaders, persuading many that they were missing great opportunities. 

"We didn’t have our act together," says Aileen Adams, then the city’s deputy mayor for the Office of Strategic Partnerships. "It was his passion and his vision to change that."

Picking Winners and Losers 

From the beginning, those behind LA n Sync designed a disciplined approach to big bids for federal funds. They identify major grant opportunities and assemble an A-team of civic, nonprofit, or business partners. Weaker parties are asked to stand down. Then LA n Sync backs the effort with grant writers, matching funds, and endorsements from elected officials and other power players. 

While the Annenberg Foundation wouldn’t throw a formal coming-out party for LA n Sync until 2013, the 2010 Promise Neighborhoods planning grant was its first test. In November 2009, the Annenberg Foundation paid for representatives from 10 nonprofits to travel to New York City and tour the Harlem Children’s Zone, the heralded nonprofit that inspired President Obama’s place-based antipoverty efforts. Then, working closely with the mayor’s office, staff convened nonprofits and others interested in the grant. 

In those meetings, a winnowing process began. LA n Sync encouraged organizations to work together where appropriate and emphasized that multiple conflicting applications would weaken everyone’s chances. 

Picking winners and losers is "risky territory," Mr. Aube acknowledges, and it made him "a pretty unpopular guy back then." 

Today, LA n Sync simply declines to throw its weight behind grant applications that it believes won’t win. If groups chafe at this culling of the herd, they don’t complain, at least not publicly. Organizations can still go for grants on their own, nonprofit leaders note. Mr. Aube also earns a bit of grace from the fact that he is backed by a foundation with $1.5-billion in assets and a lot of goodwill. There is no worrying about raising money or running for reelection. 

"It is Switzerland," says Michael Kelly, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy and Jobs. "It is a good neutral party."

Support That Tells a Story 

Organizations that earn LA n Sync’s support are rewarded with unique financial and political backing that carries weight in Washington — including often-required but hard-to-secure matching funds. For example, when the Youth Policy Institute, a longtime community group, successfully applied for a Promise Neighborhoods implementation grant in 2012, LA n Sync rounded up endorsements and more than $5 million in cash and in-kind matching funds from the California Community Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Weingart Foundation, among others. 

Dixon Slingerland, executive director of Youth Policy Institute, says the letters of support and financial commitments not only bolster grant-application scores but also "begin to tell this story that philanthropy in Los Angeles is going to support federal resources that come here. You get more bang for your buck if you invest in L.A." 

Los Angeles leaders also praise what they say is Annenberg’s unparalleled ability to line up powerful partners behind a grant application. In late 2013, with the federal government about to open a funding stream for a few advanced manufacturing communities nationwide, LA n Sync and the mayor’s office organized meetings that attracted representatives from government, industry, and higher education across four counties. They hired a professional meeting facilitator, identified the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic Development as the lead agency, and secured endorsements from university presidents and members of Congress, among others. 

"Getting the congressional people on board is not something that happens very often when applications go in," says Dion Jackson of the USC economic-development center. "That was new for L.A." 

Ultimately, the partnership, called AMP SoCal, won one of 12 federal designations, giving the region’s aerospace and defense industries preferred status to access $1.3-billion in funding from 11 agencies. 

According to Mayor Garcetti, Annenberg and LA n Sync were pivotal to winning the designation and the Promise Zone bid. "Their participation helped put us over the top," he says.

A Model for the Nation? 

LA n Sync’s success has not gone unnoticed. Federal agencies have invited Mr. Aube and his colleagues to talk about the model, according to Mr. Aube. It could be replicated elsewhere, says James Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. "It can happen anywhere if there is the will, the leadership, and the networks," he says. 

Mr. Aube, meanwhile, wants LA n Sync to pursue grants from national philanthropies and the state government as well as federal agencies. Annenberg has hired a full-time staff member to focus exclusively on LA n Sync, in addition to foundation staff who work on the effort part time. They are building a searchable database of grants for Los Angeles nonprofits, and there’s talk about establishing a fund to hold and distribute matching funds committed to LA n Sync-endorsed applications. 

The effort is still in version 1.0, Mr. Aube emphasizes. Defining exactly what the next iteration will look like is going to take time and hard work. What he does know is that when he makes his rounds in Washington, the rhetoric about Los Angeles is different.

Says Mr. Aube: "We’ve changed the narrative, of that I am confident."

The Winning Ingredients 

The Annenberg Foundation found a recipe for success in Los Angeles for bringing disparate groups together to maximize federal matching funds. 

Convening Power: The Annenberg Foundation has unique credibility in Los Angeles that enables it to bring together influential decision makers from government, businesses, higher education, and nonprofits. 

Matching Funds: When LA n Sync puts its imprimatur on a grant application, it often does so with matching funds in hand. In addition to the Annenberg Foundation, these dollars — which sometimes total millions — come from major players like the Weingart and California Community foundations. 

Support From High Places: LA n Sync-endorsed grant applications are sent to Washington with letters of support from a who’s who of the region’s leaders, including elected officials, university presidents, and grant makers, which paints a cohesive picture of how funding will be supported.

Major Players in L.A.’s Push for Federal Money 

Leonard Aube, Executive Director, Annenberg Foundation
Conceived the idea of LA n Sync after realizing Los Angeles charities and government agencies were not competitive in landing big federal grants.

Dianne Harrison, President, California State University at Northridge
Major point of contact between higher education and LA n Sync. Inspired by the work of Annenberg, Ms. Harrison has created her own strategic working group with her peer university administrators called the CSU5, which includes Los Angeles’s five state universities.

Office of Strategic Partnerships, City of Los Angeles
Created in 2009 by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the office is designed to facilitate communication between the mayor’s office and major foundations. It gave momentum to LA n Sync while it was still in its infancy.

Youth Policy Institute
The Los Angeles nonprofit, headed by Dixon Slingerland, has evolved into one of LA n Sync’s biggest winners. The organization has secured tens of millions of dollars in federal funding with LA n Sync-endorsed grant applications, most notably serving as the lead agency for the city’s Promise Zone designation in 2014.


By Megan O’Neil
Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on March 29, 2015.

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