Who Didn’t Get Money Because Kenyatta Johnson’s Peace Not Guns Did?

A grant writer's take: The big deal with councilman's unregistered nonprofit is that it likely deprived legit organizations of funding.

As reported by both AxisPhilly and the Philadelphia Daily News, Kenyatta Johnson is in a bit of hot water (and even more this morning). His “organization” Peace Not Guns [PNG] (“It’s just a concept, really”) was representing itself and soliciting donations as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, when in reality it had never received such designation, and had in fact never filed the necessary IRS forms to do so. Johnson’s chief of staff, Christopher Sample, admitted as much to AxisPhilly. “There are no financials for it at all … We don’t raise any money for it.” But that’s not true: PNG was able to secure a number of donations, both financial and in-kind.

As a grant writer with nearly a decade of experience, I found the story to be deeply troubling, especially because Johnson claims to have completed the “Governing for Non Profit Excellence Certificate Program” offered at the Harvard School of Business. The remains of the Peace Not Guns website (tip of the hat to Philadelinquency) adds that he focused on “board leadership and development and strategic planning and performance management.” It is very difficult for me to believe that a man with these credentials simply forgot to file the tax forms necessary to operate legally, as Johnson claims. (As an aside, I called the Harvard Business School to confirm Johnson’s receipt, but citing privacy, they would neither confirm nor deny. At press-time, my request to Councilman Johnson’s office for a copy of the certificate has been unanswered.)

Grant funds are not an infinite resource. In fact, since the economic collapse they have gotten harder to get, and the amounts are much smaller. I’ve been writing grants for a variety of human services organizations  — everything from adult education to shelter for homeless victims of domestic violence — since 2005. When I started in the field, it wasn’t uncommon to ask for, and receive, $20,000 for a program. Since the Great Recession, grant sizes have dropped precipitously: you’re lucky to get $5,000, and the funder will often expect you to produce the same results as you would with a $20,000 grant. So if Johnson’s organization — er, “concept” — got funds they were not eligible to receive, you can bet an actual nonprofit, many of which are barely getting by, was declined.

PNG doesn’t list its supporters or keep financial records, so it’s hard to say how much they’ve taken in. The only specific grant mentioned in the Axis article is a $1,500 contribution from a local Wal-Mart. So let’s see how PNG might have secured this money.

Wal-Mart gives on the national, state, and local levels: For a grant this small, PNG would have applied for the last option. These are reviewed and awarded by individual stores. After completing an eligibility quiz, including a question about your organization’s 501(c)(3) status, you formally register your organization. During registration you are required to submit your non-profit tax ID number. Without it, you simply can’t proceed to the next screen.

Johnson now claims that the money was passed through legitimate nonprofits. But if the example he offered CBS 3 — the Barrett Educational Center — is any indication, the councilman has more questions to answer; not only did Barrett stop filing taxes around the same time Johnson was elected to the House, it was run by one of Johnson’s employees. Barrett has since lost its nonprofit status for failure to file with the IRS.

This suggests that PNG may have been allowed to apply for the money without going through the company’s standard procedures. (Which are a pain in the ass: Wal-Mart, like most other corporate charities, requires applicants to make their argument for funding in 2,000 characters or fewer per response, including spaces and punctuation. Why don’t you try to make a compelling case for adult education funding in two brief paragraphs; it’s about as fun as a case of food poisoning.)

Meanwhile, the grant itself is curious. Whether national, state, or local, Wal-Mart specifically excludes grant requests for scholarships. But in the case of PNG, Wal-Mart seems to have skirted their own prohibitions by funding a “scholarship awareness campaign” … that just happens to “award a $1,500 scholarship to the student who applies for the highest dollar amount of scholarships.” But we don’t know exactly what happened, because neither Johnson nor Wal-Mart is talking.

There is nothing wrong with Kenyatta Johnson’s work and desire to get guns out of the hands of our youth — not that there’s any way to measure the effectiveness of a nonexistent organization. And perhaps I would be more sympathetic if Johnson was some underpaid community organizer trying to make a difference. But last I read, the salary for a PA state rep is nearly $80,000 a year; City Council salaries started at upward of $117,000 per year. Social workers, adult educators, domestic violence counselors, and most of the people who work in the nonprofit field make a hell of a lot less than that.

The most common rejection a grant writer gets is “we love your program, but we can’t help because we have limited funds.” I realize $1,500 doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but to a cash-strapped non-profit, an amount that small can mean the difference between, say, providing a class of adult students with a small computer lab furnished with four low-end PCs, or not offering them any computer access at all.

Resources are tight, and when funders decide who gets funding, they are tacitly deciding who doesn’t get funding. So no matter how well-meaning Mr. Johnson’s program may be, a for-real nonprofit that played by the rules was probably not funded. All because Peace Not Guns received money they were not eligible for.

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UPDATE: Councilman Johnson has written a response to AxisPhilly’s reports.