Promise Neighborhoods

Promise Neighborhoods is an Obama administration initiative to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone nonprofit model in 20 cities across the country. Assuming funding is approved by the Senate (the House has already approved the allocation), the administration is expected to consider applications after January 2010.

The proposals should consider the following:

  • Identifying a Neighborhood: Determining and researching relevant characteristics for potential neighborhoods;
  • Politics of Implementation: Managing regional and local coalitions to galvanize support and ensure successful rollout;
  • Programmatic Strategy: Identifying services to be provided within the chosen community;
  • Organization and Leadership Strategy: Important criteria for identifying executive directors and management teams; and
  • Funding: Identifying appropriate revenue streams from various sectors.


The Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) is a New York City-based nonprofit that has developed a holistic approach to intergenerational poverty. In a 2007 campaign speech, President Barack Obama publicly praised the organization, calling it an "all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance." He went on to pledge that his administration, as part of its plan to combat urban poverty, would replicate the program in twenty cities across the country.

Identifying a Neighborhood

The first step in the planning process is to choose a neighborhood. This choice, including both the location and size of the neighborhood, is likely to be influenced by a number of factors, including a variety of social indicators and existing assets in the community. These factors and indicators include:

  • Childhood poverty rates (minimum childhood poverty rate of 40% to be selected unless paired with a combination of other factors);
  • Crime rates;
  • Unemployment rates;
  • Social indicators such as teen pregnancy, vandalism, and juvenile delinquency;
  • Local school attendance numbers;
  • Existing local services;
  • Usage of these services by the target populations;
  • Local opinions of these existing services; and
  • Neighborhood size.

In addition to demonstrating a need for integrated services, planners seeking Promise Neighborhoods funding will need to identify existing educational and human services institutions in the area to serve as partners.

Politics of Implementation

Once one or more potential neighborhoods have been identified, the next step is to identify and reach out to potential collaborating organizations in the community. Examples of such organizations include neighborhood centers, schools, health clinics, religious institutions, human service agencies, and corporate entities. Leaders hoping to launch a Promise Neighborhood can increase organizational capacity by capitalizing on such existing infrastructure.

Beyond organizational support, Promise Neighborhood applicants should also enlist the support of elected officials in both local and state government. In most cities, the program would be difficult to champion without the support of the mayor, city council, and school board. In addition, private funders will almost certainly play an important role in the success of most Promise Neighborhoods. These funders can and should include community foundations and local United Ways.

Programmatic Strategy

Once the neighborhoods have been chosen and participating organizations identified, planners should identify what services will be provided to program participants.  While the chosen services will reflect local needs, and thus vary from city to city, there are certain common program elements that are likely to be present in all cities. Those include core programs such as early childhood development, K-12 education, and afterschool programming. These elements were included in the Harlem Children's Zone, and constitute key ingredients in the Zone's cradle-to-college pipeline.

Early intervention is a critical factor for effective education. Numerous studies have shown that childhood development in children ages 0-5 plays a large role in shaping their future scholastic abilities. This involvement is also statistically proven to reduce crime rates in poverty stricken areas. Moreover, the impact of educational intervention increases the earlier in a child's life it is implemented. Research has indicated that students who demonstrate advanced skills early on are more likely to outpace their peers in reading proficiency later on. The resulting achievement gap is most apparent when viewed long socioeconomic lines, as wealthier children tend to demonstrate stronger reading skills when compared to their poorer counterparts.

Leaders seeking to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone model in other places should take individualized approaches tailored to the needs of their target area.

Organization and Leadership Strategy

The eventual success of local initiatives will likely depend heavily on organizational decisions made early on. From the outset, planners of Promise Neighborhoods should identify a single anchor organization to lead the effort. Effectively administered Promise Neighborhoods should have boards comprised of individuals from the private sector in addition to neighborhood leaders. This will provide both financial support and accountability while maintaining transparency with community residents and families served by the program. Also, it is critical for sites to select one central leader to provide a coherent message and image to the community.


In addition to allocated funding from the federal government, it will be critical for leaders of Promise Neighborhoods to obtain capital from a diverse range of other sources. Due to the unique interdisciplinary nature of the initiative, there are a variety of options that can sustain groups, even those unable to obtain federal dollars.

While public money will be vital, private capital will also be important. By increasing funding from private dollars, Promise Neighborhoods can avoid the risks associated with dependency on less flexible and perhaps less dependable public sources. This private funding could come from community foundations, for example.


As existing efforts have demonstrated, it is feasible to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone without federal funding if the appropriate resources and partners are brought to the table. Given the number of potential funders, successful implementation does not depend solely on official recognition as a Promise Neighborhood. Moreover, if the U.S. Department of Education determines that the first wave of Promise Neighborhoods is successful, it seems likely that a subsequent round of federal grants will be distributed, allowing expansion of federal funding beyond the first twenty cities that are chosen. These developments could result in a proliferation of the Harlem Children's Zone model across the country, capitalizing on and continuing the momentum that has grown in recent years.

1 Adapted from Price, H. (September 30, 2009). Promise Neighborhoods: A Planning How-To Guide.

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