Forward Together New Orleans announced in March a new program meant to “build intergenerational wealth among Black New Orleanians.” Credit: Verite

Forward Together New Orleans, the nonprofit organization founded by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell in 2018, issued a press release in March describing the launch of a new program meant to “build intergenerational wealth among Black New Orleanians.” The idea, a so-called “universal basic investment credit,” was a twist on guaranteed income programs. Rather than offering cash assistance for bills or groceries, the group would provide restricted funding that eligible recipients could use only to invest.

“End result: Participant portfolios continue to grow, potentially providing passive income, personal assets that can be passed onto future generations,” the announcement read. 

The announcement did not seem to anticipate the possibility of losses in risky investments – such as artwork, speculative real estate and cryptocurrencies – or to explain how the program would be monitored and evaluated. 

“What’s the risk level that we’re asking folks to take on, who are by definition less experienced in investment?” said Madeline Brown, a policy associate at the Urban Institute who reviewed program materials provided to her by Verite.

The universal basic investment program, little mentioned by the Mayor’s Office or Forward Together since that initial announcement, was the brainchild of then-executive director Shaun Randolph, who has since been fired from the organization and is now facing a lawsuit from its governing board.

“It was my job to come up with the most craziest, weirdest, technologically enabled ideas and try them out until something stuck.”

Former Forward Together New Orleans Executive Director Shaun Randolph

While most of Forward Together’s work — including the financial administration of city violence prevention programs and a guaranteed income pilot — began to take shape before Randolph came on early this year, Randolph used his short tenure to test some of his own ideas, which he first developed in his previous job as a fellow in Cantrell’s Office of Economic Development. 

He aimed to introduce city residents, including young people, to novel and sometimes risky investments such as startup companies, cryptocurrencies, and fractional shares in fine art and real estate being offered by brand-new platforms — all in the name of promoting financial literacy, helping Black communities build intergenerational wealth and closing the racial wealth gap.

“It was my job to come up with the most craziest, weirdest, technologically enabled ideas and try them out until something stuck,” Randolph told Verite about his time as a fellow in the mayor’s Office of Economic Development, where he said he first developed the programs.

The universal basic investment credit pilot, developed in partnership with Mastercard aims to provide residents each with $500 to invest “in real estate, art, startups, small businesses, and even crypto through vetted investment platforms.”

Randolph also pursued a partnership with a startup called Rhove Real Estate, branded “the Coinbase of real estate,” that allows New Orleanians selected by the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance — an affordable housing advocacy group — to invest in real estate developments, including short-term rental properties. 

Altogether, the programming accounted for just $30,000 of the nonprofit’s spending, Randolph said in an interview with Verite, adding that they were paid for through the nonprofit’s general operating funds — not from donations or public dollars earmarked for specific programs — and that he even tapped into reserve money intended for his $80,000 annual salary to fund the programs. (Documents provided by Randolph and Forward Together announcements accounted only for $25,000.)

But it’s not clear how closely Forward Together was monitoring Randolph or his programs, or even how much money was actually distributed to partners. Contracts provided by Randolph don’t include specific language about the kinds of data that Forward Together’s partners, which were responsible for choosing and mentoring the recipients, were supposed to report. And one of Forward Together’s nonprofit partners in the universal basic investment credit pilot told Verite it never received instructions on how to run the program.

Randolph said that after he applied for the Forward Together job in 2021, he spoke with Liana Elliott, then a staffer in Cantrell’s administration, who told him that the job presented an opportunity to implement the pilot programs he had developed during his fellowship.

But after Randolph joined Forward Together, the Cantrell administration declined to publicly sign onto any of the programs he initiated, he said.

A spokesman for Cantrell’s office, as well as an attorney representing Forward Together’s board, declined to comment.

Elliott, who said she left the Mayor’s Office last week for a new job working on “worldwide public innovation as a senior advisor” in the private sector, said Randolph didn’t seek board approval before forging ahead with his programs.

“We were like, ‘What is this? Who are these partners? Like, who have they partnered with?’” said Elliott, who left her position as the city liaison to the board this summer.

A lawyer for Forward Together’s governing board informed Randolph in a mid-August email that he had been fired, though Randolph continued to claim that his termination was illegitimate and that he remains the rightful director of the organization. Last week, the board filed suit against Randolph, alleging he falsely accused the organization of financial impropriety — in public statements as well as in communications with the Office of Inspector General and with two New Orleans City Council members — after he failed to seize control of the board. 

The nonprofit has frozen its spending, putting much of its programming on pause, after the New Orleans Office of Inspector General issued a subpoena last month for financial records.

Randolph’s dealings outside Forward Together have recently come under scrutiny. One of Randolph’s prior employers has publicly accused him of misspending and mismanaging a charity in Florida, as WWL-TV first reported last week. Other documents show Randolph possibly holding down other jobs at out-of-state nonprofits while running Forward Together.

Last week, before the judge presiding over the board’s lawsuit granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting him from acting in the nonprofit’s name, Randolph shared with Verite details of the two projects he launched as executive director. 

‘This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme’

A press release published Aug. 11 — six days before the Forward Together board terminated Randolph over email — announced Forward Together’s partnership with Rhove, an Ohio-based company that has built an online platform where individuals can pay as little as $1 each to crowdfund investments in assorted real estate developments around the country.

Calvin Cooper, Rhove’s CEO, told Verite in an interview that Randolph had initially reached out to the company. Cooper said the platform allows people to own slices of real estate, no matter how small, as a way to build equity without having to get a mortgage.

“This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme,” Cooper said. “This is about owning the place where you live.”

Documents provided by Randolph indicate Forward Together gave Rhove a $10,000 grant to be used by July 2023. That money would fund a $5 credit for 2,000 New Orleanians to invest on the Rhove platform, with Rhove providing each of those investors another $5 credit earmarked toward developments specifically in New Orleans.

Rhove has yet to offer up a New Orleans property, but is slated to have at least one online in early 2023, Cooper said. The company is in talks with some local developers, Cooper added, though he declined to state on the record what any of the potential deals could be.

The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, another partner Randolph introduced Rhove to, was supposed to identify participants, including “including seniors, veterans, low-wage workers, low-income families, and those with disabilities,” the release reads.

Andreanecia Morris, the president of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance and director of the public-private affordable housing partnership HousingNOLA, said she took the opportunity to introduce Rhove to affordable housing developers in the region, in the hopes that Rhove might put together a deal that will allow New Orleanians to invest in local affordable housing.

The partnership also serves as an object lesson, Morris said, to the collective efforts required to resolve the city’s affordable housing crisis: “Ten dollars — that’s not going to help you find housing. But that $10, in collective, could create housing that could house you.”

Instead of affordable housing, Rhove’s website currently lists four available properties — two short-term rentals in Ohio; a luxury senior living community in Illinois; and a surf-themed resort in Hawaii.  

Cooper said no deals with affordable housing developers in New Orleans have been struck, though he would consider them. Cooper did not rule out the possibility of offering short-term rentals in New Orleans, something the city is trying to rein in, on the Rhove platform.

Only a few dozen people referred by the housing alliance have signed up on Rhove, Morris said, noting that many were waiting on the startup to make a local property available.

“I’m not trying to canonize them, nor am I going to fit them with black hats,” she said of Rhove. “They’re tech guys. They’re looking to disrupt and innovate.”

The country’s first-ever ‘Universal Basic Investment Credit’ program?

The partnership with Rhove grew out of Randolph’s idea for the Universal Basic Investment Credit, which he rolled out as a pilot program earlier this year. Forward Together said it is the first such program in the country. 

The credit program goes beyond the city’s guaranteed income program, another Forward Together project funded by the group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and launched earlier this year in partnership with the Cantrell administration. That program offered unrestricted cash assistance of $350 per month to 125 residents. (According to data recently published by Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, nearly 50 percent of the basic income money distributed in New Orleans has gone to pay for groceries.) Instead, the Universal Basic Investment Credit offers selected residents a one-time, $500 credit to fund investments overseen by a community partner.

“Obviously, is anybody gonna get rich off of investing $500?” Randolph said. “Probably not. 

“But it’s meant to be kind of a step one in education, a step one in changing behaviors, etcetera etcetera,” he continued. “It’s not something that’s requiring participants to jump through a bunch of hoops in order to get it.”

The $500 credits were supposed to be loaded onto the same kinds of cards provided by Mastercard and financial tech company Mobility Capital Finance for the city’s guaranteed income pilot. A five-person team with Mastercard’s Racial Justice Program also helped Forward Together build a “launch playbook” for the basic investment credit program.

“The core of the UBIC program is to get pre-paid micro-investment payment cards into the hands of youth to learn and ‘do’ local investing through guided investing programs,” Daniel Rich, a Mastercard executive who served as a pro bono adviser to Forward Together, wrote on his LinkedIn profile.

A spokesman for Mastercard directed a reporter to the Mayor’s Office for comment. The Mayor’s Office declined. 

Randolph gave as examples of vetted investment platforms Republic — a platform for investing in early-stage startups where Randolph himself is listed as an user — and Masterworks, “the first platform for buying and selling shares representing an investment in iconic artworks,” according to its website. Recipients could invest through “any crowdfunding platform they could find,” he said.

Ed Dolan, an economist who researches social policy as a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Niskanen Center, called the pilot program “very promising,” adding that researchers would still have to look at the program’s outcomes and consider whether the cash devoted to the program might be better used on programs like child allowances, housing vouchers or basic income payments.

But the types of investment options Randolph has publicly referenced, including cryptocurrency, are fairly high-risk, Dolan noted. 

“It sounds like these are being chosen because they’re zingy and popular, but they could lead to a lot of disappointment,” he said.

People with few assets might also be inclined to opt for a riskier investment once they find out how small the short-term returns on a traditional, lower-risk investment of $500 would be, Dolan added.

Documents provided by Randolph showed that STEM NOLA, an education nonprofit, and the Living School, a high school in New Orleans East, had agreed to serve as the “universal basic investment credit” program’s on-the-ground partners, with STEM NOLA receiving $10,000 and the Living School $5,000.

Those partners were in charge of ensuring participants used the funds correctly, Randolph said. Each organization was to receive one card with funds for all of its participants, Randolph said, so that the organizations could each oversee spending.

According to contracts provided by Randolph, the partner groups were supposed to provide Forward Together with a six-month and a final one-year report describing “progress in achieving the purposes of the grant” that includes “programmatic and outcomes-related data collected over the course of the program,” though the contracts don’t elaborate on what those data or success metrics are. (The Mastercard playbook does offer metrics, such as tracking returns on investment and reporting data to the Mayor’s Office.)

Stefin Pasternak, the Living School’s co-founder and head teacher, said the school received a debit card from Forward Together but never implemented the program because he was waiting on educational materials or a list of approved assets for students to invest in, materials he said he has not received. A spokeswoman for STEM NOLA declined to comment.

Although Forward Together froze its spending after the Inspector General subpoena, Randolph said his investment programs should have been unaffected because those dollars had already been granted to the various partners.

As of Oct. 14, Randolph said he had left the state of Louisiana. A hearing on Forward Together’s suit against Randolph is scheduled for Thursday.

Note: This story was updated Tuesday (Oct. 18) to include comments from Liana Elliott, a former City Hall staffer and liaison to the Forward Together board.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...

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