Forward Together New Orleans plans to return about $1 million in city funds when it shuts down. But some questions about private dollars, and money it has already spent for ongoing programs, remain unanswered. Credit: Verite.

A lawyer for Forward Together New Orleans, the nonprofit holding the purse strings for several of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s city-sponsored social welfare programs, has said the organization will shut down following a government subpoena and a legal dispute between its governing board and its sole staffer.

Attorney Allen Miller told a judge last week that the organization plans to return all of the city funds it holds once a final judgment is issued in a lawsuit the board filed against former Forward Together executive director Shaun Randolph. The dispute includes claims that Randolph falsely accused board members of impropriety and financial mismanagement. (The judge has granted a temporary injunction against Randolph, who has already admitted to reporters that some of his earlier allegations were incorrect.)

“We will wrap up its existence,” Allen Miller, the attorney, said last Thursday (Oct. 20).

What Miller didn’t mention was the future of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Forward Together has collected in private donations.

The nonprofit was set up in 2018 as Cantrell’s post-election transition fund and later evolved into a philanthropic arm of her administration. It has served as a fiscal administrator for several city-sponsored programs, using city money and private dollars to carry out goals set by the Cantrell administration.

Forward Together’s bank account has been frozen since September, after the city’s Office of Inspector General issued a subpoena for the group’s financial records. Of the $1.5 million in Forward Together’s bank account at that time, $1.06 million in city funds remained untouched, an attorney for the nonprofit told WWL-TV earlier this month

That should leave a little less than $500,000 in private funds in the nonprofit’s account. Additional private dollars donated to the organization have also gone to partners running ongoing Forward Together programs, such as a universal basic income pilot program that launched earlier this year.  

Attorneys representing Forward Together’s board declined to comment about what will happen to those funds. And Forward Together board chair Kathleen Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment.

This is what Verite has learned about some of Forward Together’s most recent programs and the funding associated with them, still leaving many unanswered questions about specific dollar amounts:

City programs: Gun violence prevention, workforce development

Some city programs funded with public money have been on pause since September, when Forward Together froze its spending.

Those include Earn and Learn, a workforce development program, as well as an intervention program coordinated with the city’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

Gregory Joseph, director of communications for the Mayor’s Office, said in a statement that the returned city funds would go back to funding the programs, though he declined to name the exact sum the city expects to receive from Forward Together.

Joseph said the Mayor’s Office remains committed to keeping the programs operational, though he didn’t say whether the city would run them or contract with an external partner to do so.

“The city-run programs and initiatives such as the Office of Gun Violence and Pathways have the Mayor’s full support and will continue to operate regardless,” Joseph said in a statement.

Universal Basic Income pilot

A basic income pilot for the city’s “opportunity youth,” powered by a $500,000 grant from the national group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, appears to have remained active even after Forward Together’s funds were frozen.

That program, which gives 125 young people $350 a month for 10 months, has remained operational despite Forward Together’s troubles because almost all of the funds were sent in a lump sum to Mobility Capital Finance, or MoCaFi, the Mastercard-backed city contractor in charge of preloading the cash onto payment cards, city officials told Verite. (A portion of the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income grant went to Forward Together for “operating expenses,” said Emily Wolff, director of the city Office of Youth and Families, in an interview earlier this month.)

Payments started going out April 29 and are ongoing, staffers with the Office of Youth and Families said earlier this month. 

MoCaFi CEO Wole Coaxum said the company expected to hear from Forward Together “in due course” about the nonprofit’s plans but had no comment.

Universal Basic Investment Credit pilot

Randolph, the former Forward Together director who was fired in August, spearheaded some Forward Together programming of his own, drawing $30,000 (though documents he provided accounted for only $25,000) from the nonprofit’s general operating funds, he has said.

That pilot, called a “Universal Basic Investment Credit,” aimed to put a one-time sum of $500 into the hands of city residents to invest in assets such as small businesses, cryptocurrencies and even fractional shares of fine art and real estate. Documents provided by Randolph showed he had secured two on-the-ground partners to oversee participants, STEM NOLA and The Living School.

A spokesperson for STEM NOLA didn’t respond to a request for comment. A representative for The Living School previously told Verite that the school had been given a payment card, but never accessed any funds on it because the school never received any instructions on how to run the program.

Calvin Cooper, the CEO of Rhove Real Estate, another Forward Together partner in a related investment program, told Verite that he hadn’t been briefed on Forward Together’s planned dissolution. Randolph worked with Cooper to provide selected city residents a $10 credit funded by Forward Together and Rhove to invest in fractional real estate shares across the country, a partnership that was formed without board oversight, according to the board’s former city liaison.

“Wow that’s unfortunate to hear,” Cooper wrote in a text message late last week. “Nobody from FTNO has reached out to us about this. Rhove is still committed to helping people in New Orleans and renters throughout the country own in their communities.”

Other funds and programs

Other private dollars have been deployed for various causes, including cash assistance for immigrants and renters.

In 2020 and 2021, the nonprofit also issued funding for community health workers, along with some “general support” grants to organizations including the NORD Foundation, Committee for a Better New Orleans, the United Way for South Louisiana, and the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, according to financial documents.

Verite contacted seven major private contributors listed in Forward Together’s 2021 Form 990, a financial report submitted to the IRS by tax-exempt organizations. 

A spokesperson for one of those contributors, the Pfizer Foundation, said the foundation’s $50,000 contribution last year was a grant to support relief efforts after Hurricane Ida, and that the foundation assumed those funds had already been allocated. The Pfizer Foundation also gave Forward Together $250,000 in 2020 for pandemic relief and recovery work.

A spokesperson for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation said its $200,000 contribution was part of a two-year, $400,000 grant, set to end in December, supporting the city’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

Forward Together has not publicized what private contributions it has received in 2022.

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Michelle Liu

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...