Monday, July 14, 2008

More Thoughts About ACORN

Peter Dreier and John Atlas have an excellent article on HuffPo this morning that covers all of ACORN's good work over the last thirty-eight years. They also have a nice shout-out to yours truly in the article (I'll forgive them for not citing my blog):

One former organizer wrote on his blog, "conservatives and others are going to use this as an opportunity to bash ACORN -- and by extension, every social justice-minded nonprofit in the country." He correctly observed that, "the conservatives are going after [ACORN] for the wrong reasons. Working for social justice for low-income families is a noble pursuit and should be celebrated. Fraud has nothing to do with ACORN's mission. This didn't happen because of ACORN's mission -- it happened because of the greed of Dale Rathke and the unconscionable acts of a few organization insiders. This is a people problem, not a mission problem. Do not be confused."
Dreier and Atlas are exactly right that ACORN is now being attacked by groups who have wanted them dead for a long time. The people who are attacking ACORN now are its targets - the politicians who refuse to sign living wage laws, the business interests who don't want to treat their workers like human beings, crooked lenders who make money off the misery of low-income people.

And perhaps I was a bit harsh in my last post, because I was falling into the same trap of condeming the whole organization for the errors of a few people. ACORN doesn't deserve to die for this (and the country will be worse off if they do collapse because of this). However, they're going to have a very tough road ahead of them. It will take them years to shake the spectre of this moment, and it's possible it will never go away completely. They'll need to make sure it never happens. If they haven't done so already, they'll need to clamp down on their accounting. They'll have to be very public and very direct about exactly what money they have and exactly what they plan to do with it. Any secrecy at this point will be seen - rightly or wrongly - as hiding something.

I have to mention that the ACORN situation is not just being discussed by ACORN's opponents. Many of us in the social justice world are going to keep our concerns quiet, just as we've kept quiet before when other national organizations have folded due to financial mismanagement and ill-advised partnerships. It's not nice to wash your dirty laundry in public.

But I can guarantee you that we're talking about it today. There are whispered conversations happening all across the non-profit world about ACORN. Organizers are talking about it in their break rooms. Canvassers are discussing it on street corners before they begin their shift. Executive directors are discussing it with their boards. This is one of those moments where thousands of organizations are taking stock, making sure they don't have any skeletons in the closet like this.

Every organization I've worked for has done a stellar job of making their funding and their internal workings transparent. As I've said again and again, nonprofits have an obligation to the public and that obligation includes transparency. We make our 990s public. We post our annual reports on the website. When a problem arises, the best organizations talk about it with their board and their funders - they don't sweep it under the rug.

Our collective mission, expressed a thousand different ways, is to fight for the public good. We have an obligation to keep ourselves running in order to fight for the betterment of our country and our community. We have an obligation to keep our collective noses clean, so scandals like this don't bring our work to a grinding halt. It's not just a good idea - it is our duty and part of our bond with the people for whom we fight.

We owe it to the public not to fail - particularly not to fail because of our own stupidity. It's bad enough when an nonprofit fails because their funding dries up. It is absolutely shameful when an NPO fails because they weren't minding the books, or minding their own staff.

All across America, organizations are asking themselves, "could we be the next ACORN?" Nonprofits live with small budgets and a whisper-thin margin of error. And unlike most businesses, we make our living by fighting against very powerful interests. It only takes one mistake - large or small - to drown an organization. It only takes one slip to negate years of good, honorable work. So ACORN's current scandal is not something we celebrate. It's a vivid reminder of how vulnerable we all are.


Anonymous said...

You've got to admit that this story resonates with a lot of things other organizers know about Acorn -- the lack of genuine grassroots leadership, the extreme top-town decision-making process, the murkiness about roles, the cynicism... the whole damn thing really.

The real acorn said...

My Blog-former ACORN Organizer not a right winger. Still an organizer today.I am putting you on my blog list.