The Future of the NAACP at a Pivotal Moment in History: An Interview with NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

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There were many in the civil rights movement—and perhaps in the NAACP itself—when Ben Jealous was hired as the organization’s executive director. Though possessing a solid resume of accomplishment, he was deemed to be young and inexperienced. Despite having worked in civil rights and human rights for years, he was seen as a civil rights movement outsider.

And he was from the world of philanthropy, no less! Prior to joining the NAACP, after a campaign volunteer stint working for the election of Barack Obama, Jealous has been the president and CEO of the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, California.

How does a veteran of philanthropy, albeit a still young one, make the transition to the head of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, with a heritage of leadership including one of its founders, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson as one of its early field director, and later executive directors Roy Wilkins and Benjamin Hooks? And where does that background take Ben Jealous in ideas for a new direction for the organization?

In an interview with CR, Jealous displayed the forthrightness that made him a distinctively different foundation executive during his 3 years at the helm of the Rosenberg Foundation. Contrasting the foundation and the NAACP, Jealous identified “primary difference as one of perspective and relative wealth”: “At Rosenberg, we had the privilege of having an endowment, being able to think very far ahead, having a real sense of history regarding how many resources we would have from one year to the next, and the ability to plan in an environment of relatively little [financial] anxiety.”

Managing operations a foundation endowment—Rosenberg’s was probably around $65 million or so at the time Jealous left—is a sharp contrast with what he described as “a hundred year old nonprofit that exists to fight for the underdog and specializes in controversy…a very different situation.” To its credit, the Rosenberg Foundation too has a history of grantmaking for social change, but it is hardly comparable to an organization whose existence stems from the 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois

What does Jealous’s experience at Rosenberg bring the organization? Certainly, one area is increased foundation access. He noted that foundation grant income has increased from 4 percent to about 15 percent of the organization’s income since he took over, basically making the case to foundation grantmakers.

But Jealous acknowledged that the typically low rate of foundation grantmaking for “civil rights and social change” tells the nation something about philanthropy’s mindset, that this area of activity “really doesn’t register.” The numbers attest to this: For the top 1,000 or so grantmaking foundations, grants for civil rights and social action have fallen from 1.5 percent in 2000 to 1.1 percent in 2006. “The reality is that most philanthropists aren’t as invested as the country needs them to be in promoting the full realization of democracy here at home,” Jealous said. But, he added, “before you see me critical of philanthropy, you’ll see me focusing on what we [the NAACP] can do better.”

Reaching independent philanthropic givers is a major challenge for the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. Corporate funders have been active givers to civil rights groups in the African-American and Latino communities, including the NAACP, whose relatively small list of foundation grant sources (to the national office and affiliates) includes $200,000 in 2007 from the Wal-Mart Foundation, more than $400,000 from Wachovia, $150,000 from the UPS Foundation, $25,000 from ExxonMobil, and $25,000 from Dow Chemical, and in 2006 $1,800,000 from Wachovia, $1,000,000 from Verizon, plus nearly $1,000,000 from the Bank of America Foundation.

Other civil rights organizations have been criticized as straying from their missions in response to corporate funding. Recently, for example, the venerable Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) publicly defended the subprime credit card company CompuCredit, only to have it revealed that the SCLC and CompuCredit had formed a partnership to run “economic empowerment” workshops, apparently to teach minorities financial literacy. Other groups for example have had business partnerships with payday lenders, no less desirable a set of collaborators than fee-harvesting credit card companies like CompuCredit.

To the NAACP’s credit, rather than defending the subprime players, it has been a leader in the public criticism of the structural racism of the lending sector. In 2007, it filed suit against 14 lenders including Washington Mutual and HSBC challenging their discriminatory lending practices, and in 2008 the NAACP’s national “Day of Action” against discriminatory lending practices targeted these as well as Citi, JP Morgan, Chase, and GMAC, all of which appear to have been added to the NAACP class action suit, with no sign of backing off in order to curry favor with that sector. Jealous suggests that “you are going to see us get more aggressive with our campaigns on economic justice”.

That may be as much a program for revitalizing the NAACP’s financial picture as it is a regeneration of mission and purpose. But Jealous inherited one of the nation’s toughest financial challenges imaginable. The NAACP has suffered huge, sometimes multi-million dollar operating deficits from 2002 through 2006, though 2007 showed the organization taking in more revenue than it spent. Some of this may be attributable to the build-up of weak management or mismanagement by former executive directors, but Jealous didn’t go there. For him, the NAACP’s challenges are those of an organization that needs to be revitalized. That will take new revenues, new operations, and new people.

Although it had over 200 employees in the 1990s, prior to Jealous’s arrival the board cut the staff from 130 to 65, suggesting that may have still been problematic for the NAACP’s 2008 operations notwithstanding the positive revenue and expense numbers of 2007. The NAACP’s challenges may not be just making a compelling case statement, but rethinking the structure of the organization. The NAACP is a 501(c)(4) as are many of its local affiliates, an uncomfortable tax status for some foundation grantmakers. Notwithstanding Jealous’s connection and credibility in the foundation sector, the NAACP may have to modernize its staffing and structure to present itself more effectively to continue its rise in foundation grant income.

While Jealous believes that the NAACP has “had great success in the 10 months since I’ve been appointed getting new large grants to the organization just by making the case”, the question is what that case might be that continues to portray a vital, cutting edge organization that, in his words, fulfills “a real commitment to civil rights and for the world change for the better quickly.” His vision calls for melding the old and the new: “What I’ve found at the institution is a deep well of experience, and I’ve been trying to balance that with a real sense of urgency and real fresh raw outrage that the new generation of advocates bring to the table.”

Jealous’s old generation is a huge organization of volunteers to be mobilized for advocacy—and for fundraising. He rattled off the resources of an e-mail list of 400,000 addresses, 275,000 dues-paying members, and thousands of others who simply send the NAACP checks. That’s a great base to build from, but the membership total is probably close to half of the organization’s historic high point during the height of the civil rights era during the 1950s.

Where does the new growth come from? The organization has a network of 1,200 “local units” for recruiting and mobilizing activists. Of particular interest to Jealous is changing the demographic that the NAACP recruits. He points to 300 active chapters on college campuses, 36,000 young people in the NAACP’s youth and college division to be mobilized on behalf of a revitalized organization. To do that, he has to present a model of activism that fits a younger demographic. Jealous has recruited a team of younger activists in their twenties and thirties to serve in key positions in the organization, people who may have had training in the NAACP in their youth but then took that experience to other organizations. Notably, his top-level recruits appear to be in development, communications, and IT.

Technology is key in Jealous’s vision: “We’re reaching out online, [because] the demographic of 25 to 50 is so busy as parents or workers or both, [we have to] create a online experience that mimics the field experience.” The example Jealous cited was the NAACP’s online voter registration effort, which pulled in 25,000 new registrations. He clearly sees technology as an instrument for recruitment, fundraising, and activism.

Where does this all lead in terms of the NAACP’s revitalized message for charity and philanthropy—and for the incoming Obama Administration?

Despite his long experience in the social justice shortcomings of foundation grantmaking, Jealous doesn’t appear to be asking the NAACP to join the burgeoning call of some for changing the structure of charitable and foundation giving to prioritize the needs of the poor and minorities. “Our focus right now is on three big things,” Jealous said, “Getting a bailout not just for Main Street, but for ‘Back Street,’ ensuring that each child in this country receives a quality education, and ending mass incarceration.”

Jealous isn’t sure that “if we had regulatory requirements that people give to help disenfranchised groups that (a) it would really work well and (b) it would help us.” The pragmatism in his analysis is obvious: “It’s just that when you’re at the beginning of what might be the second Great Depression, there’s a cost benefit analysis, you have to think about how you use your time and what it might get you…Time is more precious, there are so many serious issues, and on the other hand, the foundations have a lot less money than they used to.”

Both Ben Jealous and the new occupant of the White House face the most challenging economic circumstances in the U.S. since the aforementioned Depression. Although the NAACP has faced—and survived—for the moment an IRS challenge on the issue of political speech (an investigation prompted by questions about a public statement made by NAACP board president Julian Bond), the effect has been “chilling on how we speak nationally”. Nonetheless, the NAACP is not going to sit on the sidelines during the next four years. According to Jealous, “the hard part with [Obama] on the inside as opposed to a leader of an insurgent campaign is going to be the power of his operation could potentially be backfire, it could insulate him from the sorts of pressure and critique that would ultimately create the space for him to do the right thing.” “The challenge for us who lead mass membership organizations,” Jealous added, “is to both embrace this president who inspired us as an candidate and keeping the pressure on him at the same time…What you bring is high expectations, that his victory has unleashed; we’re all willing to compromise, but we’re not willing to compromise too much, we’ve all been through the Clinton years that were massively deflating.”

Jealous sees lessons in the Obama campaign for the nonprofit sector: “One of those [lessons is that] there is massive latent wealth that can be mobilized among everyday people; another is that technology augments traditional community organizing, doesn’t replace it; another is we don’t think big enough, we don’t dream boldly enough any more, that willingness to retard our own ambition is perhaps our number one problem as a country and as a progressive movement.”

The experience of the NAACP has similar lessons for the nonprofit sector and for foundations: “The Association’s formula for success, dream big, plan your work, work your plan for decades not for years, and you’ll win,” Jealous noted. He cited the long patience of the NAACP in eradicating lynch mobs, desegregating the military, and leveling the political playing field, the latter reflected not only in the election of a person of color as President and, perhaps more tellingly, the election of an African-American in a white-majority Congressional district in Alabama. “The lesson is large scale vision and discipline and a large amount of patience.”

At this time of the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, one thinks of the famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Ben Jealous leads an organization that plays a crucial role in our society, whose advocacy has long “affirm(ed) the role of black people at the proverbial canary in the coal mine.” Will Jealous be able to reverse the troubled fortunes of the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization? The NAACP may well be the proverbial canary for the social justice role of the nonprofit sector.


In full disclosure, the organization once directed by the now editor of the Cohen Report used to receive grant support from the Rosenberg Foundation and received one grant of $7,500 from the Rosenberg Foundation during Jealous’s tenure as president and CEO.

[ii] Foundation grantmaking for civil rights and social action:

2006 $218,562,000 (1.1%)

2005 $223,487,000 (1.4%)

2004 $196,419,000 (1.3%)

2003 $204,492,000 (1.4%)

2002 $196,850,000 (1.2%)

2001 $184,980,000 (1.1%)

2000 $231,194,000 (1.5%)

1999 $150,544,000 (1.3%)

1998 $137,493,000 (1.4%)