ACORN Down, But Are They Out?

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The newswires are awash with reports that ACORN has gone under and dissolved, but ACORN itself says something somewhat different.

What seems to have happened is this: (1) ACORN has suffered some significant financial challenges in the wake of the pimp-and-prostitute video sting combined with the lingering effects of the Rathke embezzlement and cover-up; reportedly, many of ACORN’s longtime funders bolted and, despite a management review by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, never returned; (2) the organization’s image and reputation took body blows that were not helped by unrelenting negative coverage on Fox News, by conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck, and by Congress, whose Defund ACORN Act received bipartisan support, even after a lower federal court ruled in favor of ACORN regarding future federal funding; and (3) despite being the beneficiary of a third-party management review by a credible professional source, ACORN’s hard-to-find announcement of a positive and forthright plan for implementing the Harshbarger recommendations left some observers hanging, wondering why ACORN didn’t simply announce a high profile plan that its funders and some of the public could buy into.

What has happened in the last few days, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, is a continuing dynamic of ACORN’s largest state or metropolitan chapters or affiliates splitting off, establishing themselves as 501(c)(3) charities independent of national ACORN, and shedding the ACORN name and identity. In New York, the new entity will be New York Communities for Change, although, as Politico reports, some of the old leadership will be in charge of the new entity. California ACORN had already cut its ties to the national operation, reorganizing itself as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. The Monitor reports that national ACORN’s top leader, Bertha Lewis, acknowledged that a dozen or more major chapters will follow the New York and California departures, and that the remaining chapters are too small and underfunded to survive.

The result will be a national ACORN without its hundreds of thousands of members, without the apparatus of a network of state and local affiliate organizations, and without access to the resources that the better-heeled affiliates like New York could bring to the organization. “ACORN has dissolved as a national structure of state organizations,” one ACORN spokesperson told Politico. But another was quoted in the Monitor as having told the American Prospect “It is not true that ACORN is closed for business all across the country. It still exists.”

So what might the new ACORN be, without members and affiliates? Lewis told NPR, “We’re going to try to continue as the national group to speak out on issues,” sounding like it might be as much a policy think tank as an in-the-streets organizing network. But she also added ominously, “How long we’ll be able to survive to do that is anybody’s guess, because the right has definitely, definitely dealt us a mortal blow.” Maybe Lewis’s use of “mortal blow” was rhetorical excess not meant to imply that ACORN’s condition was close to terminal.

Most of the national debate over ACORN has been consumed in the political wrangling over ACORN, but we at NPQ see an entirely different side to the ACORN story, regardless of whether the organization survives as anything more than a shell of its former self. We’re interested in what the ACORN tragedy instructs us about how nonprofits should tackle devastating organizational scandals (we think ACORN let the Rathke embezzlement fester, oh, a decade or so too long, for example), how nonprofits should deal with leadership and staff closely associated with scandal, how national nonprofits with regional and local networks of affiliates structure and manage themselves, and how groups should respond to external audits and reviews (ACORN did the right thing in calling for the Harshbarger analysis and making it public, but then it should have quickly issued a very clear plan regarding exactly what it was going to adopt from the Harshbarger recommendations, what it was going to reject, and what the implementation plan would be going forward with timetables, targets, and milestones).

At the same time, for ACORN’s funders, they could have told ACORN that they would come back to the table, if they valued ACORN as much as they said they did, contingent on a strong public plan for implementing parts or all of the Harshbarger recommendations.

There’s something about the funding community that makes the ACORN story disconcerting. When a troubled nonprofit does what it is supposed to do—getting a credible external review and audit, replete with corrective advice; doing what most foundations would never do, but making the external analysis and advice public; and hopefully then announcing a strong plan of action (which we don’t think ACORN quite did, but still might)—isn’t that the time for skittish funders to come back to the table and help the troubled organization right itself?

  • Michael Seltzer

    Thanks, Rick, for your important column. We need as many voices representing low-income individuals as possible at this time in history. As a result, Acorn and its constituents have an important role to play, and continuing foundation support is integral to its ability to do so!

  • Michael Edwards

    Absolutely right – hope you can get this onto HuffPost or similar.