ACORN Disbands: Ignore the Lessons at Our Own Peril

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It’s hardly news to anyone by now that ACORN, the nationally prominent community organizing network founded by Wade Rathke in 1970, is disbanding.

ACORN’s shutdown could have been predicted, not as a result of sting videos that caught unsuspecting local ACORN field workers providing advice to a phony pimp-and-prostitute duo, who should have been simply kicked out the door or reported to police. The causes are deeper, revealed to some extent by the embezzlement of $1 million by the founder’s brother and the subsequent cover-up of the crime for another decade by ACORN’s top leadership.

Lots of people have been preoccupied with political attacks and counterattacks. Was ACORN the victim of unjustified and malicious right wing McCarthyist attacks or left wing hubris and political self-righteousness? As a journal that emphasizes management and governance as much as any other factors, we are concerned with the nonprofit-specific lessons to be drawn from ACORN’s long path toward collapse.

Looking back at the ACORN story, what should all of us, as observers of the nonprofit sector, have seen a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, that would have told us—and the ACORN leadership—that the organization was in big time trouble? What should ACORN’s leadership have done to correct its weaknesses at the time when they could have been corrected? What should its many foundation funders have done? Should they have intervened, under what circumstances and around what issues? How might have ACORN’s local and state affiliates addressed the problems that seemed to emanate from ACORN’s national headquarters and leadership?

What are the lessons of the ACORN story for the management of a national federation of community based affiliates governed by community residents? If we really care about authentic community governance, we need to ask what ACORN did well, and clearly, not so well in this regard?

Other stories in this series
Mar 20, 2010  ACORN on the Brink of Bankruptcy, Officials Say
Feb 23, 2010  ACORN Down, But Are They Out?
Mar 03, 2010  Good News for ACORN
Dec 08, 2010  NPQ on ACORN Investigation Results
Dec 08, 2010  Declaration of Connection
Dec 07, 2009  An Independent Governance Assessment of ACORN

ACORN’s collapse doesn’t mean a total loss. Some of the organization’s more significant state and local affiliates have disaffiliated and reincorporated separately. Its affordable housing development arm, ACORN Housing, has reincorporated as Affordable Housing Centers of America, intending to carry on separately. The 400,000 or so people who have been members of ACORN, whether disaffected with what happened or not, still remain with an appetite for political activism on behalf of the advocacy for the poor and minorities that ACORN nominally represented.

We ignore the lessons of ACORN-the-nonprofit—not ACORN-the-political—at our own peril.  We would like to invite you to weigh in, tell us what you’ve learned—or perhaps what you would like to learn—from the collapse of ACORN-the-nonprofit. Tell us, and we’ll publish your commentary.

Email us or use our comment function below.