A Nonprofit in the Midst of Turmoil Tries to Maintain Key Services

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April 18, 2011; Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune | The Minneapolis Star Tribune reveals that Freeport West, a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 has grown to a size that many nonprofits might consider enviable with an annual budget over $2 million, a full-time staff of 25, 30 transitional housing units including a house for teenage mothers and children and capacity to manage an individual case load last year of 1,306 youth. Nevertheless the organization is still struggling to survive. Accusations of mismanagement beginning in 2010 and that included "ineligible clients," the employment of "family, friends and fellow church members," and a general lack of support for the work other agencies working with homeless youth led Minnesota’s Human Services Department to suspend three grants totaling $127,500 to the organization last year although it is apparently open to being convinced that things have changed.

According to the Star Tribune, Freeport West’s board put its executive director, Ramona Wilson, on leave in February, and then fired her last month, an action that has since led to a claim of wrongful termination by Wilson herself and the resignation of one board member who viewed her as a “very good administrator.”

Like the state Human Services Department, HUD has also received complaints about Freeport West and has noted that the agency has had near 100 percent turnover in the past few years. Staff had complained about the working environment including yelling from leadership and pressure to attend a religious play according to the Star Tribune. Still HUD so far has been reluctant to suspend the organization’s $654,000 in annual funding for transitional housing and street-based outreach. As an explanation for the agency’s rationale on this decision, HUD spokesperson Laura Feldman told the Star Tribune "Freeport was doing some very needed work for homeless youth and families." She added, "If we were to cut funds, the people who need help would be the ones who would be hurt, so it is always our aim to work with organizations to fix problems. … They are actually working hard to turn this around, and we are very pleased with their progress."

Freeport West’s problems have rippled out to other community groups because it acts as an intermediary for the funding for 10 other organizations in the Streetworks Collaborative which serves youth in trouble. Apparently last summer the collective leadership of the collaborative “was stripped away” and Freeport West stopped funneling the money to eight of the ten groups.

As early steps of what might be progress, Freeport West now has an interim executive director and a recently commissioned “cultural assessment” of the organization provided by a local law firm. “I believe the morale of the staff has changed, and there is a new energy around the services we provide” said Dorothy Abellard, the organization’s interim executive director. — Anne Eigeman