Death of the Hull House: A Nonprofit Coroner’s Inquest

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Hull House

When Hull House, founded by legendary social activist Jane Addams, closed down early this year, the reverberations of the failure of the nation’s most famous settlement house were somewhat muted. Was it that the modern era Hull House was so different from the Hull House Addams described in her autobiographical 20 Years at Hull-House that the place had lost its symbolic meaning for the nonprofit sector? Might there have been the presumption that the day of Hull House—and perhaps much of the settlement house movement that flourished around the turn of the century—had simply passed?

Or, was the bankruptcy of Hull House, despite the organization’s amazing history, just another example of a nonprofit caught in an exorable spiral of decline due to the usual factors we all associate with nonprofit shutdowns?

Although the settlement house movement doesn’t add up to the hundreds of facilities that existed in the decades before World War I, many settlement houses that got their start during that era still exist, function, and in some cases, thrive. Examples include the Henry Street Settlement in New York, founded by Lillian Wald in1893, University Settlement in Cleveland, founded in 1926 to serve the Broadway/Slavic Village neighborhood, and the Community Settlement Association, serving the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, Calif. Was Hull House, founded by Addams in 1889, destined to die, or could it have modified itself to survive and thrive?

The Settlement House Model and Hull’s Proud History

Originally, the settlement house was not about the delivery of charitable services. Rather, like Addams’ Hull House, it was meant to be an inner-city residence for settlement workers who would deliver educational, art, music, and cultural programs to address the spiritual poverty of poor people. Typically, like Hull House on Chicago’s Halsted Street and the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side, they viewed poverty as more than a financial condition. Largely directed, initially, by affluent but socially concerned people like Addams, the early settlement houses and settlement workers, many of them volunteer, saw themselves as bridging a socio-economic chasm, helping the poor immigrant communities surrounding them while also learning from their poor neighbors.

But in learning from the poverty-stricken, often immigrant neighbors, the settlement houses became political institutions, beacons of advocacy for issues such as an increased minimum wage, labor rights, child labor laws, and decent (and nondiscriminatory) provision of public services. In a memorable part of her 20 Years at Hull-House, Addams wrote about her advocacy for improved garbage collection and sanitation in the 19th ward where Hull House was located, pressuring the alderman for better services, and eventually serving for a time as the ward’s garbage inspector to identify for the city exactly where the garbage was that needed to be addressed.

Just think of the people who lived and worked at Hull House: Mary McDowell, who worked to support the trade unions in Chicago’s “back of the yards” neighborhood; Frances Perkins, who later became the U.S. secretary of labor and the first woman appointed to the presidential cabinet; Julia Lathrop, who became the first woman to ever head a federal bureau when she became director of the United States Children Bureau; and Florence Kelly, who became head of the National Consumers League. As for Addams, the founding director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, called her “the most dangerous woman in America.” Theodore Roosevelt admired her greatly, but also called her dangerous when she became one of the most famous and influential pacifists opposing U.S. entry into World War I. Although she seconded Roosevelt’s nomination for president in 1912, she broke with him when he refused to allow African Americans to be part of his Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. A co-founder of the NAACP, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union, she probably deserved and appreciated the Hoover epithet.

Addams might have been seen by J. Edgar as a dangerous radical because she invited anarchists, labor organizers, and others to lecture or even conduct meetings at Hull House, but the accomplishments of Hull House would make her an essential woman in turn-of-the-century America. Among Hull House’s feats that have shaped much of what we know today are these: it created the first public playground in Chicago, the first public gymnasium in Chicago, the first public swimming pool in Chicago, and the first citizen preparation classes in the United States. Believing in the importance of facts and data, Addams led Hull House into investigations of sanitation, truancy, tuberculosis, infant mortality, and cocaine use in Chicago, prompting changes in laws and public programs. In its first few decades, the Hull House of Jane Addams was a beacon for social change and the delivery of services was secondary, or even tertiary, in the original settlement house concept.

Addams and Hull House aimed to change the conditions of poor immigrant communities and the mindsets of both the poor and the privileged. But she knew that nonprofits, charitable giving, and philanthropic grantmaking were but a drop in the bucket for the changes that were needed. To Addams, the settlement was all about social change. As she wrote, “The educational activities of a Settlement, as well as its philanthropic, civic, and social undertakings, are but differing manifestations of the attempt to socialize democracy, as is the very existence of the Settlement itself.”

Why the Failure? Possible Causes of Death

On January 19th this year, the leadership of Hull House announced that the organization was going to shut down in the spring due to a lack of money. A week later, it precipitously closed its doors and laid off its entire staff with no notice, no compensation, no payment for accumulated vacation time, and no health benefits. It was a remarkable turn of events for an iconic institution.

In this brief piece, we cannot possibly provide a comprehensive analysis of all the challenges and mistakes that might have been made over more than 100 years of Hull House operations, but the various elements of news coverage suggest hypotheses as to possible causes of death and lessons for us all.

A Bad Case of Founder’s Syndrome?

Founder’s syndrome is a cute piece of nonprofit parlance that sounds trivial in the context of Jane Addams. In most instances of founder’s syndrome, one finds the story of a longtime executive director who has to be dragged from his or her office kicking and screaming. Addams was actually relatively ill for some of the later years of her life before she died of cancer in 1935, so she had been letting go of Hull House for some time. The issue wasn’t about her not letting go, but it might have been more about who among her potential successors could claim the mantle of “owning” and living the ideas of Saint Jane. According to most histories, after her death, the battles over the operations of Hull House between the head resident who followed Addams, Adena Miller Rich, and the president of the board of trustees, Louise deKoven Bowen, occurred daily—on everything, big and small. Before, Addams was both head resident and in control of the board. The split played out terribly until Rich resigned. Subsequent head residents (the title was later changed to “director”) displayed their distance from the ideas and direction that Addams had displayed so forcefully for so many years. In the case of Hull House, this might have been one of the worst cases of founder’s syndrome possible, in that Addams’s successors in no way measured up to her, or perhaps didn’t even grasp some of what she might have meant by the socialization of democracy or Hull House as a “cathedral of humanity.” Some shoes are almost impossible to fill.

An Uneasy Business Model?

At the beginning, Hull House was almost entirely self-funded by a modest inheritance Addams received on the death of her much-adored father, and the resident staff generally lived and worked there without compensation. It was essentially a volunteer-run organization, somehow able to attract programs and an unbelievable list of famous people to help out (imagine lectures at Hull House including the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Peter Kropotkin, and John Dewey). But would a volunteer, largely self-financed organization succeed in the long run? Even during Addams’ time, Hull House bumped up against the realities of paying for programs. As she said in 20 Years, “we were often bitterly pressed for money and worried by the prospect of unpaid bills, and we gave up one golden scheme after another because we could not afford it; we cooked the meals and kept the books and washed the windows without a thought of hardship if we thereby saved money for the consummation of some ardently desired undertaking. But in spite of our financial stringency, I always believed that money would be given when we had once clearly reduced the Settlement idea to the actual deed.”

That is a tough model to pursue over time. Addams herself took to raising money, though she encountered the problem of many of today’s nonprofits with offers of financial support from corporate philanthropists who made their money through “unscrupulous” schemes. Eventually, Hull House took to raising charitable money in competition with others and raising rents on the apartments it developed in its 13-building compound. Moreover, it shifted from a largely volunteer operation to a paid staff. That may sound quaint in today’s terms, but it was a major shift in organizational culture for Hull House. While other settlement houses—not much different than Hull House at their outset—made the shift from volunteer operations to becoming more like nonprofits, it seems that the evolution for Hull House was never particularly comfortable or easy.

The Loss of the Physical Settlement?

After Addams acquired the house on Halsted Street, she acquired other properties in short order until Hull House became a thirteen-property complex. In the 1950s and 1960s, it became part of the Near West Side Urban Renewal project. Mayor Richard Daley decided to target the removal of Hull House in a plan to develop the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Only the original Hull House was maintained as a museum on the university campus, but the rest of Hull House was demolished. The Hull House program became a federation of community centers around Chicago, growing to 29 program sites by 1985. Had the urban renewal of the Hull House properties meant that the organization finally morphed from a settlement house—a physical site in a poor neighborhood where the settlement residents connected with low income immigrants—to a provider of community center programming, sort of a more typical nonprofit?

The Cost of Expansion?

As Hull House expanded its operations into different neighborhoods, it developed the illness of the rapid process of scaling up: deficits. By 1967, Hull House had a deficit of $2 million and the various Hull House centers were competing against each other for charitable support. How many multi-faceted, multi-program, multi-site organizations do we encounter regularly only to learn that fundraising priorities are not only not coordinated, but sometimes sites and programs are cannibalizing the same funding sources? A big program expansion like Hull House’s (it became the Hull House Association after it converted from the Halsted site to a confederation of programs) doesn’t work on a fundraising scheme of assuming the funding will be there when the programs prove their mettle. Hull House had to contract, shave programs, eliminate facilities, and constrain vision. Sometimes problems of geographic and programmatic growth create strains that organizations cannot recover from, ever.

A Failure to Ask for Help?

Could the successors of Jane Addams admit their shortcomings? Could they admit to facing financial challenges, exacerbated by program modifications and re-modifications and more that simply weren’t up to the task? Renaming the Hull House Association the Jane Addams Hull House Association (JAHHA) didn’t meant that the spirit and creativity of Addams herself suddenly flowed through the organization. When the organization announced it was closing and going out of business, observers were surprised by the news. One historian on Addams, Grinnell College Professor Victoria Brown, couldn’t figure out why JAHHA leaders hadn’t publicized their financial problems earlier. “I wish we would have known. Why weren’t they screaming this from the rooftops,” Brown told the Associated Press.

It would seem that Hull House fell prey to the all-too-common nonprofit affliction of presenting the image that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the organization, that funding will build on strengths rather than remediate problems such as, in JAHHA’s case, millions of dollars of debt. For close observers, the signs were there years—perhaps decades—ago. After the effort to increase government funding in the 1990s, a new director took over in 2000 and shifted the organization’s programs from an array of job training, elderly services, and family and support services to a narrower program focus because, in his view (as paraphrased by the Chicago Tribune), “it may have been trying to do too much with too little.” But big lurches in program focuses are also a telling sign of trouble, and sometimes a sign of an agency looking at government funding opportunities in a hope that it will land on a healthy, sustainable program direction. Usually, it is just the opposite.

A Troubled Organizational Culture?

Reading anything by Addams, who was beyond prolific, one comes away with a strong sense of her kindness and openness. People who knew her confirm it, remarking on her propensity to hug all the little kids and to greet everyone personally. She was hardly the all-too-common manager of today, even in some nonprofits, who barely acknowledges subordinate staff and treats employees like, well, employees. With the closing of Hull House, the shocking news was of course that its 300 employees received only a week’s notice, were not paid for their accumulated vacation days, and had not been told that their health insurance hadn’t been paid for a couple of weeks. It was a shocking cultural change for Hull House that had perhaps been there for a long time, but treating employees so shabbily was evidence that something at Hull House had changed irreparably. Organizational culture is incredibly hard to change by direct action, but when it changes by slow, invisible accretion, the results can be harmful and debilitating.

An Over-dependence on Government Funding?

Not only did the original Hull House eschew much philanthropic support, but it also wasn’t government funded and wasn’t interested in government funding. It viewed itself as a critic of government and the forces that controlled government, particularly the aldermanic ward structure of Chicago politics. When it collapsed, however, Hull House was a ward of government—about 85 to 90 percent government-funded in a state renowned, in this era, for delaying contract reimbursements and shorting nonprofits on what they are owed. It was in the game of chasing government funding. One contract alone, with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in the mid-1990s, amounted to $6 million (and was obtained when the then-director of Hull House was a former director of DCFS). At its height, Hull House’s budget was $40 million in the early 1990s, but it plummeted to $23 million in 2011. As physician Cory Franklin wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “It relied too much on a state that doesn’t pay its bill and its leaders didn’t move quickly enough to change how it operates.” Franklin added, “Once it became dependent on government funds, it was working for government…” Franklin is describing a mission problem of Hull House, but for others, an overreliance on government funding, particularly local and state government moneys, is a recipe for problems. In the words of the president of the Child Care Association of Illinois, “The government is asking you to do today’s work at yesterday’s prices.”

Warning Signs and Blinders

Maybe these are all just regular, quotidian challenges facing many nonprofits in today’s environment. If a social change organization decides to follow a path of collecting and administering government contracts, how much social change can it really pursue? This is the conundrum facing some service providers. Nonprofit management professor Ivan Medina, who teaches courses about Jane Addams and Hull House at Loyola University, pondered the demise of Hull House and wondered what Jane Addams would have thought about the organization’s denouement. Medina said that Addams “was about social change. She challenged government. She organized strikes.” With the staff fired with little notice and without benefits, Medina said, “she would be organizing them for protests.”

At one point in Hull House’s troubled modern history, it was looking for money from the city government and Oprah Winfrey to pay for expansion of its facilities. It was 1994 and the organization’s budget had more than doubled from $10 million to $22 million in a period of only four years. Although the city and the talk-show host were playing their usual roles, there was a feeling that the organization was looking for lifelines at a point when it should have been consolidating and taking stock of its situation.

A little over a decade later, the federal government was faced with bailing out the Hull House pension plan because of a shortfall of $4.8 million to cover the organization’s then 500 employees and retirees—represented by the United Auto Workers Local 2320. That predicament led to a pension fund bailout by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and helped Hull House stave off insolvency for a couple of years. The warning signs were all around Hull House, but it appears that no one could really come to grips with the problems. On the heels of the PBGC pension bailout, the then head of Hull House pronounced, “We are not about to close our doors.”

  • Cindy Worthy

    What a well thought out article, every nonprofit staff and board should read! Nonprofits need to wake up and grasp operating/financial issues as they occur and deal with them today instead of trying to fundraise over them. Really sad reality for Hull House!

  • Jenifer Morgan

    Great article. Another good read on Hull House—which argues that the collapse of Hull House is a reminder that the tectonic shifts underway in the human service sector cannot be avoided—is here:

  • Mark Paley

    Thank you for this article. My first observation is that the Founder’s Syndrome could be solved (though by no means easily) by developing a succession plan, and it should not just be dismissed because of one’s shoes are impossible to fill. Secondly, I wonder who was reviewing the organization. Were the funders seeing the problems in their review of the organization’s financial statements?

  • Jim Lewis

    Very timely forensic examination. We need more nonprofit to take a cold hard look at the current external context and internal culture of their organizations. I wrote about this in an article for Christian Leadership Alliance journal, Outcomes:

  • Gus Miller

    The analyst-author left out two imporant components of the failure: a very high-priced executive management team and accompanying outsourced financial oversight department that painted a very rosy picture to the board and to the public long after the situation had become dangerous, and a board of trustees for whom a seat at the table was more of a social status indicator than an opportunity to serve and to work, and who were not paying sufficiently close attention to what was being laid-out before them, and who were (almost unbelievably) caught by surprise as the end-game unfolded so quickly, with no time left to remedy the situation or to preserve the institution or to continue service its very large client portfolio.

  • Tom Tresser

    The sudden closing of Hull House was shocking. There was no doubt bad management decisions made there – but, after all, they were ministering to people in need in times of dire economic hardship. II think Hull House needed to much more militant and organize for power – harkening back to its roots. The board was negligent in letting the legacy of Jane Addams slip away without a FIGHT – without taking their plight to the public – even if it meant exposing its recent history of questionable management. The nonprofit sector – especially the social work associations and every organization with “Jane Addams” its name (we have three in Chicago – a museum, a seniors program and a school of social work) – all were completely silent and did nothing to raise issues, challenge the closing or propose any public push back. I created an online petition and got over 650 signers in just a few days with no publicity. Imagine what a concerted effort would’ve realized from America’s nonprofit leaders and the international community of settlement houses, community centers and social work organizations that all owe their existence to Jane. She would’ve been down with the occupy Movement and she would’ve organized the Hull House workers to fight back – never abandoning them as the current board did.

    At the same time all this was happening, the Illinois Legislature tripped over itself yo give HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PUBLIC DOLLARS to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (home of the 1%) and Sears (a dying business). We found money to bail them out. Shame on Illinois.

    Shame on America’s toothless and powerless nonprofit sector. You are truly fiddling while Rome is burning.

  • Louise W. Knight

    Thank you for this very thoughtful piece. It captures the gist of Hull House as Addams created it and sustained it, and the gist of what Hull House later became. Cohen has done a fine job of studying up on his subject.

    One additional point should be made: the role of the board of trustees was key — that is to say its failure. When Addams was alive, there were five on the board, including herself as chair. They were all major donors and her good friends. By the time the doors of Hull House closed the board was huge — I believe as large as 50 people — and its sense of itself as a governing board, with true fiduciary responsibilities, was diluted. Some very strong and responsible board members had tried to sound the alarm regarding the mounting debt, but leadership would not listen. The board is where the buck stops, and while many very devoted, generous people were on the board, it did not come together to save Hull House in the ten years before the agency had to close. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the Hull House story. No organization will survive a board that does not act collectively to protect and nurture its organization. My experience as a consultant with nonprofit boards over more than 15 years confirms this truth, as much as the story of Hull House does.

    As a biographer of Jane Addams and an historian of Hull House, I would add that Addams sought gifts to fund Hull House from the day its doors opened. She paid for about half of its operations in the first year, but a steadily declining percentage of those costs after that. And while there was no government funding for settlement houses in her day, United Way’s precursor, the Community Chest, became active while she was alive, and she refused to take any funds from that source. She wanted the freedom to allow the settlement house’s programs to be flexible and to avoid restricting participation according to income. Once settlement houses accepted these restrictions, they in essence abandoned their original mission of bridging the social gap between the classes and offering cultural and educational and recreational activities that governments generally have no interest in supporting. Of course, some settlement houses have managed to hang on to the arts and other humanistic activities, thanks to the generosity of individual donors.

    In my piece about Hull House’s closing in the Nation, I touch on some of these same issues, which Cohen also astutely notes. ement-model

    Louise W. Knight (for more information about my biographies of Jane Addams)
    my nonprofit consulting website:

  • Adrienne Bitoy Jackson

    I have been waiting for someone to provide a post mortem on the demise of the Jane Addams Hull House Association. Thank you for providing some insight. Let me add that I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the members of its executive team from 2000-2003, and I have not met a more dedicated, committed group. They knew their mission and share their visons for the future. However, when there is an organization with a history of a hundred years valued community service; it should be regarded as an anchoring institution and community asset. As individual who has a great deal of experience in fundraising and nonprofit development, there comes a time where every nonprofit needs to add a social enterprise strategy and business model as a component to its operations to maintain sustainability. It is essential for survival. RIP Jane Addams Hull House, you will be missed.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the additional information about the Hull House board and the its funding history. I hope our readers read your piece in the Nation which adds a lot more than I was able to get to.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the insight and the personal experience. It struck me that their business model was lurching from one saving idea to the next. There’s so much more to the Hull House story, it’s great that NPQ readers are filling in the gaps.

  • rick cohen

    Yes, I agree with you that Jane Addams would have been organizing the employees. That’s how it struck me after reading 20 Years at Hull House. I didn’t know that none of the Jane Addams-named organizations did anything to intervene with Hull House as it declined. The juxtaposition with the state interventions with the Mercantile Exchange and Sears with what happened or didn’t happen with Hull House is certainly quite intruiging.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the comment. The end-game was quick but also very prolonged in some ways. Some of our correspondents have mentioned problems in management that go back many years. Like another commenter on this article noted, the board issue merits more attention and analysis. I hope other readers add their thoughts as to what was happening at Hull House, particularly on the governance side.

  • Woods Bowman

    There was no good reason for HH to close. Many younger, smaller nonprofits with less of a name and equally dependent on government financing have survived the economic downturn. I analyzed 10 years of its 990 reports (up through 2009, the most recent on Guidestar) and found that gifts as a percent of expenses were up and receivables as a percent of expenses were down. Its deficits were not exploding but they were persistent. Maybe there are details that the media did not report that could cause me to change my opinion, I am sure that tighter management and reorganization in Chapter 11 could have saved it.

  • Michael Zisser

    University Settlement Society of New York, the oldest settlement in the country (yes, older than Hull House or Henry Street or any of the others), is in fact flourishing, maintaining both the spirit and intent of its origins and still reflecting the principles on which settlements were established. At the same time, it continues to grow as a dynamic, exciting organization within its community. Hull House failed not because of its model or the visions of its founder, but because of people who made bad judgments and trends which were not fully understood.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Michael: yes, I agree with your concept in a very fundamental way: it is clear that the multiple generations of leadership of Hull House seemed unable to understand the trends that were happening around it and therefore unable to find adaptations of the Hull House settlement model to contemporary societal changes. The programmatic lurches this way and that suggested a floundering effort to try to find reasons for survival rather than examining how society was changing and what that meant for the necessary adaptations within the settlement house model. Thanks for your observation.

  • Deona Hooper, MSW

    The fact that a staple of the Social Work profession closed without any sound is very telling of a lack of support from the profession.

  • Carmen Delgado Votaw

    The unseemly demise of Hull House and the fascinating deeds of its founder, Jane Addams, add a chapter in the history of nonprofits that gives us pause. Where, indeed, is the wisdom to process such a story and derive some ideas for other organizations that may be facing the contemporary quandaries of viability?
    The richness of the article by Rick Cohen suggests there should be further exploration of possible paths to viability as well as historical preservation of this case file.
    Carmen Delgado Votaw