As we expected, ACORN received a wake-up call on governance and leadership from the management review conducted by Scott Harshbarger, former Massachusetts Attorney General and former CEO of Common Cause, now Senior Counsel with the Proskauer Rose law firm. We at NPQ know Harshbarger well from his service on the NPQ board of directors, so there’s no surprise in the directness of his findings: “[ACORN] Founder Wade Rathke and certain former leaders failed to understand the need for basic principles of organizational governance, accountability and compliance, in the drive to grow and succeed.” Harshbarger’s team found no evidence of illegal behavior, but ascribed the famous videos of ACORN staff providing help to a phony pimp-and-prostitute team to “ACORN’s longstanding management weaknesses, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures, and a lack of on-site supervision.”

Harshbarger’s recommendations are commonsensical, in some ways pretty obvious, but important to have been stated by someone of his stature: (1) ACORN should return to its core competency of community organizing and transition away from providing services that can be better delivered by other groups; (2) ACORN should simplify its multiple governance structures by reducing down to two boards, one a 501(c)(3) with a majority of independent board members, the other a 501(c)(4) with at least one-third independent members; and (3) ACORN should consolidate and centralize its local and national staffing and supervision, including requirements that all local and state ACORNs must abide by national ACORN operating standards and oversight. There are specific recommendations about a new internal governance system to be created and implemented, an ethics officer to oversee the implementation of the revised governance procedures, and more.

But for us at NPQ, there are a couple of take-aways: (a) Watch out for the groups whose inexorable appetite for growth means they’ll take on anything and everything without thought or concern about management and implementation; (b) the more complicated the governance structures (in ACORN’s case, with lots of (c)(3), (c)(4), PAC, 527, and for-profit entities, the less likely the organization will be governed by its stakeholders and constituents and the likely it will be controlled by powerful insiders; and (c) there is no tabulation of “good works” or “good politics” (on either side of the political spectrum) that can and should be used to excuse failures of ethics and good management practice. Now the question is, how will ACORN make this shift in organizational culture to absorb and implement Harshbarger’s good advice?

Some specific nuggets from the Proskauer review of ACORN’s management problems [PDF] are worth noting, with lessons that go far beyond the specifics of ACORN’s problems:

  • On a controlling founder/director: “ACORN’s governance and managerial weaknesses are deeply rooted in the policy and philosophy of the founder and his leadership team, and stem from the errors and poor judgments they made. The reform leadership, many of whom also served in the Rathke era, is now reaping what Rathke sowed, in combination with the fallout from their own failure to question or challenge him, and their inability to transform ACORN quickly and completely after taking over.”
  • On growth and leadership: “There is a general consensus among leaders, organizers and observers that, under the prior (Rathke) administration, ACORN grew too large too quickly, and efforts were not made to grow in a reasonable, cautious manner or with an adequate infrastructure. This growth applies to organizing and services, although the most dramatic growth occurred in instituting and expanding the services function within the past five years. ACORN leadership at every level is thin (though ACORN would describe it as being “lean and mean”)”
  • On supervisory skill mismatches: “Most local offices still tend to be overly influenced by the person running that office, largely due to the organization’s informal and loose operational structure. Supervision also appears to be ad-hoc, if not lax, in part due to a continued belief that minimal infrastructure is the best way to maximize the resources that go to the individuals served by the organization. Employees routinely are charged with responsibilities beyond their experience. In addition, promotions appear to be awarded based on effective organizing, not on management, skills.”
  • On the pimp-and-prostitute sting videos: “Viewed from the perspective of managerial oversight, the videos stand as a symbol of ACORN’s organizational and supervisory weakness. The disparate ways in which ACORN staff handled the videographers’ visits highlight the organization’s failure to deploy best practices at the grassroots level to ensure proper screening and intake processes, supervision and training. In addition, ACORN itself failed to adequately investigate the totality of the circumstances of the visits prior to taking action against its own employees and, hence, was in no position to defend itself.”